As she takes a seat in the meeting room of Barossa Nursery, Erica Bartsch is ruefully lamenting the dirt under her fingernails – but the satisfied look on her face tells a different story.
“It’s lovely out there under the shade of the trees,” she concedes happily.
Indeed, Erica’s happy place is anywhere spent convening with plants.
She, husband Kevin and Kevin’s late farther, Eric are founders of one of SA’s largest and most decorated nurseries, and Erica’s working hands are testimony to “a life well lived”.
The expansive nursery at Nuriootpa is a far cry from her father-in-law’s dusty and disorganised nursery-come-hardware shop in Tanunda, where Erica first became intrigued by horticulture.
“People would ask the two questions – how tall will it grow, and will the frost get it?
“There was a bit of ad-libbing for a while and I seemed to learn something every day, for a couple decades I suppose,” she laughs.
“I just loved it. I used to work in a wine lab at Chateau Yaldara and I loved science at school.
“I understood how fungicides work and why chemicals work and the pH of soils.
“Once you know the basics it’s really very easy.”
From the very early days it was a Bartsch family affair, with Kevin overseeing quality control at the production nursery on Langmeil Road and their young family tagging along.
“Our son, Daniel has always been a diligent boy and the first day he went down to the production nursery at 18 months of age, he re-arranged all the plants – and that was his start to the business,” laughs Erica.
“In the afternoons my daughter, Kristee would come with me (to the shop); there was this little corner in the hardware where I made her a bed. So we all survived.
“All three children got As in agriculture because they never really had to learn – it was part of our family culture.”
Their turning point came in 1998, when competitor, Pitts’ Nursery in Nuriootpa was listed for sale, prompting a lot of soul-searching.
“My first thoughts were no, no, we’ve put so much time and effort in. I did a lot praying, I tell you,” Erica says.
“One day very early at 6 a.m., we came and had a look – they had the chickens running around and I fell in love. That was it.
“It was the best move we ever made.”
Erica and Kevin set about transforming the nursery, introducing more structure to the layout of the gardens and building a new retail and merchandising shop.
However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the tranquil atmosphere.
“It’s a very peaceful place,” says Erica.
“People have told me they come to the nursery just to have a bit of respite from daily pressures, or if they are feeling upset – this is their calming place.”
Another drawcard is Erica’s encyclopaedic knowledge of plants, complemented by a degree in horticulture.
“That’s been one of my strengths I suppose, being able to listen to people – what type of plant they want, big or small, how much sun, or if they’ve got a plant problem, what’s the best approach to fixing it,” says Erica.
“We’ve got quite a library of books – finding the answer quickly is an art form in itself!”
While Erica and Kevin have formally handed over the reins of the business to Daniel, they can’t imagine not being actively involved in a business that has defined who they are.
“It’s very easy to love this industry, it really is,” says Erica.
“I think Kevin and I will be able to leave a great legacy for the kids.
“It’s a real privilege to work with your children and we all get on famously. We have been very blessed.”
Have a go and start with something manageable. “Exotics are beautiful but can be difficult to grow. Better off to start with something that’s easier and hardier, to grow your confidence.”
Don’t overwater, especially indoor plants in winter. “A lot of indoor plants like the warm weather, so a deadly combination is cold and too wet. When in doubt, leave the water out. The biggest help is a moisture meter.”
Ask the experts for help. “Chances are, someone can help! Daniel and the team are very knowledgeable.”
Choose locally propagated plants. “A good percentage of our plants are grown in local conditions, in the full sun or mostly full sun,
so they are hardened off nicely.”
Do the little things right. “Make yourself comfortable and use the right tools for the job. If you’re using pruning snips, keep them nice and sharp and well-oiled.”