Growing pains

The importance of volunteer supported indigenous plant nurseries is underrated, writes Barry Rowe.Published 03/03/14

The development and management of environmental and biodiversity plans, strategies, programs and projects is a policy commitment of various Commonwealth, State and Local Government organisations, certain Statutory Authorities and Catchment Authorities. Generally they have as a central focus the promotion and maintenance of the extent and quality of existing indigenous vegetation in their geographical area and if not to achieve a net gain or no net loss, in native vegetation at least to offset vegetation clearing by re-establishing native vegetation elsewhere.

Seldom is it the case that provision is made or attention given in the published documentation regarding the various plans and programs, to sources for the supply of high quality indigenous plants of local provenance. Yet the supply of such plants is integral to achieving successful outcomes and inattention must represent a risk.

Primary suppliers of indigenous plants are most often small, volunteer supported, not for profit community nurseries. Their efforts invariably reflect high levels of dedication, although output, in terms of both quality and quantity, is constrained by the number of volunteers, the degree of specialised knowledge possessed by the group about propagation of indigenous plants and the space available for growing plants. Supporting infrastructure is most often geared to historical demand with little scope for increased output. Financial viability is often at break-even or below. Financial support by way of grants are often important to survival, however competition can be intense. Activities associated with community education and revegetation programs compete with resources available for plant production. Volunteer workers are often highly mobile although a loyal and long serving core group usually survives to keep the organisation viable.

Local provenance nurseries should be distinguished from those nurseries that grow a wide cross section of Australian native plants for export or as a retail business.

Few local provenance nurseries are established as commercial undertakings. The cost associated with such activities is daunting as may be instanced by seed collection, cleaning and storage which is both specialised and labour intensive. The subsequent specialised and time consuming requirements to effect germination of a diverse plant population also make the undertaking commercially unattractive. One hundred to three hundred different species of varying quantities may be needed by a range of customers for Autumn/Spring plantings. Commercial nurseries are often able to defray costs by diversification of the business into environment consultancy, landscaping, weed management and revegetation projects.

A major constraint faced by the nursery industry more widely is a shortage of qualified nursery staff and it should therefore be of no surprise that nursery staff with a thorough knowledge of indigenous plants is a very scarce commodity indeed.

Establishing and improving communication channels between planning authorities and local provenance nurseries would be most beneficial to each other’s interests. It would help remove the present disconnect between the two parties and surely enhance each other’s forward planning and annual planting programs providing certainty to all concerned. Some integration does occur at the local government level although informal communication about requirements is substituted for partnership arrangements leaving nurseries to react, rather than to plan their programs.


  • The supply of indigenous plants of local provenance underpins the success of projects and programs initiated to support the many conservation goals and strategies. Seldom are nurseries mentioned in the strategic plans.
  • The time and effort, and associated cost burden born by nurseries such as has been described in this article is insufficiently recognised in various plans.
  • There is a real risk that without more recognition in terms of dedicated financial or in kind support, strategic goals and objectives will be placed in some degree of jeopardy.
  • An allocation of funding, or in kind support based on the number of volunteers engaged, would be one way of recognising and supporting the contribution of volunteer supported plant nurseries. Alternatively, funds could be tied to introducing efficiencies and associated cost reductions in production, or subsidising the cost of employment and training of professional staff, including apprentices. A straight handout of funds is not the answer, but public recognition of the effort freely given would be a good start.