RTBG 13 August 2019

Today I visited the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) without my gardening clothes and gear. RTBG had offered an Information Day specially to bring volunteers from across all facets of the Gardens up to date on anticipated developments. I learnt a great deal.

Thirty years have passed since the last Capital Fund injection and the need to enhance visitor experience has become a high priority. An overall plan for continued change of RTBG is underway. Key considerations include improving parking and creating some sort of Visitor Centre. Funding is a work in progress and, so far, $3.6 million has been provided for what might be a $12 million project. Realistically some aspects such as a Visitor Centre might be finished by the end of 2021 while other ideas might fit within a five or ten year plan. Tenders were called earlier this year for a Lead Consultant/Architect and within a couple of weeks it is hoped a business (likely to be Tasmanian), already selected by the planning committee, will be approved by government. After that appointment, consultations with stakeholders including RTBG volunteers will commence. The planning committee has been determined not to know what will be built until consultation has occurred. Only on that basis will ideas evolve and designs be drafted.

RTBG’s horticultural botanist, Natalie Tapson presented a brief history up until her allocated time ran out as she reached 1936. A snapshot: an 1981 report identified all the locations of the aboriginal middens and analysis indicates occupation and use of the site for 5000 years; the first payment for a superintendent of gardens was 1818 and therefore that is the year marked as the beginning of RTBG – although at that time it was not for public access and any food grown was for the table of the Governor; 1859 was the first year the public were allowed into the Gardens for free; the high brick garden walls were designed as heatable walls and have chimneys in them; the archways through those garden walls were only added in 1963; the early operation of the Gardens included the business of supplying plants and Tench (fish) across Tasmania eg to Brickenden estate, graveyards, schools, etc.; the  entrance gates were installed in 1878 – these feature the British coat of arms.

Staff member Jo told us about her responsibilities for propagating plants, and for plant sales at the entrance Hub, near the restaurant/shop, and the monthly sales. I was interested to understand the challenge thrown up by being successful at this. There is a cost/benefit analysis associated with how many people (paid and unpaid) are needed to ensure sufficient plants are ready for sale, storage if larger and larger quantities had to be held in waiting, issues of competition with commercial nurseries who might not be able to compete with what is a government operation, and how to manage the volume of people (security) who might seek more plants (including their car parking needs). The sales bring in much needed dollars for the RTBG, so the Board of Management has the unenviable job of working out the balance.

A healthy salad, sandwiches, fruit and cheese lunch was there to pick and choose from. Almost all the stalwarts from the Community Food Garden were present so we stood together outside warming in the sun under a blue sky. We talked about how calm we felt and how agitated some other volunteers seemed. As one of the team said, ‘we don’t have to work with people. Maybe that makes all the difference’. Yes. I couldn’t agree more.

Over lunch, I met a volunteer from the Seed Bank operation of RTBG. Her job was to meticulously and repetitiously germinate seeds in trial ready for a determination of their characteristics. I wouldn’t mind considering this 3 hour a week volunteering option in the future.

Visitor Services Manager Esther, who also manages a team of 126 volunteers in organisation which only has 33 full time equivalent staff members, talked about how all paid and unpaid staff of the RTBG fall under the Tasmanian government department of DPIPWE. As such, we are all bound by those conditions. Currently there is a review underway to create conformity amongst approaches to volunteer management across all satellite departments. She explained  a continuing roll out of signage across RTBG is underway, with the intention of enhancing the visitor experience. Through this section I learnt that, this summer, a buggy ride for a visitor will cost 15, and a one hour guide tour will cost $15. The latter will be run by experienced paid staff.

To conclude the day, Chris, the Curator of Australian Flora for RTBG, gave a talk focusing on the Tasmanian Collections and projected changes. The principal focus is to design environments which give visitors an experience of what it is like to be in a natural Tasmanian forest. He followed this up with a walking tour of a specific section not far past the pond, that will be redeveloped starting next Autumn. The Tasmanian native collections was established only in 1991 but now numbers around 500 species with 100 native Tassie ferns. I had not realised how many sections there are around the Gardens with ‘our’ plants so this presentation left its mark on me.

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