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In Conversation with Convent Gardener Mal Jackson

We speak to our new Gardener Mal Jackson to find out a bit more about how he keeps our gardens beautiful and healthy, and the exciting plans he has for the future.

We speak to our new Gardener Mal Jackson to find out a bit more about the exciting plans he has for the future of the Convent gardens.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and where you were before?

I’m originally from the UK and completed my training in England, before relocating to Australia with my family. My wife is Australian but I was the one who was most keen to settle here. I’ve been a horticulturalist for about thirty years now, working in parks, gardens and sports grounds, including Victoria Gardens in Prahran, which is managed by the City of Stonnington. I’ve spent the past eighteen years maintaining and developing plant collections within the heritage-listed Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria – Melbourne (RBGVM). One of my career highlights at the RBG was taking on the role of Project Officer for the rebuild of Guilfoyle’s volcano. This long-neglected water reservoir was originally designed in 1876 by William Guilfoyle, whose influence can be seen in the design of the Convent gardens.

What drew you to join the Abbotsford Convent Foundation team?

While the Convent gardens are smaller than those at the RBG, they share a naturalistic style with curved pathways. Even from my first visit, the grounds felt very familiar to me. The way the Convent gardens are enclosed by hedges creates controlled views and surprise vistas from the perimeter path. It gives this sense of a snippet of time or a contained little world. In my previous role I moved around a lot, working in many different spaces. There is something really nice about being able to work with more independence and to be able to get to know a garden really well.

It is early days, but what is your favourite part of the Convent garden so far?

The main lawn and surrounding garden beds, particularly the view looking down the hill early in the morning. Walking down to the gardening shed, with the meadows and the bike path below – it is not a bad way to start the day!

Climate change is a real concern for gardeners everywhere. How are you and the team working to future-proof the Convent’s expansive heritage gardens?

Climate change brings new challenges in water management and plant selection. Seasons are becoming more intense. The heritage overlay here is interesting as you need to find a balance between preserving what came before and readying the gardens for a hotter future. Native and indigenous plants are adapted to survive, but many of the Convent’s significant plantings are exotic. They are actually the plants of my childhood, of my time in the UK. You wouldn’t choose to plant these in a modern Australian garden – some are even considered weeds – but they have historical value in this context. In the clay-rich soils at the Convent, picking the right plant for the right spot requires a lot of planning and research. While we are working hard to improve our storm water harvesting and storage, once established, plantings really need to stand up on their own without significant irrigation. Introducing warm-season grasses ensures that the grounds will look their best when they’re most in use. Not only does this save water in the long run, it also means the lawns are tough enough to withstand long hot days, summer festivals and just regular lunchtime lounging.

Last year’s Keep It Green: New Ground appeal raised funds for the reinvigoration of Mercator Grounds, one of the Convent’s most under-utilised green spaces at the north-eastern corner of the precinct. Tell us a bit about how you’re rolling out this important project this year, and some of the upcoming works we can expect to see to Mercator Grounds?

Last summer’s fundraising appeal provided some vital funds for additional infrastructure in Mercator Grounds, including two water tanks and a pump. Taps and valves for irrigation have also been installed, with the actual sprinklers not far away either. These improvements are well-timed ahead of summer and will help restore the lawn, which has struggled in recent years. We’ve also installed solar-powered lighting, and our arborists have removed excess foliage from the heritage trees along the perimeter. I’m now working closely with a local landscape designer to select and plant new drought-resistant plants for the garden beds and evergreen climbers for the fence-line. With the North Magdalen Laundry now open, this side of the Convent will see more visitors looking for a quiet space to take a break from performances and events. We’ve still got a bit of work to do, but I’m excited to collaborate with our landscape designer and arborists to really lift this green space in the coming months. So a big shout-out to everyone in our community who contributed to this fundraising appeal last summer – as it’s your donations that are making all of this work possible!

What else is in store for the gardens?

I’ll be hosting my first garden tours at Open Spaces Festival this coming weekend – 9 and 10 November. If you are a green thumb or just love to explore the great outdoors, be sure to come along and learn more about our plans for the future of the Convent’s grounds. I’m really looking forward to my first summer at the Convent and getting to know our team of passionate volunteers – it is terrific to have a close community of like-minded people around you, particularly as I have come from a much larger organisation (the RBG had 18 full-time gardeners!). While there are specific seasonal challenges ahead for us, protecting the Convent’s gardens and grounds is vital year-round, not just in the warmer months. I was thrilled to learn that each summer the ACF actively seeks community support via an annual ‘Keep it Green’ appeal – specifically focused on green initiatives – like the recent restorative works to Mercator Grounds.