A flush of roses for the Border area

When she settled near Sunrise-on-Sea, north east of East London, Barbara Allen had no idea she’d become one of the largest cut-rose producers in the Eastern Cape. Mike Burgess visited Murambi Roses to learn how her lifelong love for roses has fuelled her current success.
Issue Date: 28 September 2007

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When she settled near Sunrise-on-Sea, north east of East London, Barbara Allen had no idea she’d become one of the largest cut-rose producers in the Eastern Cape. Mike Burgess visited Murambi Roses to learn how her lifelong love for roses has fuelled her current success.

Back in 1984, Barbara and Terry Allen came to South Africa from the Murambi area in Zimbabwe. Barbara had always been interested in growing roses and, almost 20 years later – after a visit from a Meilland Roses representative, searching for more Southern African rose growers after Zimbabwean production plummeted – the Allens invested seriously in cut-rose production.

For years their 23ha smallholding had produced quality tomatoes, but by 2002 production had peaked. “There comes a time when your soil gets tired,’’ explains Barbara. In 1999, she began producing roses from outdoor bushes on Murambi farm, gradually increasing her operations to 7 000 bushes. The greenhouse route Though the scent of outdoor roses remain an attraction, Barbara always knew that outdoor production lacked the consistent yields indoor production could deliver. Unfortunately, outdoor production can be very challenging, especially near the coast. “We don’t get very cold winters, but there’s a lot of disease outdoors,” says Barbara. “Moisture in the air fuels the fungal disease black spot, and aphids are a major problem.”

I n 2002 the Allens invested in a 0,5ha greenhouse holding 35 000 rose bushes. This was shortly expanded to its current 1ha, thanks to a surprising local demand. Five years later, plans are being made for another 1ha greenhouse, to double production from 70 000 indoor bushes to 140 000. “The market is definitely there,” says Barbara. A n indoor rose bush can adequately produce for up to 10 years if properly cared for.

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Rose varieties are sourced from Johannesburg propagators, where they’re grafted onto quality disease-resistant rootstock – Barbara prefers Natal Briar rootstock. The roses are planted in growing troughs with a growing medium of coconut shavings, known as cocas, which exhibits superior water retention. It’s also important to bend young stems to better expose vegetative and flower buds. Three months after planting, the bush will produce its first roses.

Managing roses
The greenhouse is essential for achieving the optimal productive environment, not only for everyday production but also to increase each bush’s productive lifespan. Barbara prefers an average temperature of 27ºC. During East London’s long, hot summers the temperature must be constantly monitored, as rapid increases that can exceed 40ºC will scorch buds and flowers.

Barbara ensures sufficient air circulation with large fans and by strategically opening and closing the greenhouse’s ventilation flaps. “As long as there’s air circulation you’re OK,” she says. Her fertigation process is monitored by a computerised Hanna Instruments Agricare fertigation controller and implemented through a drip irrigation system, fed by water from a nearby dam.

Surface drainage in the greenhouse allows the water to be captured and used for nearby outdoor roses, thus saving water. D isease in the greenhouse can be serious, but it’s easier to control indoors than outdoors. Red spider mite and powder mildew are common challenges, but controllable with the right pesticides. Ensuring timely flushes

The rose bushes are managed to achieve quality flushes of marketable roses in cycles of approximately six weeks. Both outdoors and indoors, pruning is essential. The details of pruning depend on the individual, and all growers have their own secrets. Standard procedure includes the removal of old, dead and possibly diseased wood and branches crowding the centre of the plant, and takes place from approximately June to August.

New growth is cut back throughout the year to ensure timely flushes. This sort of planning can be tricky, especially if the weather doesn’t play along. “Two years ago I was too early for Valentines Day,” says Barbara. “The next year I cut back the rose bushes 10 days later, but in January we had overcast, rainy and cold weather and the roses were a week late. Weather often dictates the process.” Winter production plummets 50%, due to decreasing temperatures and daylight hours. “Roses have a shutting down period,” Barbara explains. She admits to being tempted to try boost production during this dormant period, through June, July, and August, attempting to heat the greenhouse with large gas heaters. The temperature rose by 3ºC, but associated increases in humidity caused serious disease outbreaks. Since then Barbara has learnt to use this period to ensure summer productivity, with diligent work such as pruning.

An unexpected market
“When we first started with roses we thought we’d have to export,” says Barbara, but the Allens found a local market desperate for fresh, quality roses, even though Gauteng roses were marketed in the area. According to Barbara, Murambi roses have an edge on any distant competitor in terms of quality. “The best Gauteng roses are exported, the second-best are marketed in Gauteng, and East London receives the third-best roses,” she explains.

Murambi Roses found an appreciative market almost immediately, with phone calls for roses pouring in from as far as Cape Town. A vibrant local market has kept Barbara very busy. At this stage she simply can’t produce enough roses to saturate it, let alone supply potential clients further afield who request guaranteed volumes.

However, Barbara is adamant about doubling production in the near future. Murambi roses are primarily distributed by courier but can be collected at wholesale prices from Murambi farm, and are also delivered locally. Currently they’re distributed as far east as Mthatha in the former Transkei, as far north as Queenstown and as far west as Knysna – catering for growing numbers of fresh produce markets, florists, supermarkets, bed and breakfasts, hotels, restaurants and other clients.

Sales boom during the wedding season and on Valentines Day and Mother’s Day. Agritourism Murambi farm is serious about agritourism, thanks to its situation less than 30km from East London, along the rapidly-developing East Coast area. Murambi Roses is a member of the Jikeleza Tourist Route, a successful marketing drive by local tourism bodies. They’ve opened a tea garden, restaurant and small chapel and arrange tours of the greenhouse. “We have a steady flow of tourists,” Barbara says. “God has blessed Murambi more than I’ve ever dreamed of. I don’t want it just to be a business – it must be a place of restoration.” Contact Barbara Allen on 043 737 4828 or e-mail [email protected]. Other sources : gardening.mweb.co.za, forums.gardenweb.com and www.scienceinafrica.co.za. |fw