Gladiolus gardeners are making the most of the pandemic gardening boom

Nestled between dry paddocks in South East South Australia, an oasis of colorful gladioli flowers, photographed from the air, bloom in the scorching summer sun.

Gladioli are perennial flowers that bloom during the summer.

Gladioli bloom from summer to early fall.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Bec Whetham)

They grow from a bulb, which looks like a bulb, and are known for their sword-shaped leaves and funnel-shaped flowers.

If they sound familiar to you, it might be because ‘gladdies’ are also a favorite of Australian icon Dame Edna Everage.

Australian artist Barry Humphries as his alter ego Dame Edna Everage holding a peach colored gladioli flower
Dame Edna Everage is known for her love of gladioli flowers.(AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

These rows of striking flowers near Bordertown are no accident.

They have been grown by a local family for over 50 years.

“An enterprising person”

The Ridgway family started growing gladioli in 1969.

Ted Ridgway planted the flowers looking for a way to diversify the family business after wheat quotas were introduced to limit production.

He was 18 and had left school the previous year.

“Being an enterprising person, I thought maybe I could go into horticulture,” he said.

“I’ve invested my whole life of $600 in the business and bought cardboard boxes of light bulbs that fit in the back of my old man’s station wagon and brought them home.”

An elderly man wearing a navy blue bucket hat and a bright hi-vis vest smiles.
Ted Ridgway began growing gladioli for the cut flower market over 50 years ago.(Rural ABC: Megan Hughes)

“Backbreaking Work”

Mr. Ridgway first grew them for the cut flower market, but now the family only sell bulbs.

Many things have changed in the production process, including the addition of mechanization.

“When I first harvested the bulbs years ago, I used to bring in four old ladies from Wolseley and it was backbreaking work,” he said.

A bird's eye view of looking at rows of colorful flowers so high you can only see rows of colors
The Ridgway family has increased their gladioli plantings by 25% after two sold-out years.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Bec Whetham)

Mr Ridgway’s son, Andrew, took over the reins of the operation.

“We import the little [corms] and make them grow,” he said.

“We harvest them, process them, clean them, size them and then sell them to the home garden trade across Australia.”

A middle-aged man in a neon orange bucket hat and bright hi-vis shirt smiles in a field of colorful flowers
Andrew Ridgway continued in his father’s footsteps by planting gladioli on the family farm.(Rural ABC: Megan Hughes)

Pandemic gardeners

Pandemic gardening has become popular during COVID-19 shutdowns as people look for an excuse to get outside.

Plants, bulbs, seeds and fruit trees have flown off the shelves of garden centers across Australia.

Andrew Ridgway said business had exploded.

“Unable to spend their money to go to Bali, Australians wanted to spend their money on themselves,” he said.

Ridgways’ products have completely sold out over the past two years.

Dozens of flower bulbs with attached roots are washed on a conveyor belt
Gladiolus bulbs are washed before being processed and sent to suppliers.(Rural ABC: Megan Hughes)

Nursery and Garden Industry South Australia chairman David Eaton said the gardening trend started with edible plants.

“As soon as COVID hit, people planted them in gardens to secure the future of their vegetable crops,” Mr Eaton said.

The craze then shifted to indoor plants before consumers began to invest more in flowers.

The white and purple flowers are tall on bright green stems.  A row of soil separates the colors
The Ridgway family plants small gladiolus bulbs to grow into larger bulbs for sale to home gardeners. (ABC Sud-Est SA: Bec Whetham)

Next challenge

The Ridgway family have increased their plantings by 25% hoping that home gardeners will continue their new hobby.

“This year will be a real test to see if the inspiration to keep gardening will continue,” said Andrew Ridgway.

“So there are 2 million bulbs this year. If we can sell 1.5 million, that will probably be the market.

“I don’t think there would be much more room for that, it might be a surprise. If we sell it would be wonderful.”

A drone shot of several rows of bright and colorful flowers.  It contrasts with a dry, brown paddock and a blue sky.
Pandemic gardening has become popular during COVID-19 shutdowns.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Bec Whetham)

This is the garden industry’s next challenge: to sustain the interest of a new breed of gardener.

“I think there is still a great future for the garden,” Mr Eaton said.

“[People] have spent a lot of time over the past two years in their garden improving it.

“Of the new people we’ve brought into the industry, who have started gardening, we can probably maintain 20-25%, hopefully.”

Terri S. Tomasini