Botanic Gardens of Adelaide

“As a botanic garden, do you reflect a community’s thinking, or push them forward?”

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Established in 1855, the Adelaide Botanic Gardens was an early example – possibly the first – of planting Eucalyptus in a garden setting.  By doing so, natural growth of a subtropical ecosystem was facilitated, speeding the successive forest growth that would have taken much longer otherwise.  This example is one of many highlighted during group tours and school visits that inform the public about the role of biodiversity in an ecosystem – and the hand humans can have in promoting  biodiversity in an ecosystem.

I met with Steve Meredith, Schools Education Manager, who toured me around the gardens and pointed out some exciting new initiatives.  One is a new water works project in which wetlands are featured in on-site water filtration, along with cleaning and reuse of storm water, interactive creek walking, and under water views. Another project under construction at the time of my visit is a new garden focused on health, in which one side is devoted to medicinal plants while the other emphasizes preventative health through psychological, spiritual and contemplative well-being.  Adelaide Botanic Gardens is also drawing up plans for an organic kitchen garden, which will include permaculture.

Rooted in a constructivist pedagogical approach, the main objectives of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens school programs are to give students a “wow” factor, make an impression, and send them off in hope.  “By extending the learning through kids’ hypotheses, we can shift people’s attitudes even more,” adds Steve.

The garden’s focus on education has made projects possible that would not have been otherwise- such as the notable Conservatory, built in 1989 as a Bicentennial Project. At the time there was controversy within the community surrounding the intensive resources that would be required to maintain a rainforest conservatory, especially in the throes of drought that had hit South Australia especially hard. When the educational goals of the conservatory were communicated to the public, making it clear that the conservatory was to be a living laboratory rather than a display garden, the community shifted, and became much more accepting. “How can we expect the next generation to be stewards of the rainforest if they’ve never had any experience with it? It’s about immersion. If students feel the real, the learning will be more powerful.  It’s about education, not display.”

Dynamic conversation about kitchen gardens and permaculture ensued when we met up with Katrina Nitschke, Manager of Community Education and Public Programs, Sarena Williams, Coordinator of the Kitchen Garden Initiative,  and Marilyn Kuchel, Project Assistant with the Sustainable Landscape Initiative, for coffee.

Katrina: “With permaculture, there’s a perception that it’s the whole thing or not at all.  There’s a real tension there.  How can we make value judgments that extend beyond what we’re doing at the garden?”

“Botanic gardens see themselves as socially inclusive.  However, if you want to be inclusive, you have to be unafraid of making a statement. As a botanic garden, “do you reflect a community’s thinking, or push them forward?”

A paper just published in April 2010, ‘Redefining the role of botanic gardens: towards a new social purpose,’ addresses this conundrum. Based on research conducted by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester and commissioned by BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International, the authors site a lack of leadership within the botanic garden sector with respect to promoting environmental stewardship:

We have the situation where botanic gardens could be leaders in environmental sustainability, looking at ways of reducing our impact on the environment and
reversing the loss of biodiversity, but there is no impetus from within the sector to ‘lead the way’. (p. 102) go to article

Marilyn: “There is a disconnect because we have our botanic garden, which is a scientific institution.  The community has ownership of the title of permaculture and what the issues within permaculture are.   We don’t pretend to be experts in permaculture.”

However Adelaide Botanic Gardens does aspire to be a central hub for kitchen gardening, and kitchen gardening resources within the community.  In other words, they hope their new demonstration kitchen garden will act as a connector of sorts.  The garden, divided into sections, will include permaculture, inclusion gardening, and a multiplicity of activities suited to different learning modes.  A project worth watching as it unfolds.

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