Thursday, 30 August 2007


Lately I have been reading through a tome that my father left me, about his life from 15 years of age to 82 ! It is truly fascinating to read of the changing faces of pots , the invention of the garden centre concept and the ever so gradual evolution of the nursery, as an industry. Here it is in his words, with mine in italics....

The nursery consisted of 30 acres stretching from the River Torrens at Underdale, to Henley Beach Road. I begin this story in about 1934 when my father, John, was 15. He has been through several introductory months, with his father as his teacher - a tough but good-natured man with a sense of humour, it seems...

I had now learned how to weed, kill slugs and snails, dampen and strip raffia (for tying up plants),use a sharp razor blade to cut off the loose ends of the raffia and finish with a bed of plants looking absolutely perfect, and the basics of watering (all by hand - I will write on this another time).

Next, down at the soil area, Dad introduced me to the 'soil heap' which was really a compost heap where we dumped all weeds, unsold and rubbishy plants,bits of straw swept up from the packing shed and any rubbish that came along (of course plastic hadn't even been invented !).One end of the soil heap was old - it had been dumped there a year or so before. The other end was new - where I'd put my slugs and snails in lime and weeds and other stuff.Well now, the old end set quite hard so it all had to be sifted. To overcome this problem an old mattress was wired onto some wooden poles and the idea was to chop some soil out (sometimes even with a pick or a sharp spade), smash it up a bit with the back of the shovel and heave shovelful after shovelful very strongly against the mattress so that a goodly portion went right through and formed a loose soil mass on the other side. All sorts of things turned up unaccountably on the near side, such as broken pots, glass, kitchenware, long-lost secateurs and the lumps of soil which were too big to go through the mattress. After all this knowledge Dad gave me a rise not only in money but also in status, as this was a primary part of growing good, healthy plants.

I was now given the soil mixture recipe for growing 'general plants and trees'.We had at least 5 special mixtures including those for acidic soil-loving plants, hydrangea soil, palm soil, fern soil and Dad used to make up his own special mix for geralton wax. The idea was to go to various heaps such as hills soil, river loam, Mt Compass peat (which had to be rubbed through a hand sieve, river sand, night soil (which Jeffries brought every year from the sewerage works at Regency Park), spent hops from the brewer, loads of various manures - all out in the rain and weather.

Dad used to say "John, take 2 of this, 4 of that, half a barrow here and there etc", walking to each heap with a barrow and shovel - in mud and slush during winter and with dust everywhere during summer. Now you don't just tip each load out of the barrow. The soil must be spread evenly in layers. When the required number of soil types are in this heap, one must turn the heap over 3 times, spreading each shovel of soil each time in those beautiful layers. Then and not till then, the soil is shovelled into the barrow and wheeled to the potting shed, which was a considerable distance from the soil heap. (Why didn't they put it closer ??Time didn't seem to be an issue.)

In the potting shed were various benches where the soil was shovelled in layers onto a particular bench and finally the soil was ready to use. On looking back, it seems impossible so many plants were potted in a day. Up to 2,000 3inch pots and 1,000 5inch were the order of the day for me (no wonder there was no obesity ! Imagine getting a 15 year old to do that now!) Of course the potter had to go and pick up the pots to be potted, bring in wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load of earthenware pots and put them on the potting bench. The plants were then potted and put by the potter, on the potting bench and when too many got in the way, they were picked up again and put on a flat-topped wheelbarrow a few steps away.

You will have realised by now the many, many movements made just to pot 1 plant. Of course, at this moment in my learning to be a nurseryman, I didn't question the wasted effort and time. It was done this way and had been done this way forever and a day.
(I am exhausted just thinking about all this physical work so I will stop here for now. Unfortunately, as I was growing up in the '60s and 70's, I took all this for granted and have barely one photo of the nursery. But I have quite a few things of interest such as this catalogue from 1918. I have reproduced the front and back covers almost life-size).


Maggie said...

Kate my best Vinnies (Hawthorn) buy (2$) of last week was a book called "the Market"- Stories, history and recipes from the Adelaide Central Market. It was written by Catherine Murphy.
It contains photos I think would be in the city library archives.
It would be fun doing a search.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kate,
I can relate to your father's story about working in his father's nursery as I also worked in my father's nursery at 2 Douglas St, Flinders Park.