Tuesday, 1 October 2013

From the ashes of a rubbish tip in the nation's food bowl, a botanic garden


This isn't a post of pretty pictures and posing plants. You have to use your imagination, and share the enthusiasm of a small group of Sheppartonians. It's about the transformation of a tip into a botanic garden.

Shepparton is one of the few cities in Victoria without a botanic garden and until recently one of the few without even aspirations* of one. They did build a multicultural park to celebrate the diversity of people living in the region but through neglect and circumstance that no longer exists.

The 23 hectare tip, just out of Kialla on the edge of the Greater City of Shepparton, was closed in 1994 and rehabilitated to create a dirt-bike track. The giant mound of rubbish, then and now one of the highest peaks in the region, was capped in clay to stop the methane escaping.

While the bike track was popular it was destroying the mound and threatened to expose the methane-ridden underbelly. So in 2011, with the support of Mayor Jenny Houlihan, it was agreed the site would become Shepparton's first botanic garden.


The plants will come from all over Australia but the design reflects local concerns. Shepparton is city with many migrants as well as a strong connection to its Aboriginal heritage. There will be a Refugee Garden, a Migrant Garden, an Indigenous Landscape and, fittingly for this land of fruit and fruit-canneries (I worked for a while at Ardmona during a university break), an Orchard. All of these will use native Australian plants to tell the story (e.g. the Orchard will be of fruit-bearing Australian trees such as the quandong).


In a land as flat as the Goulburn Valley, the mound becomes the centre piece of the garden. Apart from a communications tower in town, this is probably the only place in Greater Shepparton where you can see the nearby Strathbogie Ranges. A sealed path to the top of the monolith is symbolic of the investment in this site and a commitment to doing this right.


The Terrace below the viewing platform is the first area to be planted, with Indigenous food plants. Interpretation will follow, once funding can be secured. Always funding. The Council is contributing $50,000 over the next few years but the vision is bigger than than. The Friends of the Australian Botanic Gardens Shepparton are busy applying for grants and partnering with schools and community groups for extra labour.

While the reclaimed mound of rubbish will be the centre-piece of the botanic garden, the River Red Gum strewn flood plain will be part of the story. There they can restore the natural vegetation but also supplement it with wetland plants from elsewhere in Australia.


The plant collections are eclectic, as they should be in a botanic garden (where else can you indulge in your plant passions in this way). The plants of the four local bioregions are an obvious choice, but they will be joined by wattles, peas, a selection of rare and threatened plants, Thomasia, native succulents and showy grevilleas.

Funding willing, the next garden to be created will be the Indigenous Weaving Garden, featuring a series of five giant woven baskets, fences and other structure built from recycled materials and a gathering space for the local Indigenous Weaving Group. An icon of late-colonial Australia, the Hills Hoist, will be erected to display the creations. Even before work starts on the garden you can see some weaving creeping into this soil retention wall.


The Goulburn Valley is described, at least by locals, as the food bowl of Australia, and a quarter of Victoria's agricultural production comes from this region. That agriculture includes fruit, animals grazing on pasture and these days a plenty of canola it seems. Really it's all about plants, just like a botanic garden.


Notes: Lynda and I visited the city and garden on the weekend, warmly hosted by the Friends of the Australian Botanic Gardens Shepparton (FABGS). In this picture taken at the top of the mound you can see (from left to right) David Chew (FABGS Vice-President), Mike, Karen Kilgour (Secretary of Greater Shepparton City Council Section 86 Special Committee, the group charged by Council to create the botanic garden), Ray Freeman and Lorinda Freeman (FABGS President).

*To be fair, there were some aspirations prior to 1886 when 50 hectares were reserved on the banks of the Goulburn for a botanic garden, albeit never transpiring, and the four hectare Queen's Park in the centre of Shepparton (between Welsford St and the Goulburn Valley Highway) has been sometimes referred to as a botanic garden despite never really developing beyond a municipal park.

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