Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

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Tim Entwisle talks to Angela Catterns on 702 ABC Sydney — 6 May 2003

The multicultural garden

The divisive issue of whether you should plant native or exotic gardens was raised again in the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. I have strong views on this, which can be summarised as support for the ‘multicultural garden’.

  • The article by James Woodford was about new regulations being considered by the Blue Mountains City Council to limit the replacement of existing native vegetation with exotic garden plants. I need to say from the outset that I support this aim. However the reaction to these proposed regulations has brought up the arguments about whether gardeners have the right to plant what they like in their gardens, and the idea that planting Australian natives is intrinsically good for the environment – it isn’t!
  • Like much in life, the answer is in careful consideration of your own situation rather than dogmatic statements like ‘plant native’ or ‘I can plant what I like’ (Dr Tim Flannery in his 2002 Australia Day address, for example, made the glib pronouncement that ‘roses, lawns and plant trees are a blot on our landscape’.
  • Many gardens, like my own, include a mix of species from the local area, from wider New South Wales, some from tropical rainforests in northern Australia, and yet others from far-off countries such as China and North America.
  • There are good arguments for planting indigenous plants in our gardens if we wish to encourage local wildlife and to recreate the environment that existed before our particular housing development took root. BUT there are fewer arguments for planting species that happen to grow somewhere in Australia but are not native to our particular area. Put simply, in Sydney there is little reason other than national pride to plant a Western Australian eucalypt in preference to a species from say one our near Asian neighbours.
  • To take this a step further, if your garden is in an urbanised area and the plants you grow do not escape into any nearby bushland, do not require excessive water or dangerous pest control chemicals, you should feel comfortable planting whatever you like.
  • The main argument for planting indigenous plants would be to enjoy the associated wildlife that might be attracted to such an environment. That’s fine, but it’s a bit like a zoo rather than real conservation. The animals are separated from the rest of their habitat and many of their fellow animals and bugs — mostly we just plant shrubs and trees rather than annuals, herbs, fungi, algae and so on. And recreating a natural landscape with its fully biodiversity is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
  • If you plant Australian plants native from outside your area, you might attract some of the same animal species, or others, but this is even more zoo-like.
  • If we look at water conservation, some native Australian species are good, some are not. Native grasses acclimatised to the local area are likely to be better than the widely grown water-hogging northern hemisphere species. But Australian tropical rainforest gardens are likely to require more water than gardens that include drought-tolerant plants from South Africa or the Americas.
  • And a very important factor is that gardens have values other than conservation and natural history. They are part of our heritage, just like our house and other belongings. The vast majority of people enjoy their gardens, no matter where the plants once grew. Many even appreciate having plants from other countries, with their related stories of discovery or associations with lives elsewhere. This is a sincere and reasonable human desire and, I think, to be encouraged.
  • It is an important debate, because a simplistic call for gardens to be all-Australian risks alienating people who for whatever reason chose the multicultural garden, but also support genuine environmental initiatives.
  • The message is to think before you plant. In particular, consider the impact of your garden on the local and wider environment, and aim for a garden that is neutral to positive, but one that you like!




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