Foliage is the supporting act in any bunch of flowers but is centre stage for Cherie Gourlay's lifestyle block business at Whatitiri, west of Whangārei.
Gourlay and her husband Dean have owned the 5.2ha property featuring rich volcanic soils and broadleaf forest protected with QEII covenant for the past 15 years. They live there with their two children, 12-year-old Grace and 9-year-old Holly, as well as four cats and a flock of elderly Pekin ducks.
She has tried many different ideas for generating an income from the land, including growing flowers and new potatoes.
"I tried calla lilies, sunflowers, hydrangeas and straw flowers but any flowers have a critical timing for when they need to be picked to be suitable for a florist. It's a lot of pressure.
"I didn't want to invest in big glass houses or a chiller and, after spending years talking to florists about what they need, I've settled on growing foliage.
"It might not be as exciting as flowers, but it's far more practical and flexible,'' Gourlay said.
She said finding what types of foliage to grow was a long process, and she read "hundreds of books", talked to florists and researched what her competitors were growing so she wouldn't clash with them.
Once she had narrowed down the likely candidates, she set up trial patches on the property to discover the best options.
Gourlay has settled on several varieties of eucalyptus coveted by florists and which fit her strict criteria.
"It's tough love for the trees. I needed trees that would not need a lot of water, as none are irrigated, and the foliage needed to withstand being transported to Auckland without water.
"I also needed the foliage to be unattractive to peacocks as we have a lot on the property and I use them as my insect patrol since the ducks are too old now,'' she said.
Gourlay said the wild peacocks regard the property as a haven and her daughter Holly feeds them.
"The peacocks were here first, so I believe they have a right to stay here. When Holly goes out in the morning there can be up to 30 waiting on the fence for her.
"These are wild birds and are very timid by nature. We're hoping they'll hang around and bring up their babies here,'' she said.
Foliage can be picked over about three months, allowing more flexibility for Gourlay's busy life.
New growth is starting to sprout from the heavy pruning over winter.
The rows of trees have been sprayed regularly with copper and seaweed fertiliser is applied every two weeks. About 60 cubic metres of post peelings used for mulch is renewed each year.
"The post peelings are great for keeping the moisture in. It's made a huge difference,'' she said.
Gourlay said she had tried as much as possible to be organic but the eucalypts were susceptible to psyllids and the sap-sucking insects caused damage to the leaves that were unacceptable for florists.
"The first year was great but the second year I was ready to rip the lot out. I was having a lot of problems with fungal and insect damage. When I consulted experts about it, they were surprised I was having any success at all because of Northland's humidity,'' she said.
Gourlay realised if she was going to continue with her foliage business, she needed to use sprays and invest in a good sprayer and safety equipment.
"Now I have settled on a good regime and the trees are thriving and I've had exceptional crops,'' she said.
Gourlay sells her foliage and some flowers to local florists and at auction through the United Flower Growers in Auckland. Initially her produce attracted low bids in the Dutch auction system until they grew to trust her foliage. Now she has an A grade rating, attracting higher bids for her bunches of five stems.
"I'm so grateful that all the local florists support me. I'll email around and pick to order and deliver to them. They like my service because there are no plastics or boxes to deal with and no reconditioning is needed so there is not as much wastage. They are ready to go.''
Joining a floral art group has helped her to appreciate the plant knowledge that is needed by florists and she has grown in confidence to make small floral arrangements with the shorter stems that florists don't want.
"I sell these to petrol stations as they make good tokens for visits to a rest home or hospital where they don't really want you taking in big bunches. I really enjoy making them,'' she said.
The group welcomes new members and meets on the second Wednesday of every month from 9.30am to 1pm at the Heritage Park vintage car clubrooms.
"I went along as a total novice and they assured me they could teach me. They are so generous with their knowledge.''
Gourlay has also decided to set up the property for weddings using one of the patches of native bush which has a natural clearing and featuring historic dry stone walls.
"It's so peaceful and just beautiful in the bush, with shelter from the heat of the sun.''
Gourlay said her biggest fear remained the threat of fungal diseases such as myrtle rust.
"If it comes here it will wipe me out, but all I can do is to keep my trees healthy. Foliage might not be exciting but it's always needed.''