Mount Annan Botanic Garden

Mount Annan Botanic Garden is totally unlike any botanic garden I’ve visited. Sited in a suburban area at least a few kilometers from the nearest public transport, it is spread out across a sprawling 440 hectares (almost 1100 acres) and is designed for people to have a drive through experience. According to Caz McCallum, Assistant Director of the Botanic Garden Trust, the garden was intentionally spread out for the original director, as a strategy to discourage the city from reclaiming pieces of the land. As a result, the four main theme gardens alternate with tracts of meadow, bush and arboreta.

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I spent the morning meeting with Dan Bishop, Manager of Horticulture, Helen Byfield-Fleming, Coordinator of the MacArthur Center for Sustainable Living and Allen Powell, Community Education Officer and Caz MacCallum. According to Dan, “Mount Annan has never had a permaculture garden. We do sustainable gardening instead. Sustainable is different than organics, but we do use chemicals… sometimes chemicals are part of creating a sustainable environment.” As in the case of Chilean needle grass, he explains, without using chemicals, you have no chance of controlling the weed. “We don’t have the staff or resources to hand pick.”

Before becoming a botanic garden, the land served as a dairy farm, then horse land, and as a result, Mount Annan inherited a huge weed seed bank. “We have finite resources and staff and we’re trying to present to the public, which presents a challenge,” adds Caz.

Messages of sustainability, however appear throughout Mount Annan. A recently converted bottlebrush garden now focuses on backyard sustainability: the Big Idea Garden. This garden presents accessible cultivars that can be purchased in the local nursery, information about caring for the home garden, sustainable water use, recycling, as well as interpretation about beneficial interactions and microbes.

One display shows Lilly Pilly (Syzygium, a native Australian plant) being used for topiary, demonstrating you don’t need buxus to do the job. Numerous examples show recycling and reuse of materials, from benches and walkways to a worm farm made from a repurposed bathtub. Chris Cole, the principle horticulturist for the Big Idea Garden was taking a course at Permaculture Research Institute when I visited Mount Annan. It will be interesting to see what new ideas he brings back to Mount Annan.

Mount Annan Botanic Garden is also home to the Sydney research facilities, including a tissue culture laboratory, seed drying and storage rooms, growth cabinets, climate controlled glasshouses and several shade houses, all focused on the conservation and horticulture of Australian plants, particularly threatened species and species with economic potential.

I also visited Macarthur Centre for Sustainable Living (MCSL) which, while an independent organization, sits on 5 acres of Mount Annan land and partners with Mount Annan on aspects of administration and education. MCSL aspires to showcase sustainable living practices including waste-water management, recycling, green building and green energy techniques to the public, as well as organic gardening. I spoke with Tao Tribels who has been a volunteer tour guide since 2003, and Ruth Bolomey, another volunteer who designs the food gardens and works them two days per week.  Ruth hails from Chili where she grew up on a farm.

The gardens are lush, productive and beautiful, chock full of flowers, herbs, and vegetables and showcase companion-planted beds. I asked Ruth what her take on permaculture is. “I’m more flexible than permaculture. If you go in the forest you see there are still water and food requirements, it’s not just anything growing anywhere. It doesn’t work when it’s all mixed. You really need to organize your plantings.”

Permaculture has earned a reputation in some circles as planting more or less randomly, while many permaculture sources advocate for thoughtful planting combinations to promote most effective use of resources and promote healthy guilds. Ruth completed an introduction course in permaculture but did not pursue the full permaculture design course because, she said, it seemed to apply more to big farms, which was not relevant to her needs.

Allen Powell, community education officer, explains Mount Annan’s school education program which begins at the pre-k level and continues up through technical college. “We need to hit every teacher individually. Every grade has sustainability and Aboriginal Culture in the curriculum, which is new this year. We have the best Aboriginal program in the Sydney area, as well great sustainability programs, but the botanic garden competes with environmental education centers.”

“Botanic gardens have been amazingly slow at picking up this whole sustainability thing. Because it’s our future, our kids future, if we do the right thing now and lock in these things as habits when they’re young…….”

Mount Annan is actively encouraging cyclists to visit the garden, for example by offering a significantly reduced admittance fee. The main mission of Mount Annan Botanic Garden is to inspire conservation and appreciation of plants, in particular, Australian plants. “We also have a responsibility to increase participation and visitation, and as part of our state mandate, recreation as well. Cyclists generally consider botanic gardens to be boring places, where they’re not made particularly welcome. It’s a user group we haven’t reached yet,” says Dan. Development of a 7 k mountain biking trail – the Enduro Trail – through the botanic garden is another way of meeting these objectives.

Caz McCallum adds: “It’s hard to engage with people as a botanic garden because there are so many other distractions. We want to educate, but we also want to focus on recreation. There has been quite a lot of nearby development of big houses on small blocks, leaving very little land left to enjoy. They come here to recreate. It’s good for them and good for us, because over time they might get something more out of it.”

“Most people come for recreation, and bring their eskies (coolers) and barbecues,” continues Dan. “The garden is wallpaper for their experience. While most people visit other botanic gardens for recreation as well, there tends to be an expectation that they will have a ‘botanic garden experience’ as well during their visit, which is typically not the case here. We have to work a little harder than most botanic gardens in this regard.  The siting of the new entrance to the botanic gardens will be through the conservation area first, which will help bring the focus to conservation in more direct way: it will be the first thing people see rather than the last.”

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