Make-it-Work – how you can turn your lifestyle block into a business

Jane Young lives with her husband, Jim, on a 4-hectare lifestyle block in South Otago. Twenty years ago, when they first moved there, a couple of hectares were planted out in pines and the rest was all paddock. It was always Jim and Jane’s intention to revegetate in native trees so raising plants from seed was a necessity. But it was the death of a much-loved pet that got Jane started on raising natives on a nursery scale.

“About 12 years ago, our pony died. It was so sad going up to the stable, and seeing it empty and growing daily more derelict. I thought, ‘I want to use this little building for something,’ so the stable became a potting shed. At about that time, we were becoming increasingly involved with the Forest and Bird Society. Our local branch had been running an annual native plant fundraising sale for well over 20 years and so it was only natural that we became involved in growing for that. I also saw a need to grow native trees for local farmers undertaking riparian planting, and for various conservation projects.”

And so, Pro Rata nursery was born. While Jane’s plant-growing profits are ploughed back into materials for the nursery and Forest and Bird projects, there is no doubt that growing natives can be a worthwhile private business, as evidenced by the several thousand dollars the nursery has raised in the last year. Jane estimates it has taken around 10 hours of work a week, and occasional volunteer help, to reach this figure.

While many nursery plants are fast-growing, one of the disadvantages of growing natives is that they are often slow growing. Jane highlights rata as a case in point. While rata seed is surprisingly easy to germinate, the trees themselves can take between 4-5 years before they are ready for release into the big wide world. And until they are, they are high maintenance.

“Seedlings must be continually repotted into larger containers (we don’t use root trainers because they need frequent watering – which we don’t have time for). And there’s the ongoing task of fertilizing and watering. We mulch around the plants with a gravel mix which helps retain moisture and keeps down the weeds and also liverworts. Liverworts are a real problem. They can form a solid mass on top of planter bags, preventing water and oxygen from getting into the soil. At the moment, we’re experimenting with a new mulch – hazel nut shells – which we obtain from a local grower.”

The nursery plants sit on a bed of black polythene. Jane first used weed matting but found the weeds eventually grew through it and that she was spending as much time weeding the weed matting as she was the plants! Surrounded by wooden frames to prevent them from toppling over (the nursery is on a slope), the plants are accessed by avenues of gravel which form non-slip paths. The aim, says Jane, is to get the plants out of the nursery and into the ground as soon as possible but this isn’t something she has a great deal of control over as it depends on what growers want to buy.

“If I find that plants are in the nursery for too long, I'll scrape off a little of the top soil around them and add some fresh soil and fertilizer pellets. We do keep our ear to the ground, however, and try and predict what people want. Contractors planting for farmers are after anything which will grow quickly. That's why they are often happy to buy fast-growing natives in the 10cm pots – plants such as broadleaves that are actually still quite small but which rapidly put on growth, especially if growing conditions are favourable. We also work from botanical surveys, growing more of what’s already in a reserve, for instance, in order to enhance it. And we listen out at plant sales for what people are interested in buying.”

Fortunately, the disease isn’t a major issue in Jane’s nursery. Pittosporum can be prone to a brown fungal spot (one of the few cases where a chemical treatment – oil and sulphur – is used) and wineberries will attract mildew if they are water stressed. If mildew does appear, good watering is often all that is required to bring the trees back to health, and affected vegetation can be trimmed off. But most New Zealand natives, says Jane, can take a fair bit of punishment.

When it comes to seed sourcing, Jane has been increasingly moving towards ‘eco-sourcing’ (growing from seed that has been gathered locally). Although that depends on what the plants are to be used for.

“We're very fussy when it comes to supplying for the regeneration of certain habitats. Plants going into Yellow Eyed Penguin habitat, for example, must have been grown from locally sourced seed. If the plants are for someone who just wants them for growing in their garden, it won't matter so much.”

For beginning seed raisers, Jane has some reassuring advice.

“Books would have us believe that many varieties of native seed require special treatment before they will germinate reliably. Rata seed, for instance, is said to require chilling in the fridge if it is to germinate successfully. This is something I dutifully did at the start, but in fact, I now find that it really doesn't make any difference if you carry out this procedure or not. And to be honest, I think this is mostly the case. One exception I can think of would be the kowhai seed which really does need to have its seed coat chipped if you want to get a reasonable germination rate. Disturbing the tough seed coat helps water get into the seed so the germination process can begin.”

From planting out their own lifestyle block in natives to providing plants and revenue for other projects, Jane is adamant that nursery work is thoroughly satisfying.

“It’s nice to return to a revegetation project and to see the plants you’ve raised from seed now producing seedlings of their own. And it’s good to see the nursery profits being put to good use in the community.”

Top tips from a successful nursery grower

  • Give yourself plenty of space because whatever space you think you’ll need when you start, it will never, ever be enough! Our nursery and its associated area occupy about 300 square metres.
  • A storage facility is a necessity, as is somewhere sheltered to work. Without shelter, you’ll be very restricted as to the days in which you can get out into the nursery.
  • Make sure you have shade (for yourself and your seedlings). We create this with shade cloth attached to timber framing.
  • Plants (and workers) need shelter. We create our shelter with shelterbelt planting.
  • It's helpful to have driveway access to the nursery so that people who are coming to collect plants in bulk can drive right in.
  • An automatic watering system is a boon, especially if you want to go away for a few days over the summer without having to ask the neighbours to turn on the sprinkler.
  • Be aware of the specific requirements of the various plants in your nursery. Fuchsia, for instance, will wilt very quickly without sufficient water. Manuka dries out rapidly and may not pick up if water shortage has been an issue. Consider grouping together plants with similar requirements.

Jane’s potting mix recipe

Our basic seed-raising mix consists of bark mulch and peat moss. As the seedlings grow larger and stronger, we pot them into a mix made up of 2 parts mulch/peat to one part composted freezing works sweepings (blood, bone and sawdust). To this, we add a ‘standard gloop’ (ie use your common sense) of dolomite, a scattering of fertilizer pellets, and sharp sand. As long as your mix is fairly open, it's not necessary to provide stones in the bottom of the containers for drainage.

Jane’s top pick of native plants

“Rata is famous for their crimson flowers, but they also have stunning colour variation in the foliage. You rarely see rata seedlings in the bush because the possums give them such a hammering, so it’s great to be able to help them become re-established.”

Read more about growing natives & establishing a nursery

Establishing a community nursery
Native nursery guidelines
NZ native plant seed collection and propagation guide

Upskill yourself on growing natives

Open Polytech qualification

Seek out local knowledge – join Forest and Bird

Your local F & B branch

Our thanks to Pro Rata for their assistance in putting together this article and for supplying all images.