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Managing Melbourne: An Interview with Clare Hart, Manager Horticulture, Melbourne Gardens

As part of our celebration of International Women’s Day, we sat down with Manager Horticulture, Melbourne Gardens Clare Hart. Clare is responsible for all the horticultural outcomes in the Melbourne Gardens, including managing a team of thirty-three dedicated horticulturists. Since beginning the role in 2018 she has quickly become a well-respected leader at the Melbourne Gardens, which is a testament to her dynamism, passion and indomitable work ethic. We were fortunate enough to carve out some time with Clare to discuss women in horticulture, the future and, of course, plants. 

What influenced you to become a horticulturist?

My interest in horticulture evolved from a respect for plants, I had this desire to engage with the natural world, I wanted to know the names of the trees on my street. I am also an extremely curious person and horticulture requires perpetual learning. Nothing ceases to amaze me, whether that be a tiny mushroom or a flower that hasn’t bloomed in five years. 

Can you tell me about some notable female horticulturists you admire?

Immediately one of my contemporaries and a horticulturist here are the Gardens comes to mind. Her name is Terry Smyth and she manages the southern China collection. She has been working at the Gardens for over 30 years and is a sophisticated horticulturist. If you are ever looking for an example of a beautifully curated and well-maintained garden, visit her collection. I also admire Olive Pink, she was based in Alice Springs and in 1956 ferociously lobbied for a piece of unoccupied land to be transformed into a flora reserve, which is now known as the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. She established the gardens as a home for arid and native plants to the region, she was a brave woman and a trailblazer through the landscape. 

A name that everyone should know is Essie Coffey, she was an indigenous woman whose work in the 1970s sought to teach aboriginal children how to survive off native plants in the bush. She isn’t a horticulturist in the prescriptive sense, however, the work she did in bringing her people back to the land was remarkable. 

I must mention my Grandma as well, she was a huge influence on me and had a strong connection to gardening. She was a bit of a bower bird, so she’d go around knocking on people’s doors, asking for a slip of something from the garden - usually they were fuchsias. 

What might surprise people about horticulture? 

Horticulture is about knowing a little about a lot. If you ever meet a horticulturist who tells you they know everything, they are lying [laughs]. It’s a broad knowledge and skill set, you can never know everything because conditions are constantly changing, whether that be through climate change or on a day to day basis. It is a knowledge base that can never be perfected. 

Do you have a favourite plant in the Gardens? 

Yes, my favourite plant is the Queensland Kauri Pine or Smooth-barked Kauri (Agathis robusta), which is a tree on the forest walk. 

How do you see the future for women in horticulture? 

Women have been fundamental to the way in which we approach horticulture, take pioneering landscape designer Edna Walling for instance. I feel confident that we will continue to see a greater number of women entering the field. It is fantastic to see women in horticulture advocating and supporting each other and I hope that I will be hearing more of their voices in leadership positions. I want to emphasise that we need to have a future for women in not just horticulture but also arboriculture – the management of trees. It is important that we have female voices who understand the interconnectedness of trees and the landscape. 

Why is it important that women are working in horticulture?

In every sphere equity is important, and as a discipline with a growing skillset, I think it is vital there is a balance between men and women working in horticulture. The industry is incredibly broad, covering media, natural resources, nursery management, arboriculture, landscape design – the list goes on. Given that horticulture covers such a large range it is crucial that multiple perspectives are heard. In a professional sense, horticulture is a developing, integral space that is becoming increasingly important as a result of climate change.

How would you describe your horticultural practice and attitude?

Horticulture permeates all aspects of my life, it is my work, my passion, and my past-time. It is what I engage with no matter where I am. Horticulture opens up a way of seeing, and that can’t be undone. 

What overlooked aspect regarding plants would you like to see as common knowledge?

At a bare minimum, everyone should know how photosynthesis works. It would surprise you the number of people who don’t know. An interest in plants should extend past more than just nourishing yourself. I believe that an understanding of how plants grow leads to an understanding of life itself. 

Do you have any tips for people looking to get into gardening? 

Walk around your local neighbourhood, and see what people are growing and whether it grows well. Libraries are also a great place to start, they usually stock the latest gardening magazines which will give you an idea of what’s in season and what you should be doing in your garden in relation to this. Start small, don’t overcomplicate things, grow some herbs.

Do you have a garden at home? What plants are in it?

I have quite a small garden. The front is dedicated to native and indigenous plants. I have a courtyard that features potted plants including a Wollemi Pine. I have four raised garden beds in the back which are dedicated to produce, as well as perennials to encourage insects. I have an excellent worm farm too. I have organized the garden so that larger plants are protecting smaller plants. I use alpine strawberries as a ground cover and parsley as a nursery for ladybirds. I also have a dwarf mulberry and pomegranate. 

Can you describe any highlights from your career at RBGV?

The team. The horticulturists and arboriculturists at the Gardens are incredibly dedicated and it’s a real privilege to be able to see what they are working on every day. It is a place where you can practice pure horticulture. They work hard with finesse, it’s a very winning combination.

Another highlight has been managing the Climate Change Alliance of Botanic Gardens. The alliance is an initiative founded by RBGV and now includes 50 international member gardens, all dedicated to working proactively against the global impact of climate change on botanic gardens. When I first arrived at the Gardens, they had just launched Fire Gardens, which featured large-scale fire-based art installations. It was an exciting way to start my job and a real highlight. Managing the horticultural outcomes when half of the Gardens were hosting fire sculptures was exhilarating.  

Do you have any future plans for your horticultural career?

I am looking forward to continuing to support the Climate Change Alliance of Botanic Gardens. This project proves that the possibilities for a greener world are endless. I would also love to get into radio or start a podcast, any medium you can enjoy whilst gardening seems like a good idea to me. 

As Manager Horticulture, Melbourne Gardens, Clare Hart is responsible for managing the horticultural outcomes for the Melbourne Gardens including managing a team of 33 horticultural staff. She is currently working towards the highly anticipated launch of two new gardens and the new Melbourne Gardens Master Plan 2020 - 20.

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