Royston’s grandfather fled Russia in 1908 and came to live in Redfern in inner Sydney. Australians were suspicious of foreigners and Royston’s father, Peter, found it difficult holding down a job as a “Makaroff”. At 21, Peter changed his surname to Petrie and found work in Brisbane repairing radios. Peter married and had two sons. Royston was born on 30 October 1933, and was raised by his father till his death at 35.
On the weekends Royston picked native seed, riding his bicycle from Epping to Pymble to climb trees for Harry Kershaw who set up Australia’s first tree-seed supplier.
Royston was 12 when his father died, and he and his brother were placed in the Church of England Boys Home in Carlingford, Sydney. Royston developed his interest in growing things in the Home’s large vegetable garden, and he joined the Junior Farmers at Carlingford Rural School.
Anderson’s nursery was right across the road from the Boys Home, and Royston was given a job at the nursery. At Anderson’s, Royston was responsible for wrapping strawberry plants or rooted carnation cuttings for mail orders, and for transferring pansies into waxed cardboard pots for sale in Anderson’s George St store.
When he left school in late-1948, Royston got a job with United Seed Growers. The government set up USG with shareholders from all the large Australian seed companies except Yates. USG grew a variety of lines in trials grounds and selected the superior lines for growing in larger acreages. USG produced seed and distributed it among the seed houses for sale to the veggie growers involved in the war effort.
Eric Rumsey was the chairman of the USG board. While he undertook crop inspections in the country, Royston grew tomatoes on five acres of land at Anderson’s nursery. Eric and Royston taste-tested the tomatoes together, a job that put Royston off tomatoes for life.
USG disbanded after the post-war recovery, and in 1953 Royston moved to Rumsey’s Seeds. Rumsey’s had a store in Parramatta and a nursery in Telopea where Royston grew-on four-inch stock and tinned bare-rooted fruit trees grown elsewhere.
In 1956, Royston moved to Rumsey’s seed cleaning operation. He worked on large machines that could clean a couple of tons of seed per hour and that took half a day to set up. He worked there for four years. For the next nine years, Royston worked in Rumsey’s shop in Church St Parramatta, cleaning seed and making up customer orders. He measured the orders using the seed scoops that ranged in size from a pinhead to a half-egg. Rumsey’s supplied a chart that matched the seed type and weight with the scoop.
In 1958, Royston moved with Rumsey’s to Northmead. There he supervised seed cleaning, managed the seed storage “dry room”, and processed flower and vegetable seeds. He also built on his formal education, doing a seed-testing course with the Department of Agriculture.
In 1965 Yates acquired Rumsey’s Seeds and Eric and Tony Rumsey bought nine acres and an old house in Galston and set up a new seed business called New World Seeds. Royston worked with the Rumseys setting up the new business, training staff, and establishing a seed cleaning plant. He worked six or seven days a week to help it succeed.
In 1976, Royston and his wife, Kay, decided to take the experience gained at New World to start their own business. The Rumseys gave Royston their blessing and Royston Petrie Seeds Pty Ltd was born on a little leased property in Dural.
The business went well and in two and half years, Royston Petrie bought five acres in Kenthurst. By now Royston Petrie Seeds was branching into more and more native trees for the revegetation market. The business supplied the seed for the redevelopment of the Port Botany container terminal, the Menai tip, and expressways right around the country.
Royston Petrie Seeds collected the weed, Asparagus sprengeri, from Avalon and Palm Beach and exported the seed to California. They harvested Kaffir Plum in Concord Park where it was considered a pest and exported it to Switzerland where it was a popular indoor plant. They exported eucalypt seed to South Africa for reafforestation and to Japan to feed koalas.
In 2002, Royston and Kay opted for a tree change. They sold the Kenthurst property and bought 30 acres 9km from Mudgee and a warehouse in an industrial estate in Mudgee. Royston had to adjust to the new climate with winter temperatures falling below zero. While the winters in Mudgee were cold, the summers were long and there are very few storms back then. In 2010 Daniel and Rowena expanded the production area taking on a further 70 acres with the acquisition of Augustine’s.
Royston has shared his vast seed knowledge with his daughter Rowena and his son-in-law Daniel. Sadly, Royston passed away in September 2007 but his love of seed lives on in the next generations of this seedy family.
Going full circle, in 2017, Rowena and Daniel took on the seed stock from the Rumsey’s family business, Jarit Seeds, adding pumpkin, onion and melon hybrids to the already huge range on offer.