Beauty and business on borrowed land

You don’t need land to have a garden. Nor capital to start a business. Diana Noonan finds out from an innovative artist how she turned her life around to create a satisfying organic lifestyle and income – without land or start-up capital.  
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There has to be more to life than 10-hour shifts behind a till – right? That’s what Dunedin ‘Company of Flowers’ gardener and floral arranger, Esther Bosshard, figured when she set out to find a better way to live and earn. A graduate from The Dunedin School of Art, Esther wanted to have time for her painting while also being able to pay her bills, but a seemingly endless string of part time jobs left her feeling disillusioned. 

“Retail wore me down. But it also made me think about how I wanted to spend more time outdoors, and contribute to the environment and my own community. Then, I read a book about a woman in the US who had a flower farm, and what she was doing ticked all those boxes.” 

The artist in Esther also realised that if she was to arrange the flowers she wanted to grow, she would be getting to ‘paint’ as well. 

“Arranging,” she says, “is quite like painting. You get to work with colour, texture and form, although it’s a bit harder because you’re working in 3D!” 

Borrowed land 

There was just one stumbling block to Esther’s dream. She was living in rented accommodation, and it offered no opportunity to develop a garden of her own. Fortunately, she stumbled upon another US gardener (and author), Curtis Stone. As she read about his philosophy of growing on borrowed urban land, she knew she had the answer to what she was looking for. 

Today, Esther grows organically on four ‘borrowed’ Dunedin properties, and arranges her bouquets in a friend’s garage. She’s in her fourth year of selling her flowers at Dunedin’s Otago Farmers Market. She does weekly Friday flower deliveries, and also arranges bouquets for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, congratulatory occasions, and funerals.  And she has plans to offer seasonal subscriptions for folk who would like to purchase flowers on a regular basis.  Reaching this stage, however, hasn’t been without hard work. 

Testing times 

Getting established was ‘pretty crazy,’ says Esther, who was working three part time jobs in the first year she began growing flowers. It was a hectic time during which she ‘tested the waters’. 

“I grew flowers in a borrowed backyard on a plot that was just two to three metres square. I arranged a few bouquets, and tested them out on my mum’s friends, and a fabric shop, where my sister worked. Although I wasn’t confident, it was less scary because I wasn’t selling to complete strangers.” 

But then came Esther’s bid for a stall at the Otago Farmer’s Market – and a knock back that may have stopped a less visionary person in their tracks. 


“My first application for a stall at the farmers market was rejected. I felt very disappointed, and wondered if what I was wanting to do was a bit crazy, because I didn’t have land, and I didn’t have a horticulture degree. But then, the following year, something amazing happened. I applied again, and another flower grower, who already had a stall at the market, supported my application. And this time, it was accepted!” 

But wait – there’s more! Esther also received a $10,000 grant from the Ministry of Youth development through their Youth Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Scheme. It was to help her get her business up and running. 

“I was still only 24 years old, so I was eligible to apply,” she explains. “The grant gave me a big boost. It meant that I was able to buy a gazebo to use at the market, and soil, so that I could get a few more gardens started quite quickly. And I was able to buy tools.” 

Currently, Esther tends approximately 218 square meters of garden beds. With a break over the winter months, she sells at the farmers market for 7-8 months of the year. Recently, she’s been able to move her stall to a more convenient spot. The new site costs a little extra, but it means she can park her van close by – something that saves a lot of carrying. And she’s also closer to other sellers she has become friends with. 

The market has brought Esther greater exposure, and has allowed the public to learn more about her wholistic, organic approach to gardening and floristry. Consequently, her customers are often more willing to be less specific in their requests, and to trust Esther’s judgement, and more importantly, the seasons. 

Seasonal beauty 

Whereas most florists will call on imported blooms, or those grown undercover, Esther’s flowers follow the seasons. 

“The people who ask me for bouquets really like the way I grow,” she says. “And they’re often quite relaxed about what they’ll get in an arrangement. They’re not people who are going to say: ‘I want this or that flower.’  They’re more likely to just give me a general idea, then trust me to use whatever colours or flowers I like.” 

Esther hard at work among the agertum in one of her borrowed plots.

Beating the bugs 

Esther has found that seasonal growing also helps her manage the unwanted insects that most commercial growers knock back with pesticides. 

“I have had a few problems with aphids,” she admits, “but it’s mainly when the plants are weaker – in spring when they’re just starting to come up, or in autumn when they’re dying down. That’s why I try to pick flowers in season, when they’re naturally stronger, and more resistant to insects.” 

Cutting the mustard 

So, five years down the track, does growing flowers on borrowed land, and arranging them, still fit Esther’s definition of meaningful work? She thinks it does. 

“When you start growing things, you notice your environment so much more, and you want to take care of it. My flower growing has also meant I’ve met more people in my community through working in their gardens, and selling at the market. And, one day, I hope to be able to employ others who want to work outside.” 

In the meantime, though, Esther’s big dream is to help people understand that you don’t need to own land to garden. Even if you’re in a flat, there are other people’s gardens out there, waiting for you to fill them with flowers! 

Last word – from the artist! 

Ester says that growing and arranging flowers has helped her to be a more relaxed painter. She explains it this way: “If you make a mistake with flower sowing, you’ve got to wait a whole season before you get a chance to correct it. With painting, you can just paint over the mistake, or edit it.” 

Flower growing has also encouraged Esther to move away from the toned down palettes she once used and to embrace those that are more vibrant. “Flowers are so unapologetically colourful,” she says, “so now I paint with a lot more colour, too!” 

Esther’s tips for gardening on borrowed land 

Be specific. 

When advertising for land, state clearly what you’re looking for. That’s because not everyone gardens, and they may not realise the importance to you of having sunny, flat land, with good access. 

Be grateful but choosy. 

It’s important that your borrowed gardens be close to your own home, to cut down on travel. They also need to be large enough to make your going to them worthwhile. 

No pets, please 

It’s not helpful if land owners have cats or dog because these pets are likely to mess up your gardens. 

Owners, only 

Look for owner-occupied land that you can garden in for at least six seasons. That way, the time you spend building your gardens is unlikely to be wasted. 

Arrange access 

Before you accept an offer of land, check with the owner that they are happy for you to access their toilet whenever you need to, and they don’t mind you arriving on their section unannounced (phoning or texting ahead takes time). 

At home with seedlings 

Seedlings don’t take up too much space. Try to grow them at your own home so you can be there to give them water and protection when they need it. 

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