In good hands

A week with the Sydney Living Museums Gardens team shows historic garden conservation at its most hands-on.

It’s 7am on the first Monday of April, and at the Gardens team headquarters – a complex of sheds, lunchroom and greenhouse behind the stables at Vaucluse House – a light autumn drizzle is about to turn to torrential rain.

Despite the early hour and the inclement weather, the goats and chickens have already been fed, and Valeriu Pintilie and Leigh Saeemadarae, the team’s two newest recruits, have taken the ute around the perimeter of the estate to empty the bins and check the grounds for weekend damage.

The team of six, led by Horticultural Coordinator Todd Stark, care for almost all SLM gardens – from the humble, corrugated iron-fenced backyards at Susannah Place to the pleasure grounds at Vaucluse House; Meroogal, at Nowra, is tended by local gardener Tony Boland.

 

Photograph of two men in the pleasure garden at Vaucluse House

Leigh Saeemadarae and Valeriu Pintilie remove fallen palm fronds from the pleasure garden at Vaucluse House. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

All six are qualified horticulturists with diverse backgrounds in gardening. Romanian-born Valeriu began his career in the soft fruit orchards of Kent and the Isle of Wight’s vast hydroponic greenhouses, while Steve Goldsworthy, six years in the job, earned his horticultural stripes over two decades in Humpty Doo – a tiny town, just south of Darwin, whose lifeblood is its pastureland and mango plantations. ‘I don’t like being cooped up’, he says, elbow-deep in a wheelbarrow full of potting mix, a carefully calibrated blend of peat moss, vermiculite, perlite and slow-release fertilisers.

Although Todd lists everyday concerns such as water, weeds and pests, for him, the most challenging part of the job is simply scale – the size and geographical spread of the properties. Mondays at Vaucluse are one of few constants in the team’s routine, which is often dictated by the weather, seasons and other uncontrollable factors. Today’s rain will only add to the tasks for the week. When it really pours, the team spends several days fixing the channels carved by water through the gravel paths and sandy soil. ‘I did this driveway and that one there on Friday’, says Steve Halliday. ‘They didn’t last a week.’

 

Photograph of a horticulturist watering plants in the garden at Vaucluse House

Valeriu Pintilie waters newly repotted plants at the Garden team headquarters at Vaucluse House. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of gumboots in the garden shed at Vaucluse House

Gumboots are an essential part of the gardener’s kit, along with a good set of secateurs, a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of leather gloves. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of gardeners hats hanging below a whiteboard

Caring for Sydney Living Museums’ gardens is a logistical challenge managed by horticultural coordinator Todd Stark. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Meet the gardens team

Find out more about SLM's horticulturists.

More about our gardens


 

Ghosts of gardens past

Compared to lush, rain-sodden Vaucluse House, Rouse Hill House & Farm, a dry hillside on the Old Windsor Road some 50 kilometres to the north-west, might as well be a different planet. Blasted by brutally hot winds in the summer, on winter mornings it’s frosty enough for the gardeners to huddle around a log fire for their ‘mornos’. On this particular Tuesday the cows and bunyas in the lower paddocks peep through the fog, a real pea souper, as the team readies their equipment. Soon the din of four-stroke engines and horsepower drowns out the bellbirds. Valeriu manoeuvres the all-terrain mower expertly around a cotoneaster and a pile of rusting farm machinery.

The Gardens team responds to input from property curators and heritage staff about the presentation and care of each garden to preserve its unique character. At Rouse Hill, it’s startling to see how gardening in a heritage context differs from gardening at home, or even in a botanic garden or public park. In this timeworn garden, it means, counterintuitively, doing as little as possible. Starved of nutrients and moisture, a citrus tree with a single, blemished fruit is failing, conspicuously, to thrive. But it hangs on.

It’s often a fine balancing act between curatorial principles, horticultural practice and efficiency. The bougainvillea planted against a rustic wall should look relaxed rather than manicured, but leave it too long between prunings and the woody stems and vicious thorns become nearly unmanageable. Working around the fragile brickwork of the 200-year-old dish drains adds hours to the already time-consuming task of mowing the lawns and paddocks, a sweaty two-day job in the growing months. Winter offers a welcome respite from summer’s never-ending lawn care, and a chance to catch up on other tasks.

Photograph of a gardener mowing the lawns at Rouse Hill House & Farm

Spirit and Larry, the horses at Rouse Hill House & Farm, look on as Valeriu Pintilie mows the lawn by the historic stables, commissioned from architect John Horbury Hunt in 1876. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of a cobweb in the early morning fog at Rouse Hill House & Farm

Early morning fog coats a cobweb with fine droplets at Rouse Hill House & Farm. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums


 

Photograph of a man using a whipper-snipper in the garden at Rouse Hill House & Farm

The early morning mist starts to clear as Todd Stark whipper-snippers around an entrance to the garden at Rouse Hill. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of a man trimming a Bougainvillea shrub

Steve Goldsworthy takes the pruning shears to the bougainvillea at Rouse Hill House & Farm. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of harvested heirloom pumpkins in a wheelbarrow in the gardens at Vaucluse House

An autumn harvest from the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House: Turk’s turban squash, Green Hubbard pumpkins and Rampicante zucchini. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of a tractor mowing the paddocks at Rouse Hill House & Farm

A tractor mounted with a slasher is used to mow the paddocks at Rouse Hill. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of a plant seedling ready to be planted in the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House

Pea seedlings ready for planting out in the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of a person looking through a box filled with seed packets

Sifting through heirloom seeds for the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House. The team aims to grow only fruit and vegetables available to colonial gardeners before 1850. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums


 

The gardener’s shadow

Wednesday at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, is an unseasonably hot day, but the hardiest plants – plumbago, brugmansia, heliotrope – are still blooming in the eastern garden. ‘We make sure every part of the garden gets water at least one day a week in summer’, says Anita Rayner, ‘and that seems to be enough to keep it going.’

Thursday is a whistlestop tidy-up at Susannah Place, in The Rocks, taming the fishbone ferns and lemongrass, remnants from a time when cuttings would have been exchanged over the choko vineclad fences along with neighbourhood gossip. This is Leigh Saeemadarae’s second time here, and he has his own family connection. ‘My grandfather grew up around here’, he says. ‘He organised card games– he was one of the first bookmakers in Sydney.’

Later, at Rose Seidler House, dark-eyed wallabies watch from the bush as a three-person team does a quick ‘mow, blow and go’. Keeping on top of leaves dropped by the encroaching eucalypts is a constant challenge, as is thwarting the mound-building efforts of a particularly determined brush turkey.

Photograph of the SLM gardens team eating morning tea in the break room

Morning tea comes early for the Gardens team at their Vaucluse House headquarters – by 9am they’ve already been at work for three hours. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of horticulturists pushing wheelbarrows in the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House

At work in the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

There’s no doubt it takes a special personality to do this job: a willingness to experiment and to accept a minor role in the workings of nature. ‘You have to be willing to keep trying if things don’t work’, says Anita. ‘As they say, the best thing for a garden is the gardener’s shadow. You just have to look after things. You have to put in the effort to get that reward.’

It’s demanding, physical work, with no end in sight, but for this team, the inheritors of a long and illustrious horticultural lineage, that’s part of its pleasure. ‘We don’t have to rush to get it done by 2 o’clock’, says Steve Halliday. ‘We take our time and do it properly and present it right.’

 

Photograph of a horticulturist moving compost at Vaucluse House gardens

Turning the compost on a rainy morning at Vaucluse House. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

Photograph of a horticulturist mowing the grass at Rouse Hill House & Farm

Steve Halliday manoeuvres an all-terrain mower around the summerhouse in the lower garden at Rouse Hill House & Farm. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums

This article was originally written for Unlocked magazine, the award-winning Members magazine for Sydney Living Museums.

About the Author

Photograph of Helen Curran, assistant curator at Sydney Living Museums
Helen Curran
Former Assistant Curator
Helen was Sydney Living Museums’ dedicated gardens...
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