growing tough seedlings … by being mean

Learning how to grow seedlings has kept me busy for nearly 2 decades, and working out the best survival tactics for seedlings is one positive result.

Now, a student at Curtin University in Perth describes my processes. Treat them rough, for they are the eventual survivors:

image|Haylee D’Agui Seedlings were raised with enough water, or in drought conditions.
Want tougher, more drought-resistant native plants? Treat ‘em mean.

Want tougher, more drought-resistant native plants? Treat ‘em mean.

Research by Curtin University PhD student Haylee D’Agui has found that plants established during a drought produce more drought-tolerant seedlings.

Haylee studied four species—two banksias and two hakeas—using seeds gathered from parent plants in Eneabba.

Half the parents had enjoyed a rainy start to life, while the rest grew up with drought.

For two weeks, Haylee offered her seedlings either 200 ml of water every second day, or half that.

Then she did no watering at all for three months.

She found the offspring of drought survivors grew longer roots, had greater water content in their leaves, and survived better than their pampered counterparts.

The photograph they use look like pampered seedlings to me. Here is my table design, used in a Commercial Nursery for the first time. No pampering, but careful use of the sun, and the ability to adjust shade whenever wanted. No bending over to weed and maintain.

aThe crew, sowing seeds.

The Curtin student is right, pampered seedlings often suffer the most when planted in a prepared landscape, from heat, cold, too much or too little moisture or any number of foibles in the plant world. The tough survive and thrive. They get tough by certain standards of neglect, for which there is no training, only experience can get away with it.

Our own seedlings often have reticulation removed once established, and then have to withstand up to 9 or ten months of dry conditions before the next wet season. They need to be tough to survive public parks and gardens”

dsc02564 a ptilotus-nobilis parks-gardens-010

About Tom Harley

Amateur ecologist and horticulturalist and CEO of Kimberley Environmental Horticulture Inc. (Tom Harley) Kimberley Environmental Horticulture Incorporated Kimberley Environmental Horticulture (KEH) is a small group of committed individuals who promote the use of indigenous plants for the landscaping of parks and gardens. Rehabilitation of Kimberley coast, bushland and pastoral regions are also high on our agenda. This includes planting seedlings, weed control, damage from erosion or any other environmental matter that comes to our attention. We come from all walks of life, from Professionals and Trades oriented occupations, Pensioners and Students, Public Servants and the Unemployed. We have a community plant nursery where we trial many old and new species, with a view to incorporating these into our landscaping trials. Our labour force are mainly volunteers, but with considerable help from the 'work for the dole' program, Indigenous Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) groups and the Ministry of Justice, with their community work orders; in this way we manage to train many people in the horticultural skills needed for indigenous plant growing. We constantly undertake field trips that cover seed and plant collection in the Kimberley. Networking around the Kimberley region and the east Pilbara is a necessary part of promoting our activities. We consult on a range of Environmental and Landscaping matters that deal with our region. Our activities involve improving Broome's residential streetscapes by including 'waterwise' priciples in planting out nature strips. Sustainable environmental horticulture is practised by members of our group. We use existing vegetation as the backbone of any plantings, using these species to advantage when planning to develop tree forms or orchards. The Broome region is sensitive to development. Subsequently many weed species have become dominant in and around developed areas. The use and movement of heavy machinery is the biggest single cause of environmental degradation. We dont live in a 'Tropical Paradise' but on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. The plants that survive best here, grow in well-drained pindan sand, and are found from the Dampier Peninsular southward to where average rainfall is below 600mm. When we use rainforest species, detail is important when planting, water catchment, sunlight and understorey species are all considered. The use of recycled 'grey' water is an advantage here as well as treated waste-water, although many local species do not fare well with nutrients from this source. We use waterwise planting methods which include harvesting asmuch rainwater as possible, with swales designed to hold up to 200 litres, to help recharge the local groundwater aquifer. There has been a serious decline in this aquifer over the last few years. With the fast expansion of the Broome peninsular, more and more land is being covered by concrete, iron and bitumen so that much less water is available to replenish the aquifer, allowing the salt content to become significantly higher. The small Broome Peninsular is on the south-western corner of the Dampier Peninsular (bound by Broome, Derby and Cape Leveque at the northern tip). Compaction by vehicles also inhibits water retention due to the content of our local pindan sand, hard as concrete in the dry, going to soft and sloppy mud after rain. None of us are botanists, inevitably we have got some names wrong, names changed, or have not gone to sub-species level. If you note a photo or description may be wrong, please e-mail to
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2 Responses to growing tough seedlings … by being mean

  1. crisburne says:

    Looks fab Tom – I love your setup for working with the seedlings, and the gardens look amazing. Congratulations!

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