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Working with Botanical Gardens

I'd like to start this article by first reflecting on the depth of my relationship with Botanic Gardens in particular the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

Every year or two, I find the occasion arises where this botanic garden (or other state or regional Botanic Gardens) ask for advice regarding my area of expertise, sources of succulent plant material or supplying directly and contract growing for their needs.

The reverse is also true in that I regularly, (at least several times a year), visit the Melbourne Botanic  Gardens for a whole range of reasons, primarily to take a relaxing hour or two enjoying all the botanical wonders that change seasonally, often focusing more so on cacti and succulents and native plants.
Less obvious but possibly more importantly, are the thousands of photos I have taken of anything that captures my imagination of which there is always plenty: people, plants, animals, insects, city skyline.
Apart from these, a considerable amount of time is also spent at the gardens for inspiration on projects such as my latest book production ‘Australian Succulent Plants'.

At various stages of this book's production, drafts were shown to and shaped by Australia's Herbaria's most senior botanists who often gave invaluable information freely. Their vast restricted library of books and other scientific documents were also made available to me (by appointment only).

In return I arranged free copies of the book to be sent to all botanists Australia wide who contributed, and gave exclusive retail selling rights to all Australian botanic gardens shops (for the first twelve months and a similar arrangement is still ongoing).

So there is considerable ‘give and take'.

On a more personal level, my wife Michele and I had our first date in these gardens and so consequently also married there. The Cactus and Succulent Society of Australia  of which I am president has also had their annual Christmas party there.

The point of my discussions so far is to give you an idea of at least some of the many ways these gardens have had an influence in my life and to now draw your attention to a call for help from the garden's administration. Especially as a direct result of years of drought.
The normal practise of watering freely and comprehensively has had to stop. Policy and action in recent years has increasingly leaned towards reducing tap water use.
On a bright side, for me anyway, has been the regular increase and use of waterwise (often succulent) plants in replacing the more ‘water guzzling' plants that were there prior.

Don't get me wrong, I have always enjoyed diversity and beauty in all biology and always have time to smell the roses, Daphne and Jasmine and sometimes spend as much time in the palm forest as in the cactus garden section. It's just that succulent or semi-succulent plants that are not spiny have become more widespread in their use around the gardens to the point where cacti and succulents are generally considered among the most dominant plant group in the gardens. And while this augers very well for me and my business it has not necessarily been in everybody else's best interests.
The plant range overall has suffered or been greatly reduced as a consequence. The most classic and glaring example is where the staff have mostly if not totally, eliminated the use of floral annuals in prominent bedding displays.
Years ago floral annuals were an intrinsic part of ‘showing off' and were positioned near the numerous entrances to the Gardens. While these were very demanding of both water and labour, clearly this type of gardening reflects our traditional European style, and wisely the management have changed with the times and climate more to reflect an ‘appropriate' Botanic Gardens.
Yet the Gardens history and the European influences in the form of annual flower beds possibly need not have been devalued or eliminated, from all of the ten or more former display areas which had them, but rather have had them reduced in total number to at least one or two (token examples).

A grand display of flowering marigolds are very cheerful, as are Iceland poppies and petunias to name a few, all in one garden, perhaps rotating seasonally. A second garden bed could have more waterwise annuals and signs for the two comparing work and water inputs. A spin off would be the educational benefits.
This second garden bed could use succulent annuals in rotation e.g. Portulaca grandiflora hybrids are already well utilised around the world for this. While these cultivars are a great summer-flowering succulent, they match perfectly with the other classic succulent used in winter/spring annual displays, Dorotheanthus bellidiformis (Livingstone Daisy). Both of these succulent annuals are a great example where less chemical and water use can be shown to the public yet still with sweeps of great floral colour.

  • The opportunity from this idea can be extended further to even incorporate our own native annual succulents of which there are many. As far back as 1953 trials by the Cactus and Succulent Society of Australia  and the Botanic Gardens showed interest and some promise for the genus Calandrinia being used in gardens. Yet from then until now this was not pursued. Surely the timing is right for renewed interest and re assessment of native succulents and their potential in the garden.
  • But of course I have to stay focused, as the botanic gardens staff and administration may be too heavily restricted by staff numbers, water availability and more importantly funding to pay for the high standards we all assume or expect of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. (Reputed to be one of the finest botanical gardens in the world, and deservedly so, up until now).

Aside from my own ideas and interest in encouraging waterwise succulent plant use in the Botanic Gardens, especially native species, the Botanic Gardens staff and management in Melbourne seem to be in great need of funding - mostly for water management issues.
If you wish to know more or want to get involved, they are desperately seeking public funding. As someone who cares about the garden you can help by donating to a Foundation they have set up for this - The Royal Botanic Gardens Foundation Victoria, email: or their website 

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