The Southern Highlands Tree Change That Turned Into A Flower Farm
How Jen Foster of Penrose ended up as a flower farmer!
Inspiring Stories, kindly brought to you by BDCU Alliance Bank. You Belong Here.
You know its going to be an interesting interview and photo shoot when you have to pull on your gumboots and get swooped by a murderous magpie within minutes of stepping outside.
“That magpie has been swooping me for four weeks now. He hasn’t hurt me but it’s pretty clear he doesn’t like me,” Jen Foster laughs as we hear the sound of flapping wings approaching and we pretty much hit the deck while Jen doesn’t move.
“You know what? I don’t even flinch now. This is my flower farm, not his.”
We caught up with the energetic Jen Foster, her lovely family – husband James, 8-year-old Toby and Isaac, 6 – at their property, Newbury Farm in Penrose, which is also home to Jen’s start-up business, Southern Highlands Flower Farm.
As we wandered through the farm and met her menagerie of animals – gorgeous Labradors Honey and Simba, the super cute miniature pigs, Georgie and Chloe (although at 80 kilo’s each, we’re not sure you could class them as miniature) and a bunch of fluffy, healthy chooks – we chatted about the Fosters move from Sydney to Penrose four years ago, and found out how this tree change turned into a bloomin’ business - literally!
Jen standing with the sign her husband James made.
1 // Why the move to the Southern Highlands?
My Mum and Dad were considering retiring to the Highlands so were looking for a house down here. I came along with them and found this place in Penrose. I managed to convince my husband, James to have a look at it....
At this point, James wanders in from outside and takes over the story.
We hadn’t even thought about moving down here, but Jen caught me at a moment of weakness, and we agreed to buy Newbury Farm and make the move. It made sense. I was running my own consultancy business at the time so could work from home, Sydney property prices were out of control and we had actually been gradually moving to houses in Sydney that were closer to the bush and on bigger blocks.
Jen jumps back in with...
We had a place at Mt Colah that we renovated - it backed onto the national park, and we’ve always been drawn to places that are close to nature.
We’ve been in Penrose for just over four years now, and we’re very happy with the space we have and our menagerie of animals!
Jen gets a kiss from George the pig.
2 // It was a busy couple of years after the move. Tell us what you got up to.
Most of the first year was spent renovating this house. It’s a mudbrick home and had great bones but hadn’t been redecorated since the eighties. So, there was a lot of orange, brown and pine. We ripped up the flooring and discovered the house wasn’t on a slab, the driveway flooded multiple times, and whenever I emptied the bath after washing the kids, sewerage would come up in the shower – it was a lot of work, but we got there!
The property also had a cottage onsite that wasn’t habitable, so once we got the house done, we renovated that and named it Newbury Cottage. It’s now a pet-friendly Airbnb.
I also started an ice cream business called Little Piggies, which turned out to be quite successful, but I had to have carpal tunnel surgery on my hands. Churning and scooping ice cream with carpal tunnel wasn’t fun, so I wound that business back.
Beautifully renovated, Newbury Cottage in Penrose is family and pet friendly.
3 // So, where did the idea of a flower farm come from?
I started studying horticulture and was considering going down the landscape design path, but it was my eldest son, Toby that we can say is largely responsible for the beginning of the flower farm.
He had always been disappointed that he couldn’t come to the markets with me and sell ice cream when I had Little Piggies – obviously, kids serving food isn’t overly hygienic. And he’s always picked flowers for me since he was little. So, I said to him why don’t we plant some flowers, and we’ll sell them at the local markets. That’s something fun we can do together! And it will help me learn and practise with my horticulture study too.
Just over a year later, I now have a thriving flower farm on my hands! I’ve planted out nearly an acre. I just got 750 dahlias planted, have 80 rose bushes in the ground, perennials, natives, sweet peas (although the rabbits keep eating them!), a peony patch, poppies, an orchard and more.
I’ve learnt that having a flower farm is definitely about being patient! Everything grows in seasons and phases. I’ve spent this first year doing an intensive build set-up – lots of digging, planting and growing. Now it will be about working on the quality of the flowers and maintaining the farm. And once the natives take off, I’ll be able to supply flowers year-round.
It’s funny, I never intended to sell direct to the public but that’s the way it has worked out. People started asking for bunches of my flowers, so I’ve been doing that. I also supply to florists and work with other flower farms to supplement supply occasionally when required - it all helps keep it local!
Jen’s bouquets are popular with locals.
4 // What have you found challenging about starting Southern Highlands Flower Farm?
At this point, Jen throws her head back and laughs and throws her hands up in the air...
So quite a few people have pointed out to me that last year (and this year) is probably not the best time to start a flower farm. I found that out the hard way. I started planting in August 2019 in the middle of a drought. If I didn’t have the bore on our property, I’d be stuffed. And then my first flowers bloomed right when we were evacuated because of the bushfires in January.
I lost a lot of crops because of the heat and lots of flowers because of the ash, but you know what? I still had a decent amount to start with. Not enough to supply florists, but I had little bits of lots of things, which became my bouquets.
And it turned out flowers became popular when people were at home in lockdown. I was delivering flowers every afternoon to people.
Jen loves planting unusual and unique flowers.
5 // What have you loved about your new direction?
The way the community has helped me in my new business and supported our family. Curly and Margie from Curly’s Compost live close by. He grew up on a flower farm growing chrysanthemums so had plenty of advice to give me and helped me out with horse bedding and compost, of course. He also organised for Wello, a Penrose local, to swing by with his digger and help dig a few of my first rows for me.
Friends have given me beautiful seeds. A friend’s mum gave me all the poppy seeds – they’re all flowering now. And another lovely friend dug dahlia tubers out of her own garden and gave me a tray which are now in the ground here at the farm.
Local flower societies have been in touch with me and have really helped me. I’ve loved working and chatting with other farms like Growwild Wildflower Farm (Sue was part of my initial inspiration and has helped me so much), Highland Dahlias in Mittagong and Danellen Horticulture. And it's so great how everyone supports each other, however that looks. I haven't worked with A&M Flowers in Tallong, but we always like each other's posts on social media and support each other that way.
Ashcroft's SUPA IGA in Moss Vale sell my flowers too. They're such a great advocate for local products, supporting the farm and making my flowers more accessible.
And of course, all the locals that buy the bouquets! Couldn’t have done it without them. The way the whole Highlands community has helped us - not just for the flower farm, but for our family too - has been one of the best things we've found here.
Jen holding some of the dahlia tubers gifted to her by a lovely local.
6 // Was the tree change everything you expected it to be?
You know what? We never had any expectations. That’s now how we roll. James and I can make anything work. We’re always winging it, we’re not scared of risk and it always works out because we work together, work hard and if we need to change things up to make something happen, then that’s what we’ll do.
I’m just grateful to have found my passion (flowers) and to be able to spend time with my family in such a beautiful part of the world.
The Foster family – James, Toby, Jen and Isaac.
How cool is that? You can follow Jen on Insta @southernhighlandsflowerfarm and on Facie here. She's just released a range of Flower Grow Kits. Find out more about them and how to get your hands on one of her beautiful bouquets here.
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