The Chairman's Letter

Published 7 June 2019

1. Thank you for the faith

Welcome everybody, to this, our first public event for The Australian School of Gardening, our launch of The School’s open programmes for garden lovers.

I am deeply grateful to all of you for coming, for your financial and moral support. I thank Oxley College for both their support and their generosity for making its impressive campus available to us. To my School colleagues, Ian Carroll, Head Gardener; Graham Fletcher, Head of School and Deb Ingrey, our Manager, my thanks for making The School possible. I have more to thank later – for now, lets enjoy the day together.

2. How this all started

Jane and I live at Oldbury, an 1820’s Georgian-style farmhouse on a farm just 15 kilometres from here. Some years ago, Hume Coal decided that it wanted to explore the land we live on, prior to undermining it for coal. I objected.

In arguing the issue with Hume Coal, it said that it would bring many new jobs to the district, and what was I offering? I thought the Hume Coal argument a nonsense, as mining jobs were more likely to go to Wollongong than here – but the challenge was fair. Where were the jobs?

I looked around for anything like a vision for the Southern Highlands, what it might become. There are some statements from the local Council, and from some other local bodies, but I could not find anything substantial. So, I gathered some people together to look at where energy was being poured into a future for the region, e.g. food, wine, tourism, equestrianism, health, education, arts, agriculture, aged care – and gardens and horticulture.

Gardens and horticulture came out strongly, so I decided to pursue this. It has not been a fast-paced pursuit, life can and does get in the way, but here we are at a public launch of The Australian School of Gardening.

It is something of an act of faith to believe that we will create jobs through what we do at The School. I believe that we will. Whatever happens with jobs, we will certainly highlight the distinctive contribution that the Southern Highlands makes to gardens and horticulture in Australia. Most importantly, we will get to share the joy of gardening.

3. What the school will be, and will not be

The School will be a centre of excellence for education on gardening, based in the Southern Highlands, developed here, with an Australian vision. It will become a substantial addition to the local community, a community resource. While we are at an early stage, we have firm plans on the educational programmes that we want to run. These programmes will be for professional gardeners, for garden enthusiasts, and for each and everyone who loves gardens. What we will do is designed to complement, not compete with, what already exists. For example:

• We are not planning to offer tertiary horticulture or related qualifications, but we will give accreditation to gardeners who take our courses.

• At this stage, we are not looking at our own bricks and mortar to house our programmes, we will rely on using those of others.

• We want to work alongside other existing organisations, from garden clubs through to professional institutions including Australia’s wide range of Botanic Gardens.

The programmes that we will run are being developed by Graham Fletcher, our Head of School and a leading educator in horticulture, landscape architecture and design, and gardening, in Australia. Graham will tell you about our plans in the second session.

4. What these programmes will look like

Graham will tell you more, but essentially the programmes will meet two distinct purposes.

The first purpose – and I quote Graham – “… is to provide ongoing quality education and a formal scheme of continuing professional development for gardeners to ensure traditional skills and knowledge are retained, and to provide education about new innovations, techniques, tools and ideas”. These programmes will be directed to the professional and the aspirational gardener.

The second purpose is to share the passion for gardens widely. To take the knowledge of gardens and gardening – design, history, the arts, science, health, botany, horticulture, climate, sense of place – and make it available to you, in a form that is informative, entertaining, engaging and inspiring.

There is great inherent joy in beautiful gardens, they speak to us, they delight the eye and sustain the soul. The journey we are on is to share deep-seated knowledge of what makes beautiful gardens, and what beautiful gardens do for us. Todays programme is our first example.

5. Importance of getting the quality of our programmes right

We are determined that each of our programmes be of a high standard. Quality is more important than speed. We need to make sure that we get everything that we do as right as we can.

6. Status and self funding aspiration

We are a not-for-profit, a registered charity, a company limited by guarantee, tax-exempt. We expect that we will soon have the capacity to give a tax deduction for gifts. Our business model for The School is that it be self-funding from fees generated by the programmes that we will run, subscriptions and memberships while recognising that our founders need to do the heavy lifting in the short term.  

7. Your support is invaluable

Your support is invaluable, both your generosity in buying tickets for this event – and we well understand that this is not a cheap ticket – and your moral support. This support goes a long way to sustain the belief that what The School aspires to do is both worthwhile, and achievable.

Start ups need money, but they also need belief. A great tale of what is possible was told by Phil Knight in his book, ‘Shoe Dog’. If a competent middle distance runner from an outpost like Portland, Oregon, can build a global business starting with no money and some running shoes made in Japan, then we should be able to build a centre of excellence for education on gardening here in the Highlands – we don’t need to build Nike.

8. We have made a start

You will all appreciate that it takes a great deal of energy and time to get something like The School off the ground. This is a long-term project we need to build at a sustainable pace. It has taken time to build the infrastructure on which to base our programmes. We have run some of our programmes; five one day events for Head Gardeners in 2018 and 2019, a number of events for an invited Garden Owners and Friends support group, which culminated in a two day trip of four fabulous gardens on the South Coast of NSW, brilliantly led by Trisha Dixon whom many of you will know. And now, our first public event, to share our passion for gardens.

9. In building, relationships matter

In building, relationships matter. We will build The School and its programmes alongside others. I have mentioned in passing a loyal group of Garden Owners and Friends, key supporters. Another key relationship is with the Southern Highlands Botanic Gardens. SHBG’s vision is to develop a world-class cool climate botanic garden here in the Southern Highlands. No small task, and it is taking time, but the community involvement is impressive, and the aspiration perfect.

If SHBG is able to complete its Botanic Gardens and Visitor Centre – an outstanding project with a price tag of $30 million – we will have the ideal home for The School in the long term. In the short-term, SHBG is running an appeal to build an Education Centre, which would house some of our programmes perfectly. For now, we co-operate closely under a Memorandum of Understanding, and with the shared aim that our School will provide the educational programmes that SHBG wants to see. We are also in conversation with the Royal Botanic Gardens in NSW, our aim being to provide educational programmes that would draw its support. More of that later from Graham.

10. Now, to the day

So, now to the day. Sharing passion for gardens. The joy of being in beautiful gardens, literally or in our imagination. Stimulating or meditative, we can immerse ourselves in the world of gardens. The Japanese have a term, Shinrin-Yoku, which translates as ‘Forest Bathing’. We have the luxury and space to bathe in our gardens.

The pleasure is all the greater if our experience of gardens is enriched by knowledge and insights that experts have. Our presenters today (Kate Cullity, Michael Bates and Myles Baldwin) are going to bring their deep-seated knowledge and insights to us. To introduce them, and to be our MC for the day, is the master of presentation of knowledge and expertise with intelligence, wisdom and charm, one of my two favourite scientists, doyen of Radio National’s Science Show, one of Australian’s living national treasures, Robyn Williams.