Meet the Maker: Cranbourne Gardens

When it comes to Australian flora, John Arnott is an expert. We caught up with him to chat about his dream job at Cranbourne Gardens and native Australian plants.

1. Where does your love of gardening come from?

This is a classic nurture and nature story. I grew up in Frankston on an old, large and unusually shaped block, which was planted with a diverse range of native and exotic trees, many approaching a hundred years in age — it was a bit like an arboretum. My high school was carved out of the bushland in Baxter which is just south of Frankston. So, I have always been surrounded by nature. Through things like vegetation surveys in my high school science classes, I gained an appreciation and understanding of the Australian bushland. This triggered a more academic interest in the natural world and plant life.

2. Step us through your career.

I am a complete product of public garden horticulture. In 1980, I started as an apprentice gardener at Melbourne Zoo [Elliott Avenue, Parkville] which was quite unremarkable at the time. It was a concrete jungle, environmentally baron with cages and bars. During the 20 years I worked there, I was lucky to be a part of the movement towards naturalistic enclosures and environmental enrichment which we still see today. Then I became director of the forth-oldest botanic gardens in Australia, Geelong Botanic Gardens where I am really proud of my contribution to the 21st Century Garden which sparked the rejuvenation of the wider gardens. In 2008, I moved to the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Cranbourne Gardens [Corner of Ballarto Road and Botanic Drive, Cranbourne] as Manager of Horticulture to complete the second phase of the creation of the Australian Garden. I have been working here ever since.

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Cranbourne Gardens, Cranbourne

3. We understand that you’ve received an accolade awarded for your work in horticulture. 

For my work in horticulture, I was awarded an Australian Plants Award by the Australian Plants Society in 2015, for my ongoing contribution to the knowledge of Australian plants in the public realm of zoos and botanic gardens. The Australian Plants Society presents two biennial awards for a professional and an amateur, and it was a real honour to receive it in the professional category.

4. What brought you to work at Cranbourne Gardens?

While I was at Melbourne Zoo, I had been involved in flora from all around the world, but natives have always been my preference and passion. The Australian Garden at Cranbourne Gardens is the largest botanic garden infrastructure project in Australia’s recent history. Since the 1990s, I had been looking from the outside in, so when my dream job as Manager of Horticulture at Cranbourne Gardens became available, I jumped on it, and I haven’t looked back. 

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Cranbourne Gardens, Cranbourne

5. Tell us about your role at Cranbourne Gardens.

I lead a team of 16 horticulturists, and they are a dedicated, hardworking and passionate group. It’s a real privilege providing direction and support to them. My role is a combination of managerial and curatorial work. As gardens are never really complete, I am involved in the ongoing planning and nurturing of this special landscape.

6. What do you like most about working here?

Our flora in Australia is remarkable and unique but is often taken for granted. My work at the Gardens provides the opportunity to inspire people to look at native plants differently and increase their popularity in urban gardens and landscapes. This is a fantastic position to be in and is a huge motivator for me. I hope to increase the understanding of native plants and change how native flora is valued and protected.

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Corymbia Summer Glory flower, Cranbourne Gardens

7. Tell us about the history of Cranbourne Gardens and its focus on native Australian flora.

Victoria has a long history of botanic gardens — by 1870 there were already 20 regional botanic gardens across Victoria while most other states only had one. The Gold Rush meant there were lots of new townships emerging and to demonstrate their sophistication, libraries, mechanic institutes and botanic gardens were built. These gardens were a cultural expression of the burgeoning communities and the wealth of the early Victorian towns.

The idea for Cranbourne Gardens initially emerged after World War Two when Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria wanted to increase the diversity of Australian plants in the collection. Unfortunately, the climate at Melbourne Gardens couldn’t support arid and semi-arid plants from central and western Australia. The site at Cranbourne was purchased in 1970, and the Australian Garden was completed in 2012. It has been a long but rewarding process from seed to establishment. 

8. We understand the story of water is woven into the landscape at Cranbourne Gardens, tell us a bit about this.

The story of water is used to capture the beauty and diversity of Australian flora and the landscapes they come from. The design team wanted visitors to experience a metaphorical journey that starts in the arid inland of Australia where the presence of water and vegetation is sparse and inconsistent. They achieved this through a series of 21 precincts. As visitors walk through each precinct, water increases in an implied or actual way to demonstrate the journey from our arid inland to the east coast of Australia.

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Cranbourne Gardens, Cranbourne

9. What’s your favourite spot in the gardens?

There are two distinct elements to the gardens: the precincts that are quite naturalistic, and the sections that are overtly about the culture of Australian plants. I don’t have a favourite spot, but I gravitate towards the areas that are inspired by nature. 

10. What’s your favourite story from your time here?

One story that I love is when our curator gave a talk about the Weird and Wonderful Garden that was being established, and mentioned the main structural elements were going to be Queensland Bottle trees. Someone in the audience came up at the end of the talk and told us that he had a huge Queensland Bottle tree which was knocking over his front porch and offered to donate it to us. We inspected the tree, dug it up, put in the back of the ute, drove it down the Hume Highway and ended up planting it in the Weird and Wonderful Garden. It’s a fully mature tree that we plucked straight out of someone’s garden and a really nice donation.

11. What does Cranbourne Gardens aim to offer visitors?

We want to tell the story of Australian flora and provide a positive experience of Australian plants in a beautifully designed landscape. We want visitors to see that there’s an Australian plant that’s analogue to any exotic plant that you want to grow in your garden, and it will have the same form, function and aesthetic.

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Cranbourne Gardens, Cranbourne

12. What should visitors expect when they visit Cranbourne Gardens?

There are picnic areas, a kiosk and the Boon Wurrung Cafe that serves food that utilises native ingredients. There’s also a lovely network of walking tracks through the conservation reserve where you might come across koalas, wombats, echidnas, bandicoots and wallabies. We have a very diverse range of visitors; I like to think of them as streakers, strollers or studiers. The streakers can spend an  hour in the Gardens and be completely satisfied. The strollers will spend half a day or good couple of hours in the Garden, breathe it all in and be immersed in the landscape. And the studiers come again and again, reading every label, wanting to understand everything about every plant.

13. Are there any new projects at the Gardens that you share with us?

We have a new project called Care for the Rare that spans beyond our Gardens into regional Victoria. We will be supporting regional botanic gardens across Victoria to establish collections of rare and threatened plants from their local areas. We’ll work with individual gardens on a curatorial and conservation collection plan for them. The plants will be cultivated and grown here at Cranbourne Gardens, then distributed to the regional centres. I’m really excited about the project. It’s all about outreach, capacity building and connecting the botanic gardens across Victoria.

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John Arnott and Mandy Thomson from Cranbourne Gardens

14. Do you have a favourite native plant?

I don’t have a specific favourite, but I do get a kick out of going into the bush and finding where plants that we grow here actually occur in nature. So that’s my favourite thing to do with Australian plants. The next plant I see in the bush is always my favourite.

15. Top picks in Cranbourne and Melbourne’s south:

Picnic Spot: There are two cracking picnic spots at Cranbourne Gardens, the Woodland and Stringybark picnic areas are really immersive spots in the bushland.
Nature walk: My wife and I moved to Melbourne’s bayside area, and we’re now regular dog walkers on the beach.
Cafe: Cafe Motto in Carrum is an active motorcycle workshop with a cafe out the front, and I love eating there.

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Cranbourne Gardens, Cranbourne

All information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication. 
All images in the story have been supplied by Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

This story has been produced in partnership with Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

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