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Armidale District

APS Armidale & District Group

Australian Plants Society Armidale: the First Year

by Maria Hitchcock


Our inaugural meeting was held on the 6th August, 1977. I remember it well because I was very pregnant with my son Ben, who was born 2 weeks later. Brian Hansford reminded me that it was a bitterly cold night and he was amazed that anyone turned up. Lyn Parry of Floralands and Vice-President of NSW Region had come to Armidale to establish a New England Group of the Society for Growing Australian Plants. The meeting was held in the West Common Room of the UNE Union at the University of New England.

  The first office bearers were: Bob Hardie (President), Ken Hill & Alan Richards (Vice-Presidents), Phil May (Secretary), Mike Richardson (Treasurer), Ken Hill (Publicity), Warren Sheather (Steward).  

Foundation members who attended included:
Beth Williams, Warren Sheather, Bob & Gwenda Hardie, Ken Hill, Dick Windsor, Alan Richards, Phil May, Mike Richardson, Maria Hitchcock, Bernard Ellem, Mike Brennan, Brian Hansford and Harry Harris. You needed twelve (12) SGAP members to officially start a group so Don Hitchcock, who was home baby-sitting at the time, became the 12th member.


Solstice Function: Three founding members, Warren Sheather, Beth Williams and Maria Hitcock, cut the 30th Anniversary birthday cake, 23 June 2007. (hover (click for IE) on image to enlarge).

Local Group subscriptions were set at $1.50 per family. A raffle plant was donated by Lyn and won by Harry Harris and we decided to meet on the 2nd Monday of every 2nd month at 8.00 pm. The only native plants available in Armidale at that time were at Coles Variety Store in the Mall (approximately where Caffiends is now). Mike Brennan started up Protea Park Nursery around that time selling tubestock of native plants.

One of our first tasks was to get a list together of suitable native plants for the area based on the experience of our members. We gave the list to Alan Chappell who was fairly negative about native plants in general as were most of the general public at that time.

Our first outing was a garden visit on 18th September. By October we welcomed Sue Bowen, Marie Simpkins and Les Green.

We decided to have a native plant display at the Armidale Show in March 1978 as a way of publicizing the group. Warren became our Seed Bank Officer and we started to offer free native plant seed to the public.

Propagation was an important issue because of the lack of plants so we focused on that. We planned a trip to Howell where some of us collected seed and cuttings and at the meeting Bob Hardie demonstrated his fish tank method of striking cuttings while Hans Wissman showed us his home-made igloo method. Marie Simpkins won the raffle that night. The concept of a raffle at meetings has continued to the present day.

The proceeds from raffles have been used for a variety of things over the years. For some reason our December meeting was held at the Community Health Centre. This was our Christmas meeting and we had a problem corner on 'Pests and Diseases of Native Plants'.

The February 1978 meeting was held in the West Common Room at the UNE again. We were starting to attract new members and develop our gardens, learning techniques from each other. I remember Bob Hardie gave me two Correa plants at this time, Correa alba and Correa 'Dusky Bells'. I still have progeny of both plants growing in my garden today.

  The general attitude in the community towards native plants was fairly negative   at the time due to several factors, frost being one of them. 

It was this kind of sharing and generosity which characterized the group. We weren't in competition with each other, like you see in many other garden clubs - we were out to help each other and in the process enrich the community. That attitude attracted like-minded members and continues to this day with the current membership.

At that meeting we planned garden visits on 5th March to the Richardson, Hardie, Wissman and May gardens. I don't remember much about the Hardie or May gardens but I recall that Hans had a suburban block which was very neatly planted out.

Mike Richardson's garden was a revelation as his north Armidale backyard was superbly landscaped. He used native grasses to add texture and contrast and he had plants which I'd never seen before. He also used sweeping curves for his garden beds.

Phil May had a large hybrid grevillea which some of us took cuttings from that day. Mine grew in my garden for many years and we always referred to it as Grevillea 'Phil May'. I ended up chopping mine out after it died in the drought but it would be nice to know if anyone still has it growing. It was a very robust plant, about 2-3 metres tall and wide with toothbrush flowers and bushy down to ground level.

Peter Brooks, Harry & Naomi Bell and Robert & Joan Boyd joined us in April. I'm guessing here as their names appear in the minutes for the first time. Phil May resigned and I took over as Secretary/Publicity officer. Harry and Naomi Bell had come to Armidale from Canberra. Harry was completing a PhD on thornbills and Naomi had a clerical job with the UNE. Harry inspired us to think about putting on a small Flower show in October so we applied to the Council who subsequently gave us permission to use the library foyer for our first Flower Show.

Colin Grigg advised us to hold it during the Armidale Arts Festival from 4-7th October. It's amazing how things turn full circle - Colin is a current member and his teenage son Andrew is a native plant enthusiast. When you look at the Library foyer, you realize what a humble show that was compared with our later attempts.
Still it was a start and a way of getting the native plant message across to the general public.

It was pretty well imperative to develop a range of frost hardy plants which would inspire confidence in the public to try them in their gardens. Harry and Naomi Bell were living in a small rented house on the corner of Cynthia Crescent and O'Connor Rd. Harry had converted the whole small front yard into the most exquisite native garden with beautiful banksias and a range of plants that none of us were familiar with. They became very active members, holding office and being involved in every activity.

  The use of cheap sawdust mulch and milk carton frost protectors allowed hundreds of thousands of native plants to survive over the ensuing years. 

Harry didn't suffer fools gladly and his blood pressure would rise when people got on his nerves. Despite this he was much loved and very inspiring. He was a master propagator and taught me many techniques which I have tried to pass on since. Sadly Harry developed cancer and died a few short years later. His widow Naomi returned to Canberra where she still lives today.

The Boyds lived in Markham St and took a particular interest in the large reserve across the road. They were instrumental in developing a large public native garden which they called Neighbourhood Park. We visited the Park and saw sawdust used for the first time as mulch. My memory is fuzzy here as I know that around that time we also started using milk cartons as frost protectors but I can't remember if it was the Boyds or Harry who introduced us to the concept.

Sawdust is now almost unprocurable so we have switched to the recycled greenwaste mulch from the tip which does a similar job. You can still buy milk in cartons but that might change as plastic bottles take over market share. Whatever happens someone will come up with a suitable alternative as the principle remains the same.

Young plants need the base stem enclosed in order to increase humidity around the plant which is a protective factor. Mulch inhibits weed competition allowing young plants to develop in those first few years. I have seen local Eucalypt species which were planted out in open ground without mulch and protectors and still under a metre high 10 years later.

  The techniques we developed in those early days were borrowed several years later when eucalyptus dieback became a big issue. 

Both of these techniques transformed my own gardening. My garden is situated on a band of floating basalt rock which provided good drainage but very little soil. All of my attempts at gardening had failed up until then so I ordered my first load of hardwood sawdust from Kenross Sawmill and plonked it down in a round bed in the middle of my circular drive. I then planted into it about six Acacia dealbata seedlings which I had propagated and away they went. We were lucky with the weather that year and the Acacias grew in the spring at an alarming rate. They became the talk of the group and everyone had to come and see.

By June 1978, 30 people were attending the meetings. At that time many SGAP groups had their own floral emblems so we discussed the idea and came up with an emblem for the group - Helichrysum bracteatum.

We decided to ask Protea Park if they would supply plants at cost for sale at our Flower Show and we planned trips to Long Point and the NCW Beadle Herbarium at the University of New England (UNE).

It had been an exciting and inspiring year and one which set in train ideas and concepts which would influence the Society for many years to come.

Maria Hitchcock, Armidale, 2007.

See also: APS Armidale 2005 - 2008 Gallery