Jimmy Turner, the man who has been responsible for horticulture at the Sydney Botanic Garden for the past 18 months speaks in a Texan accent on fast forward. You can’t catch all the jokes, but you can’t miss the passion. The speed of Turner’s delivery is matched by the speed with which he has tackled change in the gardens.
“This is a 200 year–old garden,” he says. “It needed a bit of a nip and tuck and a face lift.” The evidence of the surgery is right in front of us as we sit in the Gardens cafe. Fifteen palms that squeezed together to hem in the café have been moved. The bed is now silver, ruby and green alcanteras in eye-popping plenty. They make a great show, but from Turner’s point of view what’s just as important is that they are low enough to reveal the gardens rising toward Macquarie Street. “Open up the sight-lines, remove the over-planting, that’s all I’m doing,” he says, adding that he has been reading the journal of former RBG director Charles Moore who described just the same kind of work a century ago. “The job hasn’t changed at all!”
I’m not much of a fan of cosmetic surgery, but I’m loving what Turner has already managed in the Gardens. His approach hasn’t been without controversy. Some garden staff and some of the army of volunteers that drive fund-raising and other garden services, have been alarmed at the changes, but Turner is implacable. And he insists that if the gardens are imagined as a cake he hasn’t even taken out a slice, simply removed the birthday candles and re-piped the icing. In fact the birthday candles are going back on next year when the Gardens celebrates its bicentenary. By then Turner’s re-decorating will see new views towards the harbour and through the Gardens; a lotus pond cleaned of eels and featuring a display of lotus varieties; a sparkling Tank Stream by the café; fewer cliveas, and many more flowers.
New plantings are noticeable already. For Anzac Day a Victorian bedding scheme was reinstituted on the Band Lawn with an Anzac Star marked out in alternathera. Around the Choragic Monument the island beds were planted in two colours to reference the regimental badges of the Anzac battalions in which Gardens staff fought in World War I. Soon the Anzac Star will be changed to celebrate the bicentenary of the Gardens.
The Pioneer Garden, which is on the site of the Garden Palace that burned down in 1882, has also been replanted in Victorian bedding style, with burgundy alcanteras punctuating ribbons of lobelia, primula and ageratum. It’s the sort of planting you hardly ever see any more. “I want a sign here that says don’t try this at home,” laughs Turner. “It’s intensive, high-input gardening, but people should be able to come to the Gardens and see the story of gardening.” Keeping in mind that the story of gardening today is small-scale, he also wants to institute some pots, planted up to thrill and inspire. As well as a home for history, culture, science, horticulture and aesthetics, Turner promises take-home inspiration for the home gardener. If you haven’t visited for a while, go and see the work in progress.