Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

On October 8, I met with Dorothy Dhaeze, Acting Education Coordinator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, who toured me around the gardens with extra attention towards the children’s and kitchen garden and other features that speak to sustainability and education.

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While not practicing or educating about permaculture, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne does a fair bit of environmental education.  Botanic garden education serves all grade levels from pre-k on up, including a toxicology course for tertiary (college level) vet students.  In addition, the botanic garden offers professional development courses to teachers in topics such as no-dig gardening, a concept often practiced in permaculture gardens.  “We have learned to ask teachers when they book whether they have a school garden, and most do.  And most of those are food gardens.”

The Kitchen Garden is part of the Children’s Garden, designed with raised beds and some fruit and nut trees.  It’s packed into a fairly modest sized area but packs a pretty big punch of color and crop.  While tidy and well-organized, this garden demonstrates process as well as product:  there are several propagation trays around, and beds that have recently been cleared.  Dorothy explains that children are invited to do a hands-on activity in the garden as part of the Kitchen Garden school programs, whether planting or harvesting, weeding or mulching.  There’s also a water tank with a sign explaining why it’s important to capture rain water, and a compost turning bin right in the middle of the garden.

A pond in the children’s area is used to run a mini-beast class, with nets and microscopes and hands-on activity. The spores from the underside of the water fern ‘Nadoo’ was used by the Aboriginal people for food, and John King, the sole survivor of the Burke & Wills Expedition, lived with the help of Aboriginals and by eating these spores.

Do the programs explicitly address sustainability issues?  “It depends on the program:  Some programs are plant biology, like ‘Plant Works’, and most programs you do something hands on, like planting or propagating, and in doing so, we talk about maintenance.  Water is always a big focus and we talk about how they’re going to water the plants without using tap water, so mulching, collecting rain water, and selecting plants that don’t need a lot of water are all discussed.”

One of Dorothy’s favorite classes is ‘Changing perspectives, changing landscapes,’ in which they look at historical perspectives, Aboriginal heritage, and different philosophical approaches over time.

The same philanthropist who funded the children’s garden also provides a bus for under-resourced schools, so everyone can participate.

Another exciting program the botanic garden runs is through their endangered and rare plants collections.  School groups visit the collections then propagate some of the species with the guidance of horticulture staff, and then reintroduce these seedlings to their native habitat.

Guilfoyle’s Volcano showcases innovative ways  to harvest and recycle storm water, including use of biofilters, as well as featuring low water use plants.  The volcano is part of a larger water management system that is in development, and though there’s not much interpretation now, there will be more to come.

The rainforest walk has changed over time into the ‘forest’ walk, as the rainforest plants were unable to cope with the lack of water that has been a pervasive situation over the past decade.  This is one of the ways the botanic garden has adjusted practices to align more closely with resource conservation.

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