I had arrived around 9.30 and it was now after 10 am when Coordinator Adam for the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) Food Garden called for volunteers to work elsewhere.
‘Who’d like to work in the Nursery for a couple of hours? I need two.’ I nodded. Anything and everything is interesting at the RTBG. I am open to any and every opportunity. I nodded again. Adam’s eyes swivelled around the expectant group looking for willing workers. ‘Bagging seed potatoes ready to sell’. On the first Tuesday morning of each month RTBG sells plants etc to the public. Simply bagging potatoes wasn’t what I expected, but, well, why not.
The other woman who joined me in this different adventure said later that she wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect of relentlessly bagging potatoes. However it had only taken me moments to consider the experience would be a learning opportunity. In talking with the Nursery volunteers and their Coordinator I hoped to learn more about the reason for using seed potatoes, the qualities you look for in a seed potato, and more generally about growing potatoes. I felt I couldn’t lose. The bagging process, in my mind, was simply a convenient process through which I could expand my knowledge in unknown ways.
But we didn’t bag potatoes.
In the nursery after throwing off our beanies and thick jacket and out of the wind (although regrettably out of the sun), Coordinator Margo indicated we would be replanting seedlings.
Over the next couple of hours, she introduced us to pricking with a dibbler, cotyledons, label sticks, trolley/wheelbarrows, the watering process, hardening up plants, sterilising pots and other equipment, the art of shuffling plants around, and we learnt where trays and pots and labels were stored.
‘Have you heard of pricking? Do you know what pricking is?’ I was a blank. ‘Well you need a dibbler to help you with pricking.’ Hmm. No. I shook my head and stood wide-eyed.
Pricking is the process of transplanting seedlings when they are so tiny they generally have only the two cotyledon leaves showing. In my mind the cotyledons are somewhat equivalent to baby’s teeth – those that arrive before the real ones grow. In the case of the cotyledons I suspect they don’t fall off however the comparison suits me and should help me remember the word when I next look at a tiny plant. Under Margo’s expert tutelage we observed that the cotyledon leaves are different in shape than the ‘real’ leaves that appear further up the stem. She explained these tiny plants needed re-potting with the soil reaching to the bottom of the cotyledons.
We carried the tray of seedlings into the the potting room. We worked at one of the large benches with a pile of soil, trays, and dozens of standard black plastic pots – and with our dibblers.Margo was a stickler for good occupational health and safety practices and considered the ergonomic needs of the volunteers in her care. I was very impressed with her manner and consideration and understanding of needs. She looked at me, noticed my height and immediately realised that if I stood at the bench and painstakingly replanted the seedlings for any length of time, back ache could result because of the bench height. So she added an upside down tray to raise the level. This meant I did not need to bend even the slightest. Thankfully I suffer no back ache today. It was this level of detailed professionalism that pervaded the whole Nursery experience. At the same time it was casual and relaxed and friendly.
The potting soil was a mix of composted soil purchased locally from a garden supplier, the RTBG home-grown compost, plus beads of Osmocote. A lovely rich substantial food for any new plant. I was surprised that it was quite dry. There was the tiniest feeling of dampness however it was sufficiently dry that the grains of soil components did not clump together.
Once our workstation was set up, Margo demonstrated the use of the dibbler, a thin stick which looked to me like a pencil – so much so that when I was first handed mine, I looked for the graphite at the pointy end. She grabbed a pot, scooped in soil to almost fill, and then picked up her dibbler ready to prick. And she pricked the soil, and pushed down to make a space for the tiny seedling in the centre of the pot. Carefully extracting a fine thread from the planting tray she transferred the fledgling, ensured the soil covered the plant up to the bottom of the cotyledons, and placed it in a tray on the trolley waiting behind our workstation.
We were told speed was not important. Pricking accurately and replanting without damage was the focus. Now it was our chance to prick with our dibblers. To work our way through the planting tray and fill new trays with filled pots.My fellow Food Garden volunteer and I worked together amiably. To date I have found all the volunteers to be so very interesting. My companion in the nursery was no different. The volunteer told me that she is in the process of throwing in her good job because she loves being in gardens and wants to find a way to shape a new life where gardening and horticulture give her employment. She, like me, is studying the University of Tasmania’s free Science of Gardening course – already we are comparing our reactions to the content and presentation. Next year she expects to undertake the Cert 2 and Cert 3 in Horticulture course at TAFE, meanwhile picking up experience and knowledge at the RTBG and elsewhere. I loved her courage, her self-knowledge and energy. Later in the day I talked with another volunteer who plans to pursue an almost identical path. As an aside, a French speaking visitor, told me his Working Visa took effect yesterday and he will now be free to work in Tasmania – his speciality is as a maintenance gardener. I have watched him undertaking many jobs over the weeks and his work ethic is second to none. In addition, his diligence and devotion to excellence in all the jobs he takes on is clear. The official starting time for us volunteers is 10am for a five hour working day, but he arrives around 9ish and leaves around 3ish. I think whoever employs him will welcome an excellent staff member. He will accept any work including casual employment, so if you know anyone who needs him I can pass on a message.
I guess from the above, you sense I have a warm feeling about my fellow volunteers. Valuing the feeling of cleanliness that comes from working in the soil and amidst living plants and critters (I found a beautiful very healthy looking dead rat a few weeks ago), there is a quiet camaraderie that links us together. We love what we do.
Back to the Nursery; to the soil and pricking. We had the option to wear thin gloves or use our bare hands. I chose to use my hands because I doubted my ability to separate the fine strands of the seedlings with gloves. As with many gardening processes, I feel a meditative content. The gentle rhythm of a repetitive process combined with needing to be mindfully present to ensure accuracy and care, is almost hypnotic. Satisfying.
Gradually the number of new pots increased.When three trays full of pots filled the trolley/barrow it was time to shuffle them into the hot house. But first – never to be forgotten – they needed to be labelled. Margo suggesting we had been transplanting Dill and set out to pencil Dill on the label. Before doing so she asked us for more detail. Neither of us had read the label on the seedlings – we had been working with Caraway plants without bothering to know what we were planting. This now seems like an extraordinary oversight, but we were in the moment then, partially overwhelmed by all the new information and processes with which we were entrusted. So it was valuable lesson learnt and we never forgot to label each new tray from then on.
Under the guidance and direction of Margo, from the hothouse, we collected trays of potted tomato plants and relocated these to an outdoor trolley/barrow. Ready for ‘hardening up’. It sounds like an easy conversational and practical use of words to cover the practice of acclimatising plants when they move from one environment to another. I hadn’t realised ‘hardening up’ is a technical term. So we wheeled the plants to a series of outdoor shelves where they will rest and grow in the crisp cool mornings of the coming weeks. In October these plants will be ready for the first Tuesday of the month sale to the public.
Back in the hothouse shelf space was now freed for our first three trays of Caraway plants. Then the watering system was demonstrated and Margo explained the appropriate ergonomic method of handling the hose. We were shown to water with a waving soft but dense mist of water across our plants with a swing of the body (not the arm – keep the hose in the centre of the body and don’t twist, rather turn the body as you water) which spread water on surrounding plants. Not a drenching. Not heavy water to dislodge and disturb the plants. I can see the value of the large hose head in controlling the water and I realise I need one at home like that in the RTBG Nursery.
Once the second set of three trays were filled and labelled, we transferred them into the hothouse and watered.
Before Margo farewelled us, we regurgitated the new words learnt during the morning and exclaimed our satisfaction in a job (perhaps well done); all beaming with pleasure.
We stepped lightly back to the Community Food Garden, in the glow of the winter sun. Tomorrow’s blog post will report my afternoon activities helping in the Food Garden – and slightly beyond.