MEETING the Queen once is a fair boast. But for Wes Fleming its merely just the beginning.
Not only does her Majesty remember his name but Wes is considered a friend by her personal staff.
"For an untrained horticulturist based in Monbulk it’s a buzz to have met the Queen six times," says Wes, who is the third generation to run Fleming’s Nurseries and who will this year attend his ninth – and final – Chelsea Flower Show in London.
"We have got a good rapport with the royal house. We are friends with her private secretary. We’ve taken members of the household out to dinner.
"When we didn’t go to Chelsea in 2009, because of Black Saturday, in 2010 the Queen said, ‘We missed you last year, Wes’ and wanted to know about the recovery from the fires."
Since the 1920s, Fleming’s Nursery has been the dominant player in wholesale garden supplies in Australia, at one stage specialising in fruit trees, and now even branching out to machinery and equipment. But it is Fleming’s association with the renowned Chelsea Flower Show that has put their name in lights on the Australian horticultural landscape.
Over eight years the Fleming’s team – headed by such landscape designers as Jamie Durie, Jason Hodges and Scott Wynd – have won three silver-gilt and four gold medals.
Each attendance, Wes reckons, costs roughly $500,000, with an average of four containers carrying 80 tonnes of plant matter and materials flown to the UK, where a team of 15 Aussies work 15-hour days for three weeks straight to build a garden.
Each year, 11 months out from the May event, Wes must submit a concept plan, with about 80 received each year from around the world and just 20 accepted ("one year Prince Charles submitted a garden and it wasn’t accepted," Wes confides). Chelsea is, says Wes, one of the most trippy, heady experiences.
"It is a drug and a hard habit to kick," he says.
Given the addiction, why quit this year in the ninth year?
"The cost," he says.
"But more importantly, when we first set up the project the idea was to do it for seven years, because at the time the media interest in Chelsea was massive.
"The reason we did it in the first place was not to become chummy with the royals, but to raise the profile of the industry here."
It is this – the need to promote the importance of trees – that is the core drug for Wes, a self-described "tree man" who is an unassuming, yet zealous defender of the environment.
His first trees were grown at the age of 12 – an entrepreneurial side-line encouraged by his father, Don – as a means to move into the family business, which back then was a 1011ha nursery in Monbulk.
"It was always an option not to go into the business, but it was my life. I never saw myself doing anything else."
At 17 Wes left school and started as a basic labourer at Fleming’s, working his way up until his father retired from the business five years ago.
Today, Wes runs a 120ha wholesale deciduous, fruit, ornamental tree and container stock property, while his brother, Graham, split off the 810ha commercial fruit tree business four years ago.
His three older children are now following the family philosophy, like their father, starting at the bottom as nursery labourers, including back-breaking weed-pulling, a job Wes still continues to this day.
"I love playing with trees. I’d rather play with trees than people," he says. "I took my wife to Paris three years ago and the only photos I’ve got are of trees."
- Fleming’s Nurseries, Monbulk, (03) 9756 6105 or www.flemings.com.au