University of Melbourne’s system garden
Tim Uebergang was an illustrator and animator when he started working at The University of Melbourne between jobs. Now working as the curator of the 160 year old System Garden at the Parkville campus, Mr Uebergang spoke with Lauren Butler about the joys and challenges of maintaining the 160 year old garden, and the outdoor power equipment assisting operations.
The University of Melbourne’s historic System Garden was constructed in 1856 and inspired by Cambridge University’s own systematic beds. Tim Uebergang has worked at The University of Melbourne for 13 years, with 10 of those years dedicated to curation and maintenance of the System Garden. While he didn’t originally intend to work in horticulture and garden maintenance long-term, Mr Uebergang is now clearly passionate about and invested in the success of the garden.
“My background is as an illustrator and an animator, so I came to this industry between working on jobs in animation. I would have long periods off and so I went and worked for a friend who was a landscape gardener and I eventually took up some study in horticulture and got the job at The University of Melbourne. I was offered a lot of opportunities – I just grew from there,” he said.
The System Garden and its maintenance requirements are quite specific due to the fact that the garden includes an arrangement of plants which showcase the evolution of plants’.
“It’s an evolutionary narrative. It was neglected for about 20 years, and when I started I met the dean of the School of Botany. She told me I could pursue turning the System Garden into a teaching arena and study subjects in botany. I started with plant systematics and evolution and went from there.”
For Mr Uebergang, studying botany with the university was insightful, allowing him to see the garden’s requirements first-hand. Due to specific maintenance requirements, Mr Uebergang works full time assisted by a part time staff member one to two days a week. He said that staff employed by The University of Melbourne to work on the gardens are horticulturally trained or skilled, and that further maintenance work is currently contracted to Citywide.
“My job involves plant selection, garden design, managing contractors who come into the garden, maintaining plant inventories and general maintenance work. Beyond the System Garden I assist the general campus with planting design and developing maintenance strategies,” Mr Uebergang said.
Sharing the load
According to Mr Uebergang, jobs such as lawn mowing, hedging and cleaning of hard surfaces are largely completed by Citywide contractors and overseen by grounds staff. With 1.5 acres of System Garden to keep in pristine condition, he is appreciative of the contracted maintenance services.
“Citywide do all of the Parkville campus, which includes our System Garden. They do all the lawn maintenance, weed control, edging and general conditioning. If areas need returfing they do all that for us. They’ll pull weeds in paving, make sure doorways are clear – all the general purpose stuff. When I first started here we did all that ourselves, but contracting Citywide allows us to focus more on the professional horticultural work,” Mr Uebergang explained.
While a lot of maintenance is contracted, The University of Melbourne employees are fully equipped to complete any necessary maintenance themselves. Some of this is done on a regular basis, while other jobs arise as a result of storm damage or in the lead up to university events.
“At the moment, we do some hedge trimming ourselves and we do storm damage, tree removals and other small stuff. We use a lot of chainsaws, blowers and so on. Having fantastic power equipment, like well-maintained chainsaws, means that if there is storm damage, we can fix it. Last year we had an elm fall across a road way and that stopped a whole lot of trucks being able to deliver to the food court areas. We got the chainsaws out and pulled the tree apart,” Mr Uebergang said.
One size fits all
While the System Garden requires a range of equipment for its maintenance, Mr Uebergang said that one brand covers all the university’s small equipment needs.
“We only have Stihl equipment. We have five chainsaws that range from the smaller 020s to the larger ones which are the 066s. We have a few blowers, as well as a hedge trimmer – all that stuff is Stihl.”
With a Stihl dealer less than a block from The University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, Mr Uebergang said that the quality of equipment and servicing, as well as the handy location, all play a part in the decision to opt for Stihl equipment.
“We buy equipment through the local Stihl store, but we also get all our stuff maintained there. We get all our chainsaws sharpened and serviced. That’s fantastic, because you’re not driving out of the city or anything, it’s really handy. They give us good deals on equipment if we ever need to buy it as well,” he said.
When it comes to larger equipment, the university uses John Deer Gators for a range of every day garden requirements.
“They’re one of our most used and most valuable pieces of equipment. We have two of them, and sometimes it’s a fight to get them in the morning. They’re fantastic because they’ll do so many things for us – we chose the Gators because they are quite a tough little vehicle and we do stuff like heavy rock work in them, or we might use them for mulching. They are good to get around in small areas – roadways, laneways, in between bollards and things like that,” Mr Uebergang said.
It’s not easy being green
With a number of protected trees, specific growing requirements and environmental considerations to take into account, maintenance of the System Garden is no easy task for Mr Uebergang and his team.
“There are an amazing amount of challenges. The whole grounds of the university are 165 years old, so we have a lot of really mature trees. When it comes to new buildings going up and old ones coming down – which seems to be every year – we have to manage the gardens and the grounds around these precincts and make sure that the correct protection is given,” he said.
With five trees at The University of Melbourne on the National Trust Heritage Register and up to 60 trees on Victoria’s Significant Tree Register, taking care whilst maintaining grounds around trees is especially important. Furthermore, the foot traffic around the university brings its own set of challenges.
“It is a challenge in a large space to make sure that it’s all kept in a good way. The University of Melbourne has seven campuses and Parkville is the biggest one. There are 45,000 students and over 8,000 staff, so it’s like a small city within a city really – there are all those public safety elements that you have to be aware of. Of those 45,000 students, 28 per cent are international students so we have to be aware of potential language barriers when we section off areas,” he said.
Seasons also produce trials, with maintenance altering in various conditions. Staff also have to be considerate of semester exams as well as peak periods and events throughout the year.
“Everything changes seasonally – seasonally as in the seasons, but seasonally in university terms as well. For instance, in August we have an open day. The lead up to open day is one of our busiest times because the campus is open to the broader public. We’re mulching and pruning, we like to have things that are flowering and so on. That can be a challenge.”
Hard work pays off
While curating and maintaining the System Garden is hard work, Mr Uebergang said that it is also rewarding, with great opportunities.
“I enjoy quite a lot about my job. I have had the opportunity to travel to Cambridge University about five years ago, and I did some research on their system garden because that inspired ours. I travelled to Columbia last year and presented at a conference,” he said.
More than anything, he enjoys keeping the garden looking and growing well for the benefit of others.
“I really enjoy introducing the public to the garden, inspiring kids and working with the academic community in a way that the garden can be useful for teaching. I just enjoy people enjoying the garden.”
The System Garden is open to the public from 9am -5pm and tours can be arranged by appointment. To see more amazing images of the garden go to www.instagram.com/system_garden/.