Interview with Chris Findlay – Part 1

Chris Findlay and Graeme Hoxley run a company called Flora Victoria, and specialise in weed control, grassland revegetation and native grass seed production. They are doing some great work in supplying large quantities of native grass seed for direct seeding.

In this post, I catch up the Chris to learn more about what he does.

Photo of Chris and Graeme

Chris Findlay and Graeme Hoxley. Photo by Adrian Marshall

How did you first get interested in nature?

My grandmother was a keen gardener, so I probably got it from her. I remember chomping into a daffodil bulb when I was a toddler: it wasn’t very nice and I can still remember the taste. As a little kid I was fascinated by flowers. As I got older, I became obsessed with herbaceous borders and cottage gardens, and I started a gardening business.

My father had a property in north eastern Victoria. One spring when I was about 18, I was out in the bush shooting rabbits and I found myself surrounded by millions of wildflowers, I’d never noticed them before, never noticed nature’s garden. That turned my interest away from exotic flower gardening.

old photo of your father_s bush property

Nature’s garden in north-eastern Victoria

How did you get into the environmental industry?

I went to Burnley in 1988 and studied horticulture, and in 1998 I got a job there and developed the indigenous garden with seed I had collected. John Delpratt, one of the lecturers, had students doing research projects on grassland species, so I’d salvage their plants before they got thrown out and plant them in the indigenous garden. At one stage I had over a hundred species of ground flora and I reckon I had about seven species of terrestrial orchids growing there. I was obsessive I suppose.

How did you find studying horticulture for getting into the environmental industry, as compared to studying something like conservation and land management?

Horticulture is a really good background for people going into the environmental industry. The focus on plant identification, plant physiology, botany and also horticultural chemicals and weed control methods are all extremely useful.  When I worked in the Burnley Gardens, a lot of students would come up to me and say they weren’t learning enough about indigenous plants. I’d say: “You’ve got the knowledge, you just need to apply it.”

In 1999 I started Flora Victoria with a girl I met at Burnley, Sabine. Sabine worked in the nursery and I worked in the gardens. Greening Australia would get me to help with their indigenous plant identification training days. I’d show them through the garden and reel off the names of all the plants I had growing.  That’s how I met Jason Summers. He was working for Brimbank City Council and he came to one of my garden tours. On the way out, he virtually pinned me against the wall and said, “I want you to come out to Brimbank and do a grassland garden like this for me.” So Sabine and I got inspired to start up a business to do this indigenous garden thing.

Burnley Indigenous Garden

Indigenous garden at Burnley, developed by Chris Findlay

Why did you start Flora Victoria?

What I really wanted to do was to inspire people to like and use indigenous plants in their own gardens. The idea was to arrange the plants in a really aesthetic way that looked natural at the same time. For example, if you go to a good grassland remnant it’s a patchwork of colour in spring. It’s often hard to recreate that because you just can’t grow a lot of the grassland species, like Burchardia umbellata en masse.

The Denton Avenue Grassland was the first garden we did for Brimbank and we got a really good effect there, we had some gilgais constructed and a fence to keep out the rabbits, and that garden is still going.  Then we did one in Rutherglen Way along Taylors Creek, just downstream from Taylors Lakes. Brimbank City Council let us use their nursery and we grew tens of thousands of indigenous plants, mainly grasses and wildflowers. We also used a lot of stock from Western Plains Flora, and we planted the whole garden.  It was hugely labour intensive and we realised that there must be a better way of recreating a grassland. After that, we looked for easier ways of creating native grass landscapes and started planting at the tops of escarpments and the grasses would recruit their way down the slope. All we had to do was control the weeds.

Denton Ave Grassland Garden

Denton Avenue Grassland

Sabine and I wound up Flora Victoria in 2002 and went up to north-eastern Victoria. She got a job with the Goulburn Broken Indigenous Seed Bank and I ended up working as a trainer and assessor at Goulburn Ovens TAFE, teaching Certificate 3 in Horticulture, assessing subjects in the Diploma of Conservation and Land Management and teaching Indigenous VCAL students. In 2003 I got a job with Native Seeds back in Melbourne and I saw that as a great opportunity to learn about direct seeding.

Was that your first exposure to larger scale direct seeding?

Like most people I was a bit of a skeptic when it came to direct seeding, but within a couple of days working for Native Seeds, I was seeding hectares of native grass, and the following season I was up in New South Wales sowing seed production areas. By the next year, I was definitely sold on direct seeding.  It’s obvious that it works. I’d go around to areas I’d sown the year before and see native grass everywhere. I was a convert.

While working at Native Seeds, I’d go around to the seed production areas that other people were running, mainly farmers and I just had a yearning do it myself.  I really, really wanted to give it a go. I left Native Seeds and started up Flora Victoria again, this time with Graeme.

Soon we were driving around Victoria, harvesting native grass seed in the hope that we would actually get contracts to sow this stuff, and we did!  Then we started the seed production area.

How did you upscale your operation?

We started seed production areas on three other sites before we came across our current location in Keilor. None of these had irrigation, most of them didn’t have enough water for irrigation, and none had any infrastructure. One was in Gisborne, one was in Toolern Vale, and the other was out near Malmsbury. It was during the drought as well, and they were too far away from home. Eventually we got wind of some land down in Keilor; we made arrangements with the owners, Mike and Michelle, and all of a sudden we had about 12 hectares of irrigated ground covered in weeds.

early photo of Keilor SPA 2008

2008: 12 hectare site in Keilor covered in weeds

early photo of Keilor SPA 2014

2014: with established seed production areas

We got a few crops going using seed we had harvested from within a few kilometres. There was no established market for selling native grass seed locally, but we figured that wasn’t going to change if seed wasn’t readily available. So we decided to go out on a limb and grow native grass seed and see if we could develop a new market. Not the best way of starting a new business, but we thought it was worth the gamble.

Where did you source your grass seed initially?

Most of the crops were sourced from the Keilor/Werribee Plains. In the past, we’d scouted right around the western side of Melbourne looking for weed-free areas to harvest grass, and we used that seed for our crops. Some of the seed was sourced from roadsides, some from private land. The grasslands that provided a lot of the original seed for our crops have disappeared under housing and industrial development or roads.

The source for our Chloris truncata crop is now a playground in a housing estate. The seed for our Themeda triandra crop came from Laverton in an area which is about to become an industrial estate.  It’s kind of nice walking around looking at the crops and thinking that we managed to save some genetic material from grasslands that either no longer exist or probably won’t exist soon.

photo of Keilor SPA

Flora Victoria’s seed production site in Keilor

Some of the parent seed was harvested by hand, mainly because that way you get the cleanest seed. You can put a harvester over something that looks clean and it can end up being full of weed seed. That’s why we’re reluctant to harvest remnant grasslands these days. Our standards for seed purity have become so high in our seed production areas that we don’t want to harvest anything weedier than what we grow. It can also be a pretty destructive process. I’ve seen the damage done to remnant grasslands by repeated harvesting and thought, “This can’t be any good”. I would see Ptilotus macrocephalus that had been squashed under harvester tyres, and over time many grasslands became weedier and weedier.  I wouldn’t harvest from any of those remnants anymore because I don’t want to cause damage, and our seed production area is one hundred times cleaner.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, where I learn about direct seeding.

If you would like to learn more about Chris and Graeme’s work you can check out their website at http://www.floravictoria.com.au/ or follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GrasslandsFloravic/

Thanks to Marney Hradsky for transcribing and collating the interview.

 

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Chris Findlay – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Interview with Chris Findlay – Part 2 – The Bushlander

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