Sydney Botanic Garden visit

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Quercus ilex at the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden

After my visit in March to the wonderful Hobart Botanic Garden, I realised it had been quite a while since I visited the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden. These gardens have been an important part of my life - and my parents' life before that. My mother grew up in the city and those gardens were her place to escape from apartment living. She often took us there when we were kids, and we delighted in the wonderful old trees and vast areas of lawn, and I have many memories of running up and down the pathways, shrieking with delight and playing hide and seek with my sisters.

The Tropical Garden helped to inspire my current garden

It was in the Botanic Garden in the late 1990s that I finally had the epiphany that completely changed my direction in gardening: when I took notice of what was growing brilliantly there - mainly warm-climate plants from South Africa, South and Central America, India and Asia - and realised these were what I should be using, not the cool-climate English-style perennials and shrubs I had been struggling to grow in my doomed cottage garden. I started putting in some of these plants and have never looked back.

So, last week, I found myself in the Sydney Botanic Garden again. Since I last was there, there have been a number of changes of direction for the garden. Development plans of the Art Gallery of NSW threatened a loss of significant area of the green space of the gardens (deemed 'empty space' by the developers!), and a concerted effort by supporters of the gardens has resulted in a number of changes to this proposal. As this city of ours grows ever bigger, our botanic garden is more and more precious to its inhabitants as an escape.

The Begonia Garden as it once was

Other changes have appeared in the appearance of the gardens themselves. New 'thematic plans' are being rolled out, with alterations to some of the existing gardens. Presumably this will be a good thing, but I was utterly dismayed to see that one of my most favourite areas of the gardens, the Begonia Garden, has been gutted. For more than 20 years, this area was tended weekly by a small band of knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers, headed by Begonia guru Peter Sharp. The garden was a sheer delight for visitors, both locals and from interstate and overseas, to see a wide variety of well-labelled Begonia species and cultivars showcased in a beautifully landscaped garden setting, with a diversity of shade-loving companions that complemented them. It was cultivated to an extremely high standard and was considered one of the most comprehensive outdoor collection of Begonia in the world.

A view of the Begonia Garden today

The hardworking volunteers were even acknowledged with a photograph of the group on a sign in the garden. That sign is now gone, as are the volunteers, whose services have been terminated. Many of the plants have been removed and not replaced - except by tracts of wood chips. The remaining Begonia plants have not been pruned or seemingly cared for; fallen fronds from the overhead tree ferns lie amongst the plants; and weeds abound. The garden has lost its soul. If there had been some new 'vision' for this part of the garden, it has certainly not been realised, in my view.

Sparse plantings in the Middle Gardens

Other nearby beds in the Middle Gardens also appear to have been stripped yet not replanted properly, and there are depressingly large areas of wood chip mulch spread throughout, with a few straggly, desultory-looking specimens shoved there in rows. I had a particular fondness for these parts of the garden, as it had been planted up with many members of the Acanthaceae family, not long after their discovery in the wild by intrepid plant hunters. More than 55 species from 25 genera were growing there by 1895, with more added in the early 20th century by director JH Maiden. The early popularity of Acanthaceae plants in Sydney (which have recently undergone a bit of a renaissance, as gardeners such as myself have realised how resilient and attractive these easy-to-grow plants are!) is an important part of our gardening history, and I do hope that these plants will be retained. The lack of care for plants seen in the Begonia Garden can be observed here, with weeds flourishing and deadheads languishing on the shrubs.

The future of plant labels?

Having seen the excellent labelling of plants in place in the Hobart Botanic Garden, I was disappointed to see that the new regime has not improved the rather patchy identification of plants in the Sydney gardens. It is very frustrating to see an interesting plant and be unable to identify it, detracting from the educational function of any botanic garden. I gather that in the future we are meant to use an app on our smart phones to find out 'virtual' information about the plants. Give me an 'actual' wooden or metal label any day!

The Calyx exhibition centre

Whilst there seemed to me to be quite a lot of bare spots, in other places, workers have been busy planting brightly hued massed annuals. There seemed to be literally thousands of Portulaca during my recent visit, and an abundance of dwarf, short-lived Pentas varieties. Yes, these mass plantings may elicit a momentary gasp of delight from a casual-passerby, but please don't let them become the main attraction! Horticulture is surely about more than flat slabs of unrelenting colour; and the cost of these annuals gives pause for thought. The new Calyx exhibition space was opened last year to great fanfare, and currently houses an exhibition of carnivorous plants. Thousands of potted plants adorn the green wall behind the display and are removed at the end of each exhibition - the wall is certainly impressive but one does shudder at the cost of buying and maintaining these temporary plants.

Fernery at the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden

I was relieved to see that most of the other Living Collections in the garden are still extant, to inspire gardeners with what can grow well in Sydney. The Tropical Garden is still as lush and attractive as ever, and still planted out like a garden rather than with serried rows or blocks of plants. The Oriental Garden is still looking good, and so many of the plants from China and other parts of Asia are so suitable for growing here. The Fernery remains a total delight: a cool oasis showing the diversity of ferns that will grow in our climate and how to combine them with other shade-loving plants, reminding us how precious shade is in our hot summers. The Succulent Garden, whilst not to everyone's taste, certainly has an atmosphere all of its own and contains an excellent collection of dramatic-looking plants that can survive hot, dry summers. The long Salvia border is intact, and shows how well these plants do in Sydney. The majestic trees throughout the Botanic Garden are still wonderful, creating structure and canopy for the gardens, and a feeling of permanence.

Plant sales at the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden

I was delighted that the nursery at the Gardens is still as interesting as ever. Run by volunteers, the nursery sells many of the plants seen in the garden, and has a great collection of salvias for sale and probably the widest array of Acanthaceae plants available in Sydney.

Like every garden, the Royal Botanic Gardens must and will change and evolve over time, as it has since its inception more than 200 years ago. I just hope that we don't lose some of the important links with our gardening past in the process! And please don't let any more of it be grabbed by developers!