By Bailey Higgins
Today we reintroduce you to Oliver Woolley and his family’s farm Peads & Barnetts. In our first conversation with Oliver, we focused on the farm’s delicious pork. Today we go in depth about the farm’s gorgeous flower crops and how the farm’s unique soil composition helps them grow. Just like the food we source for our restaurants, we approach buying flowers with the same standards: from local organic sources that do not use chemical fertilizers or sprays. You can find Peads & Barnetts at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, in our restaurants, for sale at GJ Flower Shop, and at @porkandflowers on Instagram.
Your parents started in Colorado raising pigs, how did you end up growing flowers in California?
When we moved from Colorado to California my parents were looking for a place to live and they found this piece of land in Valley Center, which is North San Diego County. It had this house on it that my mom really loved and by chance it is surrounded by grapefruit trees and protea flowers. The previous owner was obsessed with Protea and flowers from South Africa and Australia, he was bringing seeds and plants back and forth for over twenty years, growing this amazing farm. It was never commercialized but a big hobby - way too many flowers and nowhere for them to go. We bought it and we didn’t know a damn thing about Protea or selling flowers. But my dad thought, “I can raise and grow pigs, what’s the difference?! Let's buy a flower farm.”
How long have you been growing these flowers and providing them for the Santa Monica farmers market?
I got sucked in from day one, it was 2006, and I was selling these obscure flowers at the La Jolla farmers market on Sundays. People had been growing them in California since the late seventies, I believe, but most of them would end up on the East coast through commercial operations and not very much would get sold in California, so most people here really even by 2013 didn’t know what they were. I cut my teeth on that — trying to make people like and buy Proteas, because they’re beautiful but they’re very different from a conventional flower, what people are used to; like garden roses or classic hydrangeas.
I heard that the Santa Monica’s farmers market was really good and the one to be in so at age 19 I was basically hassling Laura Avery. I was a kid though and every other farmer in that market at that time was at least 40 years old or way older. Eventually I had a tiny space on Saturdays next to James Birch from Flora Bella Farm — we hit it off and he helped me get a Wednesday slot. Once we got in on Wednesdays, it really took off!
At what point did you bring in more varieties of the South African and Australian plants?
We used to cater to wholesalers who ship around the country but then we eventually realized that it wasn’t fun, they only want perfect flowers that are 40 inches long and dead straight with no variation. It was just so boring. So we stopped that pretty much completely and cut back on the quantity we were producing, we started to focus on variety and growing an insane variety of foliage.
I started planting everything we could get our hands on really, anything that was interesting and weird and that you couldn’t find much of, that’s what we wanted.
Can you tell us more about the varieties of plants and flowers that you grow other than Protea and why they grow so well in Southern California?
The main reason these plants grow so well here is because the soil is perfect for them, it’s sandy and is mostly DG (decomposed granite), which drains really well. We get tons of sun and we’re on the top side of a valley that runs all the way to the ocean, so we get sea mist almost every morning, all year round. We then don’t have to water very much, the plants get most of their water from the air. We don’t use anything non-organic which is really abnormal in the floral industry, our location really allows for that.
We grow around 20 different varieties of eucalyptus, some that develop big seed pods and flowers, like the macrocarpa (think: huge red prehistoric blooms). We grow 10-15 varieties of acacia which are all African natives. Some are harvested for foliage and some are harvested when they bloom, like the mimosa variety. We grow some Australian pines and a South African pine called Kunzea, which is used in indigenous South African cooking. We grow 40 different varieties of Leucadendron, which grow year round. Some of them bloom like the Flame Tip and the Wilsons Wonder variety, those are one of my favorites to grow.
There are 25 different varieties of pincushions, which produce 150,000 to 200,000 pincushions per year. We grow 30 varieties of blooming Protea, everything from Atlantic King and Queen blooms. (The King Protea is the South African national flower!) We also do a ton of Grevillea, which I know you guys like, (love). There are tons of Banksia, some of the plants on the farm are now 30 years old, essentially trees - you can’t cut them because they’re so tall. The Banksia also never get water, they haven’t been watered in about 20 years because their roots are so deep.
Do the pigs like the flowers?!
When we had them on the flower farm they would absolutely eat any Protea, they’re sweet — that’s the thing. Their nectar is super sweet and they were traditionally used in Africa as a sweetener.
Right, they’re called Sugar Bush!
Yes, in Afrikaans they call it ‘Suikerbossie’ which translates to Sugar Bush. In the morning after all the sea mist has come through, the flowers are filled with this nectar and if you taste it, it’s crazy sweet!
We should do a Peads & Barnetts dinner and incorporate Protea nectar in the dishes…
There we go! I think you can definitely do that, we’ve done it with the grapefruit blossoms before it fruits and infuse it into dishes. I think you and Susannah could drive down to the farm every few weeks or for larger events to see what’s looking good and then let us know how much and how long you want to cut different stems.
Oliver, that is our dream. That is what we are building into the programming of the flower shop and a big thing that Sam and I are working on right now. We’re working with farms that our restaurants already work with and discovering who can also support floral farming. We are developing how to best support this collaboration between the restaurants, the flowers, and the farms.
I mean, there’s such a big disconnect between what’s happening on the farm and what you or someone else wants to do with the flowers on the other end.
Right, and Peads and Barnetts is the perfect example of how these experiences bridge so harmoniously. How can we facilitate a candid course from raising sows and growing flowers to a beautifully set table? We have ‘farm to table’ restaurants, why can’t we have a ‘farm to flower shop’?!
Absolutely, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to completely eliminate sourcing from anywhere other than local farms. There’s so much growing that doesn’t even get cut at our flower farms and if we can avoid waste or allow it to be used in a new way, why not?