Vaucluse House: Maintaining a ‘living museum’

Vaucluse House and surrounds date back to the 1820s. (Photo by James Horan for Sydney Living Museums.)

Set in one of Sydney’s most beautiful waterfront locations, the historic Vaucluse House is forever preserved for the nation under the ‘Sydney Living Museums’ program. John Power reports.

OPERATOR: Vaucluse House
REPRESENTATIVE: Steve Goldsworthy, Horticulture Coordinator
LOCATION: Sydney, NSW
WEBSITE: https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/vaucluse-house

For almost 200 years Vaucluse House has been an unrivalled example of Sydney’s earliest colonial architecture and botanical style.

When William Charles Wentworth – a noted politician, barrister and explorer of the early 19th Century – and his wife Sarah purchased the property in 1827, it was a small cottage surrounded by scrublands and gardens covering most of the current suburb of Vaucluse. Over ensuing years the main building grew in size and grandeur, various outbuildings sprung up, the grounds were rationalised, and the gardens became renowned for their beauty and horticultural orderliness.

Today, more than a century after it was bequeathed to the nation as a museum, Vaucluse House is one of 12 significant properties owned and maintained by the state under the stewardship of Sydney Living Museums.

Seven of the 12 properties in the program feature gardens, which must be maintained and kept safe for public use; a twin requirement is that the properties be protected and replenished for the enjoyment of future generations. Vaucluse House, covering 9ha (almost 30 acres) of demarcated gardens and paddocks, is the largest property in the Sydney Living Museums suite of assets, and the hub of all outdoor maintenance activities.

A single horticultural team (six full-time, one part-time) maintains the seven properties with gardens – a challenging feat involving frequent inner-urban travel between properties, occasional haulage of shared equipment, and a diversity of skills applied to gardens of different size and character.

Steve Goldsworthy, Horticultural Coordinator, joined the horticultural team in 2010 and took over as leader in 2017.

The maintenance of Vaucluse and its sister properties, Steve concedes, is always a two-pronged exercise involving, on the one hand, modern horticultural methodologies and expertise, and, on the other hand, traditional gardening practices based on respect for heritage values. Indeed, Steve adds, part of his official charter is to retain as much of Vaucluse House’s original appearance and charm as possible. Examples of the property’s faithfulness to its historical roots include the preservation of low-hanging, ungroomed branches; an absence of reticulated irrigation; as well as the use of Queensland Blue turf on the main lawns rather than more contemporary varieties that might be easier to maintain.

‘GARDENESQUE’ DESIGN

View of Vaucluse House, pleasure garden and fountain. (Photo by James Horan for Sydney Living Museums.)

The layout of Vaucluse House and its surrounding acreage has changed little over the years.

“In front of the house is a fountain garden lawn and pond,” Steve explained, “and around that we have garden beds which alternate between annuals and perennials. Further down is the Lone Pine lawn – one of the two main lawns on the property – which has a single Cook Pine (Araucaria columnaris) in the middle of it; we have a lot of wedding ceremonies there.”

Below the Lone Pine lawn, he continued, is the Pleasure Garden, which features the second main lawn area. The design of the Pleasure Garden has stayed the same since the Wentworth era, in keeping with the ‘Gardenesque’ design philosophy made famous by John Lowdon.

“The idea of ‘Gardensque’ is that each individual plant is given its own space, just separated from the plant beside it, unlike a cottage garden where everything grows together,” Steve said. “This separation of plants highlights the individuality of each plant, and we still abide by that [planting technique] today. Also, the pathways through the property are not straight grid-patterned, so when you are walking through you can’t see what’s around the corner.”

The remaining acreage is devoted to paddocks, which serve as a reminder that early settlement estates were functional living spaces blending manicured gardens with practical farmland.

‘TRIED AND TRUE’ EQUIPMENT

Rustic arch at VaThe rustic archway is a throwback to early 19th Century garden ornamentation. (Photo by Jody Pachniuk for Sydney Living Museums.)

The unique historical attributes of Vaucluse House and the other gardens in the Living Museums program have influenced grounds management activities and priorities.

While all major outdoor power equipment is housed and maintained at Vaucluse House, some items need to be transported periodically to other smaller gardens, as mentioned, for seasonal or minor tasks. Nomadic machinery, of course, must be extremely reliable to avoid the frustration of breakdown far away from the primary workshop at Vaucluse House, hence the preference for a fleet of ‘tried and true’ gear. Steve keeps Kubota and John Deere mowers to carry out the bulk of mowing duties. “We have a tractor with a 45hp Kubota 72” slasher on the back – it’s fairly old (12–15 years), but it does the job we need,” he said. 

“The other Kubota we have is a zero turn with 54” deck. We also have a 48” John Deere with a catcher for our two highly presented lawns.”

This equipment, Steve said, is suited to the local terrain and is unaffected by access issues to various parts of the property. Two self-propelled Honda push mowers, he added, are perfectly suited to tighter spaces.

Being loyal to a fleet of well used, professional equipment helps reduce downtime while maximising efficiency. Machinery is only replaced ‘as required’, which means entrenched items such as the Kubota tractor are extremely well understood by the team and easy to service. Ride-on mowers are typically replaced on a five-year rotation. 

As far as new technology is concerned, experimentation for its own sake, Steve believes, only creates a needlessly messy spare parts inventory. 

One exception, however, relates to battery-powered equipment, which has been a welcome addition to the traditional fleet in recent years. Examples include a STIHL electric mower and whipper snipper. The secret to adopting new equipment, Steve said, is to ensure each new item is fit for purpose.

“Our battery-operated machinery is acceptable for what we are asking it to do,” he said. “For instance, we have a couple of small lawns in properties in Sydney City that may be around 100m2 in area – they are highly frequented by members of the public, so unless we are there at 5am it’s very difficult to use a petrol mower. The electric equipment ticks the boxes with the efficiencies they can do, the quietness, and no pollution either. We are very happy with them but we are not asking them to replace what a self-propelled Honda mower can do.” 

In practice, Steve has found that his battery-powered equipment is operational for up to 40 minutes per charge, with recharging taking about 15–20 minutes.

Other important items of equipment for day-to-day operations include a Red Roo mulcher for on-site green waste recycling, as well as a Kanga front end loader used constantly to maintain gravel pathways. A new Kanga recently replaced a 12-year-old predecessor.

Steve said machinery is serviced regularly off-site, while minor repairs are made on site. “Basic servicing can be done here with a mobile mechanic.”

Vaucluse House has extensive stables. (Photo by Jody Pachniuk for Sydney Living Museums.)

THE OLD WAYS

Alongside this fleet of professional equipment, Steve said, are more ‘manual’ items, such as extensive arrays of garden hoses with handheld trigger nozzles.

“All our [Living Museums] properties are heritage or historic, so we do not have any reticulated irrigation,” he said. “When we are not on water restrictions we can use sprinklers and hoses, which are manually moved around. In drought conditions we have a hose and trigger nozzle on the end of it… and we stand and water!”

This kind of plant-specific watering requires significant horticultural expertise, as labour, water and time are valuable commodities. While most established trees are able to fend for themselves, new-generation plants need more regular attention.

Specimens of note at Vaucluse House include a Bhutan magnolia (white flowers), a Giant Grandiflora Magnolia, as well as numerous succulents, agave, and yuccas.

“We also have a liquidambar, camphor laurel, some really large Moreton Bay Figs, and four or five large cedar trees,” Steve said. “Vaucluse House itself is surrounded by a curtilage of about 3ha of remnant eucalyptus and dry woodland plants, including banksias.”

Vaucluse House is faithful to its classification as a ‘Living Museum’, no doubt aided by the traditional approach to horticultural management espoused by Steve and his team. By keeping a ‘hands on’ approach to land and garden maintenance, Steve has helped the property to retain its historic spirit and calmness, which in turn entices visitors to appreciate that a bygone era can have contemporary relevance.

Looking across the lawn to Vaucluse House. Vaucluse House is one of a dozen properties maintained by Sydney Living Museums. (Photo by James Horan for Sydney Living Museums.)