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A Century in the Making: The Story of the Arid Garden

On your visit to the new Arid Garden at Melbourne Gardens, you'll discover a remarkable collection of arid plants. From towering columnar cacti reminiscent of spaghetti western landscapes, to small and jewel-like specimens boasting colourful whorls of short-lived blooms, the new cacti and succulent garden is a feast for the eyes and the place to be this summer. Designed by leading landscape architect and designer Andrew Laidlaw, the remarkable new Arid Garden was over 100 years in the making. 

The story began in 1908 when 12-year-old Ralph Fields brought home a wagonload of arid plant cuttings after convincing his father to take him to Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s Melbourne Gardens to meet the horticultural team. This marked the start of one of the world's most impressive arid plant collections and ignited Ralph's passion for cacti which later saw him buy a share in a South American cacti-collecting expedition by Harry Blossfeld in the 1930s.   

Ralph Field invested financially, and regular shipments of cacti were made to him over the course of the expedition forming the remarkable Field collection which Ralph passed on to his son Robert in the 1980s.  Upon Robert's retirement from farming, his arid plants needed a new home, and Melbourne Gardens was the perfect fit. The already existing Arid Garden at Melbourne Gardens was in poor shape, and 80% of the columnar cacti and succulents it held were damaged or destroyed by vandals in 2013, some of which were rare in the wild.  

The Field collection was the gift of a lifetime, and for Robert, the handing over of his and his father's lifetime's work was not only an emotional task but also a complex and delicate one. The horticultural team made regular trips to Robert's property to carefully transport the prickly specimens to the nursery at Melbourne Gardens before rehoming them in the Arid Garden. 

Shifting large and prickly cacti from Robert’s property to the Gardens Nursery, and from the Nursery to the Arid Garden was no easy feat! The taller columnar cacti needed to be boxed up in timber and foam, gently lowered to the ground and then rolled into position, which the team managed to pull off with no damage to life or limb, both Plantae and Animalia! The cacti and succulents are now right at home on site, in beds specially designed to showcase their extraordinary shape and form. The rest of the plants in the Arid Garden were generously donated by other succulent and cacti collectors, including the entire collection of the late Robert Stevenson, former President of the Cacti and Succulent Society of Australia. 

A generous monetary donation by Mrs Joan Darling helped the new Arid Garden come to life, and we can't thank Joan Darling, Ralph and Robert Fields, Robert Stevenson and other generous donors enough for what they've allowed us to achieve in this space. We’re proud to manage this magnificent collection, proud of the Gardens staff who worked tirelessly to design, create and plant the garden, and can't wait for you to experience it. 

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