Interview with Chris Findlay – Part 2
I know of other people who also started with a small amount of seed, and they grew them in a nursery and then scaled up to direct seeding a large area. Did you start your seed production areas by planting or by direct seeding?
If you can get enough clean seed in the first place by using the brush harvester, you can go out and sow a hectare or two straight away, but that’s not always the case. For crops like our Red-leg Grass (Bothriochloa macra) crop, Graeme and I went out and hand harvested seed between Melton and Werribee. It took weeks hunting out little remnants. I think we got 1.4kg after about a month of going out once or twice a week. With that 1.4kg we sowed probably less than quarter of a hectare, and the seed harvested from that produced enough to sow about a hectare.
Some crops we’ve started from a tiny amount of seed. A botanist from DELWP sent us an envelope with less than a handful of Austrostipa sectacea seed and we’ve bulked up a small plot from that. We did the same with Enneapogon nigricans, just started off with a very small amount and bulked it up. We’re now doing this with Panicum decompositum, but it takes years.
How many species have you currently got in crops?
There’s about thirteen crops and some of them contain multiple species. Our Wallaby Grass (Rytidosperma) crops have five species in them, the species that were harvested on site. We also grow seed specifically for Whittlesea City Council, where we’ve got a mixed Austrostipa crop and a mixed Rytidosperma crop. In total we’ve got about twenty- five different species altogether.
Every year, we get our seed tested and certified. We do this because we believe there should be standards in the indigenous seed industry and if people want certified seed at least they know where they can get it.
What does the testing include?
It includes the species of weeds and their percentage present in the sample. It also includes the percentage of chaff (anything other than seeds), so basically the purity of the seed, and how much viable seed there is per weight.
Viability will vary between species. Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) is very low for instance, as you get a lot of empty and non-viable seed and a lot of chaff as well. This makes it more expensive because you’re getting a lower yield, compared to species like Wallaby Grass, where you’re getting anywhere up to 98% seed viability with very little chaff, and so we can sell it for a lot cheaper.
What kind of maintenance is required for a seed production area?
The main maintenance is weed control. There’s usually a bit of a break after harvesting, but often it’s non-stop all year. In terms of herbicide control, we’ll be spot spraying and boom spraying using selective and pre-emergent herbicides. By the time we get to late winter and the grasses start to grow and thicken up, we have to resort to hand weeding, which becomes the main form of weed control for two to three months before harvesting.
It’s extremely labour intensive to produce a clean product, and no matter how hard we try there’s always going to be some weeds in our crops. The beauty of having our seed certified is that we can see what we’ve got, and if need be adjust our weed control techniques. Also, our customers can be assured of what they are buying. The main weeds that we battle against are annual grass weeds, so once the native grasses really start growing the only way of getting them out is by hand.
Who are your main customers?
We have clients like councils that buy a small but steady amount of seed each year, and occasionally we’ll get a large project that will swallow up huge amounts like the bund for the Greenvale Reservoir. We did some sowing along the Barwon water pipeline that used a large quantity of seed. We are seeing more seed going into offsets for housing developments and public open spaces. What we’re finding though is the market really isn’t big enough to sustain a viable industry at the moment. If we get a large job we’ll make a profit but if we don’t we’ll make a loss. Our seed production is largely funded by our environmental contracting work. When we get projects that include site prep, sowing and maintenance, it makes producing seed worthwhile.
What other environmental contract work do you do?
The main work that Flora Victoria does is weed control in remnant vegetation, mainly grasslands, where really accurate spot spraying is required. We do most of the usual environmental contracting work like woody weed control, planting, cutting fire breaks for environmental burns etc. Direct seeding projects often have one to two years of site prep where we will repeatedly spray and maybe cultivate a site before we sow, and then we might maintain it for another one to two years after we’ve sown.
What are some of the benefits of direct seeding over planting? I guess the revegetation industry has a long history of growing tube-stock and planting that out, and not really much of the direct seeding.
Direct seeding is a lot cheaper. Take our Poa labillardieri crop for instance. It’s a quarter of a hectare and we used about half a kilo of seed to sow it, so that’s about $165 worth of seed. Believe it or not people sometimes complain about the cost of our seed, but compare that to planting quarter of a hectare with tube stock! Most people wouldn’t even dream of planting out a quarter of a hectare with native grass.
Graeme and I sowed it in about half an hour, and so that’s $165 and half an hour’s labour. Compare this to planting out five plants per square metre, that’s 12,500 plants, sourcing and paying for the plants, and then the cost of planting and watering them. It’s just a hell of a lot cheaper, over ten times cheaper than planting tube stock and we usually get a plant density of way over five plants per square metre.
How does direct seeding compare to planting, in terms of success?
If it’s done properly, direct seeding is way more effective. I find plants that have been nursery raised and then planted out don’t live as long, and if you look at a lot of planted areas they’re mulched, so you don’t get recruitment. If a site has been prepared properly and you sow a diversity of native grasses, you can expect to see some ecological succession. You can’t expect this with planting.
For example, if you sow Wallaby Grass with some Spear Grasses and Kangaroo Grass, the Wallaby Grasses will come up in the first year, along with a few Themeda and Spear Grasses. But over a period of five to ten years, Spear Grasses will appear and eventually Themeda will become dominant. We have seen this happen in one of our early projects on a scraped site at The Growling Frog golf course.
With direct seeding you’ll get much higher plant densities compared to planting. Direct seeding aims to replace a weedy seedbank with an indigenous seedbank, and if it’s done properly it’s sustainable with very low maintenance afterwards.
What kind of site preparation is needed for direct seeding?
Direct seeding should be considered as a long term solution to ecological restoration, but without understanding the importance of correct site preparation, direct seeding will often either be a temporary fix or be a complete failure. Unfortunately many people who sow indigenous species find this out the hard way, and often we hear disgruntled people say they tried direct seeding years ago and it doesn’t work. This is usually because of one or more of three factors:
- the seed they have used is not viable,
- the soil is unsuitable, or
- site preparation was insufficient to prevent weed competition.
It usually depends on the weed species you’re dealing with on your site. Some species can be sprayed a few times and the site is ready to sow the following year. With really persistent species you may need to remove the top layer of soil, scalp it like Paul Gibson-Roy does, and get rid of the stuff.
Even scalping may not get rid of grasses like Couch and Kikuyu, as their root systems can grow deep into the soil profile. We had a project down on the coast recently where we did some soil testing, and Kikuyu rhizomes had penetrated a metre or more through the soil profile. Removing all that soil wasn’t an option, so direct seeding wasn’t a viable method of revegetation for this site. Some soils are not fertile enough to grow native grass, and so we recommend soil testing to all of our clients before they embark on a direct seeding project. It’s better to pay a bit of money up front as insurance, and save all the time and money wasted when a project has to be done again, because site conditions were never suitable for direct seeding.
If you don’t have rhizomatous grasses like Couch and Kikuyu, scalping can sometimes be a great option. There seems to be a terrible aversion to soil scalping in our industry though, usually because it is considered too expensive, or topsoil is too “precious”. In our opinion, top soil containing persistent weeds should be considered toxic waste and removed. Once an area has been scalped to remove weed propagules and excess nutrients and a new seedbank has been established by direct seeding, it’s very sustainable. This is because a well-planned project that has been scalped needs virtually no maintenance afterwards, the initial cost of the scalping and replacing the seedbank is more than offset over a ten year period.
Say you’ve got an area infested with Chilean Needle Grass and you’re managing it by spot spraying. It’ll cost you more than twice as much to manage over ten years compared to soil scalping and seeding with a diverse assembly of indigenous species. But even if they had the will, many of our clients are locked into an annual budget and they have to spend it. It’s crazy! If we could change that way of spending money we could have much better environmental outcomes at a much lower cost.
It’s a very frustrating industry to work in when you’re direct seeding, because most clients don’t believe that direct seeding is a viable form of revegetation. We know that if it’s done properly it can work brilliantly. Look at the work being done by Paul Gibson-Roy. He has successfully sown extremely high diversity grasslands out on the basalt plains that compare to high quality remnants. That leaves some of us scratching our heads and thinking, “Why isn’t everyone doing this?”
The western plains grasslands are facing degradation and extinction, and we could actually be turning it around the other way, by sowing some really impressive grasslands. I don’t know why more councils aren’t sowing high diversity flowering grasslands or grassy woodlands, and making a feature of them every spring. You know: “Come out to our municipality and see the beautiful wildflowers!” No one seems to be particularly interested and I don’t know why. Surely the people who travel to WA to see the wildflowers would make a short trip to see something similar in their own city?
How do you think we can change this?
I believe that change can only happen quickly if our governments are motivated to make change. This would require some form of lobbying from sectors within our industry that have some political leverage. This was discussed at a conference we attended last year, but we will have to see if anything happens. If good specifications for sowing diverse ecosystems were developed, with an intention to direct seed areas where large scale earth moving takes place, like freeways and pipelines, impetus for a seed industry would be created. Even if a percentage of native grass seed was incorporated into every freeway grass mix, there would be enough demand to boost this tiny industry into something worthwhile. Our tiny little industry, as it stands, wouldn’t even be able to supply a fraction of the seed required, but that way we’d have an incentive to commercially grow native grass seeds. Otherwise we just have to keep plugging away and hope to slowly make change through doing good work and getting the message out there. At present companies like ours who are innovative just aren’t rewarded.
So….we’ve got a fair way to go but at least we know what to do.
Have you got any tips or suggestions for people who want to get into direct seeding?
If people are interested in direct seeding, why not try a lawn? Graeme and I both have native grass lawns and that’s a great way of trying direct seeding on a small scale.
Another option is trying out a small project like a bridge batter. We’ve sown a whole lot of bridge batters in Broadmeadows and for Hume City Council. They’re small scale direct seeding sites and they’ve been extremely successful. They’ve been sprayed out for a long, long time. The way of maintaining those batters in the past was just to come along and spray all the weeds on a very regular basis, so many of them had really good site prep before we started them.
I always recommend people start off small, gain confidence and then once they get a feel for what they’re doing they can scale it up and tackle larger areas with more confidence. And we’re available to help clients with projects of any size, especially with planning, and our equipment enables us to sow larger scale projects quickly and efficiently.
Thank you for your time Chris.
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 assisting with transcribing and collating the interview.