Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria – Melbourne: heritage in the making

Now 173 years old, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria – Melbourne is a living, growing oasis with a significant history and dynamic future. John Power explores the horticultural activities underpinning this world-famous treasure.

Visitors to Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens are invariably awestruck by the scale, voluptuousness and landscaping complexity of the 39 ha property, which is just 10 minutes’ walk southeast of Melbourne’s city centre. The State Government of Victoria is the owner of the gardens, which, alongside sister gardens in suburban Cranbourne, are managed by Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

Surrounded by stately wrought iron fencing, and buffeted from busy St Kilda Road by expansive parklands, the Melbourne Gardens contain an immensity of exotic and local flora, including specimens of the world’s most majestic trees in varying states of maturity.

Part of the historic gardens’ appeal rests in its undulating landscape, which provides horticulturists and grounds personnel with both opportunities and challenges. Undulations define the zonal nature of the property, with orientation, gradient, drainage courses, as well as prevailing flora all affecting the characteristics of different parts of the gardens. The complex interactions between zones, as well as the interdependent behaviours of plants within them, are the responsibility of an expert team of horticulturists, arborists, grounds personnel and landscape designers. These experts, including Head Horticulturist Clare Hart, Head Arborist Will Jones, and Head Landscape Designer Andrew Laidlaw, are not only entrusted with the protection of existing plants, but they are also charged with selecting and caring for future generations of healthy specimens that will withstand the impacts of a changing climate. Underpinning these responsibilities, of course, is a stipulation that the Gardens provide a safe and amenable environment for the 2.4 million annual visitors!

STIHL: OFFICIAL SUPPLIER

According to Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria Director and Chief Executive Tim Entwisle, day-to-day management of the Melbourne gardens requires an appreciation of the heritage of the property… with one eye always focused on future requirements.

The management process includes a number of strategies and partnerships designed to meet best practice. For example, STIHL has agreed to supply Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria with a broad range of handheld outdoor power equipment , including battery-powered products, to satisfy the gardens’ strict performance and environmental criteria.

“Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is a premium brand, and our experts in horticulture and arboriculture rigorously test all equipment we use, looking particularly at quality, sustainability and safety,” Mr Entwisle said.

“We are excited to partner with STIHL as a solid alignment between two highly trusted brands. Not only will Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria [both Melbourne and Cranbourne sites] have access to high-quality power tools across all our horticultural activities, but STIHL shares our commitment to public amenity and safety in two of the world’s most beautiful botanic gardens.”

The main STIHL products used are chainsaws, grass trimmers and leaf blowers. “The products are reliable, strong and easy to use,” Mr Entwisle said. “A good fit with our botanic gardens, where our focus is always for the safety of visitors, and the long-term care of our living landscapes and collections.”

TREE CARE

Unsurprisingly, the upkeep of the Melbourne Gardens’ 8,000 different trees is an exceedingly specialised task requiring year-round commitment. All staff are engaged in continuing education to ensure that they are kept up to date on all modern arboriculture principles and practices. The management of the landscape has two priorities: minimising the residual risk of trees and tree parts to the visiting public, and ensuring the ongoing long-term health and vigour of the Gardens’ specimens. 

“The Melbourne Gardens’ trees are maintained in ‘zones’, taking 18 months to cycle through the complete schedule,” Mr Entwisle explained. “Each zone is audited by a qualified arborist, who visually inspects each tree for defects, decay, canopy failure potential, pruning requirements, root plate failure potential, etc. Horticulturalists also submit work requests based on observations made while curating their areas.”

These works, he added, are then prioritised, grouped into climbing and non-climbing jobs, and then completed by the arboriculture crew. Climbing works are completed by safely ascending the tree using a rope and harness, and then using either a top-handled chainsaw or handsaw. Non-climbing works can be completed using a ground saw, power pole saw or handsaw.

LONG-TERM VISIONS

Every practice has an effect on the future of the Gardens. Therefore, managers have undertaken world-first initiatives to ensure future works are strategised and planned carefully. For example, in a bid to augment long-term sustainable practices, workers are making a transition to battery-powered OPE.

“Also, over the last twenty years the Melbourne Gardens have seen many significant new projects, including The Ian Potter Foundation Children’s Garden, Guilfoyle’s Volcano, Long Island Redevelopment and Working Wetlands, all carefully guided by a Master Plan,” Mr Entwisle said. “A new Master Plan for Melbourne Gardens is about to be released, including many more exciting new projects but also a commitment to care for this heritage garden”.

More recently, the Melbourne Gardens hosted 13 international botanical organisations for the world-first Climate Change Summit. This summit aimed to develop an alliance of organisations to work together to share knowledge and expertise to protect botanic gardens and rare species.

In the wake of these initiatives, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria publicly released its Landscape Succession Strategy (LSS) in 2016, which will guide the management of Melbourne Gardens through climatic change into the next century.

By formalising its long-term strategies, and with the aid of selected private-sector partners, the gardens should be well placed to satisfy the needs of local and international visitors into the next century and beyond.