It was 1993 when Pat and Bill Rhodin bought a treeless block of grassland in Sutton. The property was invisible to the whizzing cars of the Federal Highway, despite being right beside it. In those days, Mrs Rhodin called it "the hidden valley".
Until then, the horticulturally gifted duo had won a few major garden competitions around the world, but they were seeking a new challenge. And so they transformed the hidden valley from an unusual vision to the buds of a blossoming business.
"We could see the landscape and what we could do with it," she said.
21 years after Tulip Top opened the gates, they're well into the spring swing. On their busiest days, 500-1000 flora fans pass through the 10-acre garden. Since kicking off their season two weeks ago, Mrs Rhodin says their numbers have been "strong".
"It's a different feel here. Even if we have so many people here on a day, it never feels crowded or rushed. It's peaceful and quiet."
When I ask whether she's checked out Floriade this year, she says: "Don't have any time, love."
In its flower festival niche, Floriade comparisons are guaranteed. Many Canberrans swear Tulip Top is better.
But being located in Sutton, 25 minutes from the bright lights of Civic, it's not often where the crowds end up. And perhaps that's for the best.
On Monday night, the Tulip Top Facebook page posted: "Tulip Top Gardens is NOT Floriade. Tulip Top Gardens has two early 70-year-old owners/gardeners and their son who do the gardening, and their daughter who does marketing/admin and hospitality. The Rhodin family are VERY PROUD of the tranquil garden setting and invite you to visit."
Tulip Top is in a botanical league of its own with purpose-built gardens, landscaped ponds and a small waterfall. Its year-round site makes for one huge game-changer: blossoming overhead trees. 1000 of them. It's these features which create a different atmosphere to Floriade's, an established respite from a pop-up event.
"The blossom trees really do make for an incredible show. They tower over the beds of tulips, daffodils, annuals, the watercourse and the bridge."
Mrs Rhodin's "hidden valley" maintains a relaxed atmosphere, with frogs ribbiting, birds singing and classical music strumming through the open air.
It's a photographer's dream, offering an explosion of colour without as many wandering tourists interrupting the shots.
While Tulip Top's family-run operation is still a match for Floriade in the flower stakes, the major points of difference are the entry fee, location and entertainment available.
Entry to Tulip Top is $18 while Floriade is free. Floriade is obviously sandwiched between the city and Lake Burley Griffin, while Tulip Top is 11 minutes over the border, a pain for Canberrans who lament having to travel an entire two minutes beyond ACT lines to Queanbeyan.
In terms of entertainment, Floriade has on-site bars, high tea, catered picnics and the popular NightFest program. But for a daytime event, and one that's a moment from the hubbub of the city, there's still much to enjoy at Tulip Top.
There's a dutch pancake parlour plus a food hall with affordable sandwiches and rolls. There are also daily wine tastings from Lerida Estate, a nursery offering rhododendrons, decor pots, daffodils and violas, plus a 'Tulip Top treasure shop' for the souvenir fiends.
Visitors are also encouraged to bring their own picnic and wine, and stay for a while.
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