“Every Seed and Every Plant Counts”: Lithgow & District Community Nursery

Lithgow & District Community Nursery

The Nursery polytunnel

Story and photographs by Tracie McMahon

One afternoon, volunteering alongside Ian Power with Blue Mountains City Council Bushcare, we moved through a holly thicket, chatting about seed collection. As we rhythmically cut and painted to remove weeds, he explained what is involved in collecting seed. Trained and guided by Blue Mountains City Council Bushcare Officers, volunteers focus on targeted species needed for propagation and replanting. Ian had followed some of his seeds to Lithgow & District Community Nursery.

Ian Power, Bushcare Volunteer, stopping for a chat about seed saving.

This conversation led me to find answers to a question I had long wondered about: what goes on under all those poly-tunnels at Lithgow & District Community Nursery?

I called Chris Long, Manager of the nursery, and he graciously offered me a tour. As a keen gardener I had been there before, but not realised how extensive their operations were. I was amazed to find out that they have an average of 43,000 seedlings in stock at any one time. Fifty percent of these are sold locally to individuals and businesses for replanting, putting 21,500 native seedlings back into the land every year!

The 43,000 seedlings begin with either seed collection or cuttings. Seeds are collected when they have the best chance of producing viable seedlings. They are then cleaned and catalogued. Once propagated, the seedlings are pricked out into individual pots for ‘hardening off’, which exposes seedlings to expected conditions at the planting site.

Many native plants cross-pollinate, so planting a native plant is not always the best thing for the local environment. Non-local species which are dominant may cross-pollinate and eventually replace endemic species, for example the Lomandra Hystrix from the North Coast which is used extensively in highway plantings. The nursery is careful with the provenance of seedlings, making sure to preserve and protect local biodiversity. It is this legacy that inspires volunteers like Ian. He tells me: “Seed is for generations to come, not just for the short term.”

As part of his Blue Mountains City Council activities, he had the opportunity to follow the journey some of his seeds took from collection to propagation at Lithgow & District Community Nursery.

The nursery has its own fifteen strong volunteer team, many of whom have been with the nursery since its opening. I ask Chris about the journey of a seed from planting to tubestock, and he points me in the direction of what looks like an ordinary kitchen: oven, sink, table, shelving and some large industrial fridges. But this kitchen is not about lunchtime sustenance. Instead, it’s about sustaining the environment. 

Chris Long Nursery Manager with shelves of seeds inside the kitchen workshop.

The oven, stovetop and sink are used for seed preparation. Seed treatments range from cleaning only, to combinations involving boiling, soaking overnight, drying in an oven, air-drying, using newspaper and smoking in their nursery-made smoker. What a delight of backyard engineering it is!

Seedsmoker at the Nursery

I’m fortunate to be visiting on a day when the team are preparing and planting seeds: heads down, deep in conversation. A volunteer lifts the lid on the smoker to let me take a peek at seeds being prepared for planting. 

Once treated, seeds are stored and planted at an optimal time for germination. Some seeds prefer to rest for a season or several years, whereas some replenish quickly in nature and lose viability if stored for prolonged periods. It is all about mimicking the conditions of nature. 

How long does it then take for a seed to turn into a seedling and find its way back to nature? Unsurprisingly, the answer is “it depends.”

Chris explains it can take anything from one month, in the case of Kangaroo Grass, to eight months for shrubs and trees. But it’s not always successful. It depends very much on the conditions, as plants need time to establish and then harden off. This year, plants have seeded much later. The prolonged wet followed by rapid bursts of extreme heat created some unusual conditions. In some cases, it is just better to work with cuttings. Trial and error plus local knowledge give the best chance of a viable planting.

Stylidium sp. tubestock produced by the nursery from collected seed. 

Cuttings of local species taken for propagation

I ask Chris about specific successes. He describes an order he and the team are particularly proud of for NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services. They were able to successfully propagate snow grass for a regeneration activity at Mount Canobolas near Orange. The conditions at the nursery were ideal to harden off the grass for the freezing conditions expected at the regeneration site. He says this is really an outcome of a more important success, which is working with a team who know the local plants and conditions and are committed to preserving the local environment.

I want to find out if I can help, despite having limited time and resources.   

Chris says: “If you are planting, come and see us to make sure your plants are the right ones for the location. If you are clearing, check to see if we can recover seeds and replant. Or just buy plants from us. The nursery is a not-for-profit community organisation. Any profits are used to preserve and educate about the importance of our local environment. Oh, and of course, we are always looking for keen volunteers.”

The nursery has a display garden so you can see the size, colour and texture of plants before selecting. They stock preservation species endemic to Lithgow or essential to the fauna of Lithgow, such as the endangered Copper Wing Butterfly.

If you would like to know more about the Lithgow & District Community Nursery, they are open Monday and Friday 8.30 am to 3.30 pm and Saturday 9 – 1 pm at 2 Coalbrook Street, Lithgow. Seedlings are also sold at Tarana Markets on the last Sunday of the month. A tip though – the nursery does not have EFTPOS facilities – so bring cash!

This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

About Tracie McMahon

Tracie lives, writes and walks on the unceded lands of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people. Born in Lithgow, she and her family have spent most of their lives living and working with the people and places of the Lithgow area. Her passions are nature and community, which she pursues through story, art, and volunteering in Lithgow and the Blue Mountains.

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