My mother and I are starting a new project trying to cultivate native trees and other plant species such as herbs, medicines and edibles that the nurseries don’t seem to want to do. There can’t be enough big money in it I suppose, and commercial nurseries operate on a very low cost per plant. In order to grow trees of species with specific varieties in specific locales, I’m practicing and experimenting with growing indigenous trees from seed.

I’ve harvested the seed round about, in a general way around Cape Town. Thus I call it wild seed, because you can’t buy it in nurseries. It has undergone natural selection processes for millenia and isn’t going to give rise to a ‘cultivar’, but the mother plant isn’t necessarily growing ‘in the wild’.

learning to grow native trees by trial and error

Once I know the growing requirements of these native trees and other species I will be able to extend that knowledge to the diversity within the same species. There aren't thousands of pages of instructions, as you'd find for growing fruit for example. I’ve applied for a license to harvest forest seeds, but I can’t go to the forest yet. To be sustainable, I harvest just a tiny bit, about a tablespoon of the small seeds when there are masses of seeds on the tree, and up to about six only of the very largest seeds, or if they are lying in masses on the street perhaps a dozen. The project may fail with these tiny numbers, because I notice a lot of the big fruit look very insect gnawed (do they gnaw) stung and sucked.

disinfect seed trays

So after the harvesting trips, I recycled some old six packs I’ve used as seed trays again and again. I don’t like the polystyrene ones with the very small compartments, because it may be traumatic pulling the plants out of these, and the native trees are probably very slow growing. To try and cut down the plant diseases which wilt off young plants, I soaked the trays in a bleach solution, and used pure vermicompost which contains a natural fungicide.


I watered the seed trays thoroughly before planting so as not to disturb the planted seeds for as long as possible. When I water again I will run the point of the only half filled watering can along the ridge in the middle of the six pack, it help stabilize the water flow so that the seeds don’t get washed out of the medium. 

the materials for making the recycled seed tray labels

recycled labels

I couldn’t work out how to label the seeds till I cunningly thought of making recycled labels by cutting up some of the large plastic 1 liter yoghurt containers piling up in my kitchen. It worked so perfectly. The white plastic took the indelible black felt tip pen I used very well and the labels are perfectly legible.

using recycled milk bags in the nursery

I use milk bags for many purposes but chiefly in the nursery as it means they don’t have to be so thoroughly washed. These plant/milk bags contain the collected seeds with a little slip of paper on which I wrote my mother’s identifications of the plant, and then transferred this to the plastic plant labels for the seed trays. My mother used to propagate native trees for Parks and Forests a few years back and she knows them quite well.

plant up

I planted the seeds of some native trees and indigenous fruit trees using a mix of the lore I learned from Karin Parkin and my mother. My mother recommends planting the native tree seeds while still fresh, even green, because dried indigenous seeds are more difficult to germinate, they get very hard and resistant in order to survive our dry summers and lie there waiting for the right conditions. The horticulturists working with them have to sandblast and acid bath them to get them to germinate, not something I’m keen on or equipped for. Karin Parkin’s memorable talk on vegetable garden seed harvesting at the TUFCO gathering, and her advice at the permaculture workshop I visited, meant that I planted the seeds in proportion to their size, as deep as the longest dimension of the seed, and I dug little furrows for them, which places them more accurately at the right depth. Thanks Karin. Who would think an experienced gardener is so nervous about planting seeds, you gave us all confidence.

ready to grow

Here are the seeds all sown, labelled, watered and ready to grow. I am very excited about the outcome of this experiment, as I really believe in what I'm doing, from an ecological point of view.



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