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Robert & David Wood

Scotsburn Nurseries. Victoria's first EcoHort certified seedling nursery


Scotsburn Nurseries – A Short History

David Wood the 2nd youngest of 12 children, left school as a 14 year old at the onset of the Great Depression looking for work. He landed a position as ‘Florist’s Boy’ at Vickerman’s Florist in Balaclava, not entirely accidental given the extended Wood family already had a long association with horticulture.  David’s father had run his own nursery in Deepdene and worked at the famous Nobelius Nursery, the Orangeries in NSW and planted vines for John Riddoch in the Coonawarra.

While David was working at Vickerman’s he met and befriended Fred Linton a young nurseryman delivering stock to the business. In 1932 David joined Fred to learn the skills of flower growing before taking the role of market man at the Vic Market as soon as he was old enough to get his drivers’ licence.  Dave manned stand 78 at the Peel St end of shed E from 5.00am four mornings each week for nearly 15 years and the business retained the stand until the wholesale market moved to Footscray in October 1969.

David Wood. Florist's boy with attitude.

Before the war Fred would grow anything that attracted a sale, things don’t change much.  Delphinium, Russell Lupins, Aquilegias, Pansies and Violets were grown along with their stock lines Poppies and Gum.  All of these were grown in beds except the Gum tips which were picked from the scrub that surrounded the nursery on the Scotsburn Estate at Huntingdale.  Herbs were added to the range and through their contacts at the market they started contract growing vegetable seedlings.  It was during this period that flower growers discovered that they could lift young seedlings, wrap them in paper and sell them bundled at the market.  Field grown Polyanthus and onions were still sold loose rooted until about ten years ago.  The practice of raising seed and pricking off into long wooden “seedling” trays evolved from here.

At the end of the Second World War, Dave was keen to try his hand at his own business and Fred was looking for a change, so in August 1945 the business was sold to David Wood.  Fred did not leave the industry so Dave changed the business name from Fred Linton, Nurseryman to Scotsburn Nurseries.  Fate smiled on the new business from the start, a large shipment of tomato seedlings bound for Shepparton was lost when the crop was destroyed by floods.  David had to supply the lot a second time, for a second payday.

In the early 60’s, Robert Wood joined his father in the family business.  As a boy Robert had prepared seedling trays with a layer of elephant manure collected from Wirth’s Circus and topping it up with ‘top soil’.  Top soil could be pretty much any old scrapings from the latest housing development.  In these days before the introduction of individual punnets nine dozen plants were pricked into the trays to be sold as 100 plants.  Most trays were also patched prior to dispatch to fill the gaps where plants had damped off.  A significant change to growing technology was needed to improve the efficiency and viability of this system.

Robert, his cousin Fred (FG Wood, Nurseryman later United Nurseries Melbourne), Maurie Wood (David’s brother, Woodlyn Nurseries) and many other Australian Nurserymen travelled to the Waite Institute, South Australia to learn about the UC System for Producing Healthy Container Grown Plants from Professor Kenneth Baker.  The UC system produced a revolution in the Australian Nursery Industry as growers scoured the country for second hand steam generators to pasteurize their soil, safer and more effective than the Methyl Bromide treatment they tried first.

There are at least 4 nurserymen in this photo of Wood brothers and cousins including Dave Wood (Scotsburn), Maurie Wood (Woodlyn Nurseries), Fred Wood (FG Wood Nurseryman) and Claude Wood, breeder of Pacific Giant Polyanthus.

Wood family brothers & cousins.

Scotsburn continued to prosper through this period of plenty in Australia.  Products continued to evolve with emphasis moving from cut flowers to the quick turn over seedlings and potted crops such as ferns and flowering Cyclamen.  G.J. Coles & Co. emerged as a key customer with multiple high turnover stores requiring daily deliveries.  Robert encouraged David to invest in skills which led to the employment of a number of Burnley College trained nurserymen including Rod Dawson (Braemar Park Nursery) who would manage the business after David retired. 

1967 brought a fierce drought and the introduction of very tight water restrictions.  Water restrictions are disastrous for seedling nurseries so Robert left the business to save a wage and took up a teaching position.  Although the industry quickly recovered from the ’67 drought Robert did not come back to the business for many years.

In 1972 David’s wife Glenda was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take her life five years later.  Dave was well known in the industry as a tough competitor but he showed his caring side when he retired from daily running of his business to spend more time with his wife.  They travelled and enjoyed the time they had together.  In Glenda’s last months they moved in with their daughter Janet and her family. 

Scotsburn was finding the competitive landscape very different by now but they retained their place as one of the state’s biggest seedling growers and purchased a site in Keysborough with plans for future growth.  However, among the emerging competitors were two powerhouse operators, Wall’s Nursery and Woodlyn Nurseries.  Dick Wall had started Wall’s Nursery in the 60’s, Peter & Graham Wood were taking over from their father Maurie at Woodlyn.  Dick and Peter were good mates and fierce competitors who led the industry though an exciting period of growth.  The subtleties of the manager of the business at Scotsburn not having final say over direction and investments did not help and Scotsburn lost market share to their chief rivals.

Glenda & Dave in New Zealand

Skip to 1983 and David’s daughter Jan and husband Robin Douglas sit their eldest son down and ask him a fateful question; “What will you do if you don’t pass your Year 12exams?”  Peter, up ‘til this point hadn’t given much consideration to his future thought “that course at Burnley looks OK, a bit of science, a bit of design and plenty of time outdoors”. He changed his University preference from Arts to Horticulture and enrolled at Burnley – which he loved.  During a lecture at Burnley Peter discovered that Scotsburn was a seedling nursery.  He also convinced a friend to visit Woodlyn Nursery at Five Ways in preference to travelling all the way to Sunshine Seedlings.  Peter’s friend lived in Cheltenham, Sunshine was in neighbouring Heatherton.  There was no stated plan to join the family business, not immediately any way.

Cameron Wood, Dave Wood & Peter Douglas A curious effect of Peter’s recently discovered enthusiasm for growing plants was a renewed level of interest within the family for the business.  Frustrated at Scotsburn’s slipping market share and demands for more investment David asked Robert to return in 1986.  In a turbulent period the manager left and Jan resigned her job as a school registrar to manage the Keysborough site.  Peter finished his course at Burnley and went to Japan for three months work experience growing Cymbidiums.  While away the original Scotsburn Avenue nursery site was sold to Sunshine Seedlings and Peter was asked to start work moving Scotsburn to Keysborough immediately.  Scotsburn Nurseries is now run by an ex-teacher, an ex-school registrar and an inexperienced ex-Burnley student.

The business was rebuilt on the back of some tough and painful decisions – the hardest being the retrenchment of over half the staff.  The essence of the change was to focus on one product, annual seedlings.  Within a year it was almost back to break-even followed by a bumpy ride to a prolonged period of growth and profitability.  Robert Wood retired to Beaufort in 1992, nearly worn out but satisfied that he had provided a platform for the family business to continue to develop.  Jan and Peter continued with the business and were soon joined by Jan’s husband Robin. Rob who had retired from his own building business was regularly called on for financial advice and found he quite liked the nursery industry.

A wall, or more accurately, a number of them were hit about five years ago and Scotsburn Nurseries found itself the victim of a seismic shift in the market. The international move by consumers away from bedding plants was intensified by the introduction of serious water restrictions for the first time in more than 20 years.  The company battled on through these difficulties and drew on their earlier experiences to, once again, re-focus the business.

“We have done five really hard years and have re-learnt what we do and who we are. In the late 80’s we focussed on a particular product.  I tried that again but times and tastes have changed.  Then we made all the same mistakes trying every opportunity that presented itself.  Now we have settled on focussing on a particular market. That’s working much better.  Now we try to find products for our market, not markets for our product” 

Scotsburn Nurseries has made the decision to devote itself to the independent garden centre market.  As Peter describes it; “I’m happier now with what we are growing and selling and who our customers are than I was even in our biggest days.  A good deal of our growth then was due as much to competitors leaving as the overall market diminished as it was to our own good work.  Now we have to be disciplined and not try everything but it means we can get much closer to our customers and tailor all our sales and marketing efforts.  We have also discovered that it allows the business to reflect who we are much more effectively.  We do a lot of work with Primary Schools, the Gould League’s Multicultural School Garden Scheme and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program.  The response from the school communities is fantastic, it does wonders for our team and hopefully encourages a new generation into the garden.”


Tel.  03 9798 7066                     Fax  03 9798 3121                           Free Fax  1800 635 849                      Email  scotsburn@scotsburn.biz


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