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In Conversation with Abbotsford Convent Head Gardener Simon Taylor

Dating back to 1902, the Abbotsford Convent’s Heritage Gardens tell a fascinating story of the site’s past, which was first created by nuns bringing plants from around the world to the site. We speak to our Head Gardener Simon Taylor ahead of his Historic Gardens Special Tour as part of the Australian Heritage Festival next week, about the rich history of the gardens and the continuing effort to beautify them.

What do we know about the site’s vegetation pre-colonisation?

The earliest reference I’ve found is vegetation mapping and a survey by James Fleming in 1803. He camped with the Wurundjeri Wurrung people below Ýarra Falls (Dight’s Falls) and Fleming sowed vegetable seeds there. The predominant vegetation was open forest of Eucalyptus viminalis (Manna Gum) Euc. camaldulensis (River Red Gum) Euc. meliodora (Yellow Box) and Euc. leucoxylon (Yellow Gum).

What can the Convent’s grounds and gardens tell us about the site’s history that its buildings can’t?

The written history of the Convent includes nuns from around the world. The gardens are the most obvious link, with many of the convent’s rarest plants being brought over from New Zealand – Vitex lucens (Puriri Tree), Corynocarpus laevigatus (Karaka Treeand the controversially ubiquitous  Coprossma repens (Mirror Plant) hedges – and from South Africa – Dombeya tiliacea (Cape Wedding Bush) and  Podocarpus falcatus (Yellow Wood).

Do you know what state the garden was in prior to it being taken over by the Abbotsford Convent Foundation more than 10 years ago?

When the Abbotsford Convent Foundation took possession of the precinct in 2004, the gardens were totally overgrown with weeds and blackberries. A team of dedicated volunteers and a Green Corp program helped to transform the gardens, which date back to 1902.

You’ve been Head Gardener for two years now. What significant changes have been made to the site since then?

We have returned to a style of gardening more akin to that employed by the early nuns. All green waste is recycled on site and we no longer use herbicides, pesticides or fungicides on the gardens. We are currently self-sufficient with harvested storm water (AKA ‘Holy Water ‘) for the Heritage Gardens and plan to extend this philosophy across the whole site.

What kinds of restrictions are placed on you as the Head Gardener for a heritage site? Is making changes to heritage gardens as tricky as heritage buildings?

Indeed, and sometimes more so. The emphemeral nature of gardening and the diminishing regard and understanding of horticultural techniques can pose challenges. Common to all heritage gardens is the bind that they were often developed in a time when labour was cheap, and many gardeners were employed. The convent has at times employed up to seven gardeners and our challenge is to enhance the property with less than one full-time! Obviously, this is only possible with the passionate dedication of many volunteer gardeners whom we are constantly indebted to.

What are the other challenges of managing a site more than six hectares in size? It must take a lot of water to keep the place so green.

The roof catchment to green space ratio is such that we can potentially make the property self-sufficient by harvesting our ‘Holy water’. This is significant because we can not afford the potential water bill to water the gardens from mains water. Currently the catchment from the Convent building alone supplies more 90 per cent of the water required to irrigate the Heritage Gardens. This was only made possible by the generous donations of an anonymous benefactor.

As the garden of a once working Convent, the site would’ve been used for harvestable fruits, vegetables and grains. Are there any intentions to bring more fruits and vegetables on site again?

We have begun to plant more heritage fruit trees to compliment those remaining specimens in the garden. The great flood of the 1930s totally devastated the lower orchards, stripping it bare. We are also emphasizing the once extensive range of herbs that populated the property for their culinary, medicinal and perfumery function.

What’s your favourite part of the garden and what’s your favourite time of year to be here?

As a gardener and landscape architect I adore the entire landscape – the Heritage Gardens for their continuation of offering an idyllic retreat, the surrounding escarpment of the Yarra ridges for their unique outlook and setting, and the somewhat neglected corners of our little haven for the opportunity and growth potential they inspire.

Seasonal preference is not a gardener’s lot. Often what we do on the coldest dreariest winters day has repercussions for the following spring. Or as experience has taught me, what you don’t do on those inclement seasons is an opportunity lost that can often only be rectified 12 months later. I do however adore the breaking of dawn for its timelessness and dim light that stimulates the designers eye without the harshness of distracting detail. It is then, accompanied by a chorus of bird calls and little else that one can imagine what might one day be.