Michael and I (Justine) started our little plant business shortly before the pandemic changed life as we know it! I started my career in retail working at a little camping store in South Australia as a 15 year old around the same time Michael was studying horticulture and working on a rose farm.
I moved to Melbourne to study fashion & textiles merchandising and secured an internship in the menswear buying team at Myer, as well as assisting the men’s footwear buyer in my second year there. I did a short stint as a graduate buyer at the now defunct Planet Surf and quickly moved on to working as a planning assistant and then product developer assistant at Jeanswest.
Michael and I met when he was finishing another apprenticeship as a refrigeration mechanic and we both shared a dream to be our own boss! At first we thought we’d be growing veggies and having a farm gate, but we both had the opportunity to work different roles at local indoor plant wholesaler and our vision soon changed.
Barrowby Green was born from a dream to run our own business, to stay working locally in the Yarra Valley and create an environment for our customers that combined my love of fashion and homewares with Michael’s love of plants. When you walk into our shop you see a mixture of our personality with raw timber elements as well as pops of colour.
When starting our business, it was important for us to be sustainable, particularly in the areas of waste and chemical use. We chose to use blue coloured pots, rather than the typical black as they can be recycled through general curbside recycling. Black pots can’t be seen by the camera at general recycling plants so they go to landfill. When we thought about how many plants we were growing we wanted to make sure the pots would be recyclable. We looked into jiffy peat pots (they didn’t last long enough) and compostable bamboo pots (price prohibitive) so the coloured pot seemed to be the best option.
In terms of chemical use, we were very conscious of not using harsh things that could impact our environment. We have pets and grow veggies and live next door to young children, so we didn’t want chemicals to impact any of those things. In our greenhouse we use eco-oil and eco-neem as well as castille soap to keep pests at bay. We use beneficial bugs, such as ladybirds, which were actually introduced into California to help control pests in citrus orchids! Despite being one of the most loved insects in the backyard they are one of its most voracious predators. There are other good bugs we use to keep the bad bugs at bay, but their latin names are a bit of a mouthful…
When we first started trading, our plan was to do little country markets, taking our plants to regional areas that perhaps didn’t have access to a good plant shop. We have a soft spot for east Gippsland and so we had intended to be part of the markets there, as well as markets at St Andrews, Lilydale and Berwick. However we only had the opportunity to do 5 of these before Lockdown 1 started so at this point we went 100% online. At the end of April, Michael was also made redundant from his role as the production & dispatch manager at the nursery he was working at due to the lockdown, so we decided we needed to go all in with this enterprise! By June of 2020 we were looking at the shop in Woori Yallock, which we secured the lease on from July.
We had a lot of fun doing the initial set up for the store, from sourcing old dining tables from people in the local area to display our stock on, finding pot suppliers and late nights painting the walls in our signature green. We have thoroughly enjoyed working with many other local small businesses during the opening process, our signage was supplied by Yarra Valley Signs in Healesville (Brad is a dead ringer for Jason Mamoa and equally as cool), Technology 2 You provided our wifi and helped us set up POS and many, many pizzas were eaten from Woori’s Pizza Shop!
Once we had been open for a few months we wanted to really expand our offering and called out to other ‘market’ businesses to offer rent-free consignment space. We added earrings, candles, propagation stations, wheat bags & cushions to our range. It has been a wonderful experience teaming up with other sole trader/partnership businesses ands sharing our knowledge.
In our second year of trading we have continued to look for new suppliers, expanding our plant & pot range as well as growing our reputation for caring service where anyone can feel comfortable walking into our shop and leave feeling confident in knowing how to look after their new plant baby.
Michael has become the face of the business, sharing his years of knowledge with our customers in a no frills way. His simple tips include “if the plant looks happy, leave it alone”, “water less” and “think about its natural habitat when locating the plant in your home”. Our goal is to make it really easy. One thing we are pretty comfortable with is telling our customers “no”. No, you can’t have that plant that needs lots of light and warmth in your unheated home in Warburton. No, you shouldn’t water on a schedule, water when the soil is actually dry. No, you can’t buy that plant, you aren’t ready for that level of difficulty yet. So our customers feel confident that we are looking out for their best interests, not just trying to sell a plant and make a quick dollar.
Our plans for business growth over the next few years include a bigger greenhouse and we are seesawing between opening more shops or finding a location to open a larger garden centre, complete with a café to make our shop a real destination. Who knows, maybe we will do both.