Beautiful blooming begonias…and bees

March 13th, 2021Beautiful blooming begonias…and bees

BEGONIAS have captured the imagination of flower lovers for hundreds of years with their almost quirky and often flamboyant offerings.

And while thousands flock to Ballarat every year to see the amazing begonia displays at the annual festival, a local online nursery run by a couple with a love of begonias is opening up their piece of paradise for the first time, to sell a selection of their tuberous begonia collection. Peter Harris and Jesse Exiner, pictured, run White House Nursery, a mail order nursery, and the Tuberous Begonia Garden in Ashbourne.

Year round the couple plant, cultivate, prepare and send beautiful heirloom plants to customers across the country. Some are quite rare and others simply difficult to find. Peter, left, has spent around 30 years perfecting his collection and from now until the last weekend in May, his begonias will not only be on display but many will be for sale as well.
The White House Nursery was born eight years ago when Jesse and Peter purchased an 32-hectare farm in Fern Hill. The name was inspired by the quintessential Australian white cottage on the property and nothing to do with American politics, Jesse insists. The couple decided to focus on their mail-order business rather than an open-sales nursery.

Four years ago, the couple down-sized to an eight-acre property on the outskirts of the hamlet of Ashbourne, near Woodend. “We love this property so much and it’s not as windy and cold as Fern Hill was. The plants love it more as well as they all thrive in the conditions here,” he said.
Jesse happily admits Peter is the hands-on gardener while he manages the hundreds of orders they receive each week. “People get warned when they come here in the morning that I might still be in my dressing gown. And why not?” he said. “And yes, I’m more than happy to let Peter potter in the nursery all day. He can stand in one place in silence for hours on end potting and planting, with no music: just him and the plants. I like to be warm…so I’d last 10 minutes and be bored with a sore back!”

However, boredom certainly isn’t a word the couple would use when reflecting on the impacts of COVID. “We were so busy it was ridiculous. Everyone was getting out into their gardens. It was fantastic on one hand because we were receiving hundreds of orders a week but we actually had to close the business twice over lockdown as we were so behind in filling the orders. One thousand orders behind in fact. So, in the end it balanced itself out but we were certainly kept on our toes.”
While Jesse isn’t one for spending hours on end in the shade houses, he did spend five years restoring the gardens and the house at Mawarra in Sherbrooke. “My passion lies with the design side of things and it was a labour of love for five years restoring the house and the historic garden,” he said.
The nursery is home to more than 500 species with a cross section of varieties. Jesse said peonies are incredibly popular as is another plant of yesteryear – the fuchsia.
“Fuchsias aren’t rare but they’re quite hard to get,” he said.
The couple were inspired by a pair of beehives they received as a gift and now they provide a growing number of bee-loving plants and are even part of the Woodend Bee Friendly Society. The couple recently agreed to bee-sit 150 hives trucked in from Bendigo that were in desperate need of food. “The apiarist had run out of food so we looked after them here. They loved our flowering gum trees and the plants across the gardens. I did mention that next time I wouldn’t mind some honey in return and the next thing I received a 40-kilo bucket of honey.”

And because they live in an area that attracts people growing and creating their own produce, the couple even has a selection of brewing hops from across the globe so beer lovers can have a go at creating their own blend.
Back to begonias and Jesse has a hard time picking his favourite.
“That’s like asking me to pick a favourite child. But I really love the different coloured pale pink one that has dark pink edging. That really fascinates me in all its wonderful glory. Begonias are so unique and its quite personal picking a favourite. Peter likes different ones to myself but they are all glorious.”
There is also a special inclusion with the tuberous begonias on offer. You get to name the plant you choose. This, says Jesse, is a lovely way for people to share in their love of begonias. “What’s nicer than to have a plant named after you? Ordinarily, naming rights are quite expensive and time consuming to register but because every begonia is unique with its own DNA, we are happy to hand those rights over and let our customers name the plants after their friends, their mothers, anyone,” he said.
“We are both passionate about what we do and the beautiful collection we can share with people. We are not into running a huge business with thirty staff. We love being a small operation and we are both doing what we enjoy best.”
Words & image: Narelle Groenhout

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