Catherine StewartOpen Gardens Australia folds after 27 years. Why?

 

Australia’s much-loved open gardens not-for-profit, Open Gardens Australia is to close down in 2015 after operating for 27 years. OGA’s Board decision has shocked some, while leaving others nodding their heads sadly, but wisely.

Open Gardens Australia (formerly the Australian Open Gardens Scheme and, to many just ‘The Scheme’) was founded in 1987 to spread a love of gardens and gardening by opening gardens to the public, covering the insurance and offering marketing assistance to the garden owners. Garden were listed in the OGA Guidebook, a publication similar to the UK National Garden Scheme’s ‘Yellow Book’. The Guidebook rapidly became indispensable when planning holidays and weekends, as well as the garden magazine editor’s best friend for finding quality gardens to feature.

Cruden Farm, home of the late Dane Elisabeth Murdoch, was a reliable opener and fund raiser for OGA

Cruden Farm, home of the late Dane Elisabeth Murdoch, was a reliable opener and fund raiser for OGA

All of OGA’s suplus funds were passed on from the not-for-profit organisation to community garden grants, targetting schools, hospitals, and groups.

OGA CEO Liz White says:

“Supported by wonderful volunteers and a passionate gardening community, OGA has partnered with garden owners to open almost 20,000 gardens, and raise more than $6 million for charities and local causes….. Though we are sad to bring the OGA story to a close, we are incredibly proud of the contribution we have made in this country”

So what happened?

Open Gardens Australia management has worked hard to try and reinvent the organisation for the 21st century. It’s a very lean organisation, running mostly on volunteer hours and the paid time of a very few – who also regularly end up doing things for love.

I have been involved with OGA for many years, first as garden selector and then as a member of Sydney’s committee. I’m sad that it’s come to this but I was wondering about the inevitability of this several years ago.

WHY?

Lisa chose to open her garden independently, rather than with OGA to maximise her charity returns

Lisa chose to open her garden independently, rather than with OGA, to maximise her charity returns

open-gardens-2014

Galston and District Garden Club run a very successful weekend event each October

1. Increased competition: Even a decade ago, what OGA did was quite unique. Since then, nearly every country town, garden club, community organisation and many charities have taken that model and made ‘opening gardens for money’ their own. We have successful open garden festivals in Bathurst, Griffith, Berry, Bowral, Leura, Galston, Rydal, and most of those are only a short drive from Sydney. Similar competition has grown Australia wide. I’m not saying this is a bad thing as it makes sense for local communities to want to control their own destiny and raise money for local causes. But it’s gradually weakened the national model to the point where there’s only just over half the number of gardens to open this 2014-15 season as there was in 2003-04. Even individuals have also successfully opened their own gardens for various charities, although I wonder if they’ve really investigated the insurance implications of this, as their household policy was never issued with several hundred paying visitors in mind!

OGA Guidebook 2014-15 season2. Paying for information: Although the Guidebook has been developed over the years into an interesting stand-alone publication, I’ve always believed that it’s an inherently flawed business model. Guidebook sales have been falling steadily, just as they have with most print magazines. In the days of the internet, most now assume they’ll be able to find the information they want freely available online. I think there’s a basic problem with a business model that recognises ticket sales to garden visitors/customers as a significant revenue stream but then tells those customers they’ll have to pay to find out where the gardens are. Would you pay nearly $20 for a business’s catalogue? Or would you say, ‘hang on, isn’t it you that’s trying to sell me something??’

3. The unwieldiness of a large volunteer organisation: It’s ironic that one of OGA’s huge strengths – its very big group of dedicated volunteers – has also been part of its downfall. Unintentional of course, but I think it’s true. When people volunteer, they often feel like they have more rights, rather than less, to require things to be done a certain way. This makes for not just inertia but straight out resistance to change, with many people needing to be talked to and persuaded about even small changes. I’m not saying that change for its own sake is good, but the financial situation in OGA has been deteriorating for some time and yet we’ve still had many volunteers refusing to accept necessary changes and even leaving OGA as a result. Many have complained that OGA ‘wasn’t broke’ so why were any ‘fixes’ necessary. The financial documents have told the true story for some time but reading an accounting spread sheet, or a P and L statement isn’t what many think of as a good way to spend their volunteer hours. Again, completely understandable, but it means that the true picture stayed obscured for those volunteers.

2013 OGA season launch with President Tamie Fraser

2013 OGA season launch with President Tamie Fraser

4. National inefficiency v local efficiency: You’d think that centralising things like insurance, management and finance would create efficiencies, but I think in OGA’s case, the opposite is true. When local communities or clubs decide to put on a garden opening event, it’s a one-off for the year. People willingly volunteer their time knowing there’s an end to it. When it’s a national organisation managing events all through the year, it’s not possible to run it only by volunteers. So you have to pay staff. OGA has been criticised by some of its volunteers for becoming too ‘top heavy’ with paid staff but my observation is that for what they’ve been expected to do, OGA has run a very lean ship, with employees regularly adding unpaid volunteer time to their paid hours to get things done.

hidden logo medium res

An OGA-AILDM partnership produced ‘hidden’, and financial success

5. OGA is too generalist: the comparative success of OGA’s events like plant fairs, chook open days, or Sydney’s ‘hidden’ festival, indicates that the public in this century is more likely to engage with one-off occasions than a steady trickle of open gardens each weekend. Garden owners choose (mostly) their own opening weekend and this results in a ‘one here, one there’ national program, with no obvious theme or strong geographic grouping. Perhaps it’s a sad indictment of this century that garden visitors require a bit of theatre to make them interested in visiting gardens, but there it is.

So, are people still interested in visiting open gardens? Are we going to lose this as one of our weekend things to do? Personally, I hope not, but in an increasingly high-rise and urbanised society, and one more populated by cultures which are less interested in gardens, the luxury of a suburban garden and pride in its appearance is starting to look like a 20th century anachronism. Maybe the future lies in the SIngapore ‘City in a Garden’ model, where taxes pay for public gardens on every spare square metre of land outside buildings, including parks, street verges and even stormwater easements. These are then enjoyed by all, rather than gardens that are private spaces for individuals. Or is that garden heresy?

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

23 thoughts on “Open Gardens Australia folds after 27 years. Why?

  1. I heard about this last week and feel very sad, although can see how it has happened. I just hope that local communities do indeed pick up the baton; it would be a crying shame if the idea fizzled out. Those of us in the industry need to get our thinking caps on as to how we can support the open gardens concept going forward.

  2. If we wish to open a garden for a local hospital and ask for a donation and not a specific charge is that covered by home public liability ins.

    • Hi Barbara – I can’t give you insurance advice but I’d strongly recommend you contact your home public liability insurer and ask. You would also need to look very carefully around your garden for potential risks – trip hazards, uneven steps, unfenced water etc as any insurer would at least expect you to give warnings about these if you are inviting members of the public on to your property.

  3. I too feel sad about this. I know the guide has been an issue, its cost, and the effort of production, but I know so many older people who aren’t on the Internet, and have no interest in buying a computer, or learning how to access emails or the web, who want to go to gardens and who depend on the guide for their information. This is a generation who are getting “lost” as more and more things are only available online. Next year Centrelink will only accept claims online. A lot of older people have embraced technology, and as the years go on, there will obviously be less and less people who don’t have access, but at this stage there is still a big group who are falling through the gaps.
    I really hope the individual states can pick up and carry on in some way, this has been a wonderful, imaginative scheme helping to enthuse thousands of new gardeners, and giving new ideas to garden enthusiasts.

    • I do understand your point Correa. My late mother was just not interested in embracing the internet but my mother-in-law now takes her ipad everywhere. I wish all older people would try as I think it would open up so much independece for them, especially those becoming house bound. But unfortunately, the economics of producing printed magazines for a small demographic are just not feasible. On the other hand, my own GenY daughters I doubt have ever bought a magazine, nor would it ever occur to them to do so as a way of finding information, so the years when OGA information wasn’t available online effectively excluded them.

      • Catherine, I know many older people who have embraced technology, but there is a large group, I hate to say it but many are women, probably because they had no exposure to computers through employment, that just have no desire to spend the money and learn something that really is quite complex. My late mother would use my Ipad to look at photos, she loved the swipe forwards, and backwards and that the photos were big, but she panicked if she touched something that made her lose the photos. She had said to me, (she was born in 1921), that the rate of change, pretty much from the 60’s onwards was overwhelming, she died in 2011, and really struggled in the last 10 years with how so many things were changing so quickly. If an elderly person has no one to help them, they just disappear. Completely off topic, sorry. My garden is part of the “Port Elliot Walk” in two weeks time, so I am glad we made it! We were to be in it in 2006, but pulled out at the last minute as building a flat on for my parents became imperative.

        • Yes Correa, while all you say about new technology is true, I feel it’s a lesson to learn for us all. We cannot afford not to keep up with it because if we don’t, we’ll be rapidly left out. Unfair, sad, excluding…yes, all of these but that’s the way it is. I despair of people I know who are now in their 60s who say “oh I know nothing about social media/the internet/on-demand TV/youtube etc but I don’t need to as my son/daughter does it for me”. They will regret it so much.
          BUT I do hope your garden opening is very successful! I’d love you to send in some photos to GardenDrum. info@gardendrum.com

  4. So utterly disappointed to read this news. I looked forward every time I saw mention of an Open Garden nearby to me. We have many large country gardens in this region and there was no better way to spend an afternoon than walking around with my children admiring, drawing inspiration and talking with the owners and other garden lovers. This is truly heartbreaking…

    • I have loved it too Paul. The very successful Toowoomba Festival of Flowers later this month is, of course, one of the organisations opening local gardens that has contributed to the end of OGA. I’m not saying that’s bad at all, as I feel that local festivals are a vibrant and wonderful thing for any town or community but there just isn’t financial ‘room’ for both types of organisations to co-exist into the future.

  5. Catherine, I am both shocked and surprised at the swiftness of this decision!
    I attended the OGA Book launch on the 17th August and it was discussed the possibility I might become a selector for Australian plant themed Open Gardens.
    No mention of termination there.
    Having opened my Confetti Gardens for the last four years, I found the talk by Ros Andrews that Sunday was most upbeat and gave me hope for my next opening in 2016.
    What disappoints me most that I have since heard this news was discussed on ABC radio yesterday and then I read your excellent blog in Gardendrum.
    I am still to receive an email from any member of the OGA Committee with an explanation of the demise of this very worthy cause.
    A very disappointing outcome for the home gardeners, the charities they support and the Nursery and Garden Industry.

    • Hi Clare,

      I am sure by now you have had official notification and explanation of the closure. It has been quite a task to tell our many constituents current and past as soon as possible. The final unanimous decision to close was made at the August Board meeting. Before then, we Board members tried our hardest to see if we could continue somehow – hours, days and months of effort – but the figures were just not good enough. We needed to be fair to everyone: not make false promises to open, plus give staff good time to consider their future. The Board wanted to conclude on a high note, to thank everyone for the wonderful times, beautiful gardens and the happy memories. All being well, we might have something over?

      In this last season, I urge you and your friends to support the gardens opening and events. Look at the website for the latest news. Also, ask about the OGA stamp issue at the Post Office.

      Thank you for all you have done to contribute to a great organisation.

      Kind regards

      Helen Stevens
      Chair
      NSW & ACT Region

  6. Good to read your insider’s view of what went wrong at OGA Catherine. I was initially dismayed when I heard the news, but I hope it just means that the model for garden visiting will change to more of what we loved about Hidden: an event with scale, a strong concept and excellent content.

  7. Dear Catherine,
    a very well written and thought out article, thank you. At the same time as the OGA faced a decline in the market place the rules for corporate governance increased and became tighter. It is necessary for all organisations to comply with rules, which is what OGA had to do and did. This compliance can be onerous and expensive,and is often not understood by a general membership. However ignorance is no excuse and organisations, however small, must have the right insurance, WHS processes, and be solvent!! These are all hard tasks for any committee.

  8. Not easy to disseminate what went wrong for OGA -having been involved way back in 80’s I said then the demographics were changing rapidly and that the scheme and its guide book were not indispensable. OGA was based on the UK model but without enough consideration of the huge garden loving population who supported it and dare I say, lots of fabulous gardens and gardeners. I remember when half a dozen homeowners on Sydney’s north shore dared to challenge the OGA model to have a weekend of gardens to benefit a local boys college. These type of events along with garden club garden openings have become the norm and whittled down the numbers for OGA
    During the last 2 decades we have seen the demise of the quarter acre block and the decline of the ethic of gardening where children grew used to seeing parents gardening on weekends. Some even got involved!! The advent of huge outlying areas turned over to housing developments gave rise to the minimal sized block, huge houses and mortgages to match, with both parents working to pay it all off. Service industries like garden maintenance came to the fore and homeowners found other pursuits when and if there was time available from ferrying children to sporting activities.
    I live in an area largely consisting of retirees yet most have “no fuss” gardens of palms, crotons and cordylines and cover the soil with coloured bark chips. Yet clubs and poker machines do a roaring trade.
    The family group and the retirees of which I complain are the very people which should have supported OGA well into the future but, I sorry to say “the times they have changed”.

  9. Excellent analysis Elwyn. I live in hope that we can retrieve gardening from the housework and chores list of things to do, and reinvent it as a craft with a body of knowledge, skills and expertise worth learning. Having TV gardeners tell us for years that “it’s so easy anyone can do it” has cheapened that body of knowledge to the point where it’s no longer valued, respected or desired. Food and cooking transformed itself from housework to an art form, so I hope gardening can too!

  10. Ah Catherine, the whole idea of television is to dumb things down to where the viewer no longer has to think at all. Gardening is common sense, observation, a whole lot of spirit and loving what you do! I remember interviewing dear Alan Seale many moons ago and I asked him ‘what in his opinion made a good garden’ He never hesitated and said “if the gardener loves it – it’s a good garden”. Not in my life time but, I do hope that one day there will be a generation who re-discovers the absolute joy of losing oneself in the garden (if there is any land left)!

  11. After 11 consecutive openings with ‘Open Gardens Australia’ we now open to support a charity.
    We have taken out an ‘Open Garden’ insurance policy which covers all visits, plant sales ect. It costs about $250 a year from Poole General Insurers.
    To cover the cost we charge bus tours four dollars a head, and for an open day the cost is six dollars with the majority of that money going direct to a charity that helps disabled children (we keep enough to cover costs like hire of toilet, flyers ect).
    Mind you, you have to work hard to get the publicity and just hope that you can get sites like this to help and newspapers.
    I have an article on opening your garden on this site, if you are thinking of opening, it’s worth a read.

  12. Gosh, really chiming in late here…..but just Googled ‘What happened to the Open Garden Scheme’ and found this interesting and informative piece. Thank you, certainly explains matters. We loved looking through the list of weekend gardens to see what was open and really miss it. We shall have to look to those local ones, although I have to say I haven’t heard of any near us, but perhaps I need to look harder. Many thanks.

    • Yes, I still miss it too Christina. What I’ve noticed replacing it are once-a-year garden festivals, rather than local schemes run the same way, with gardens opening throughout the year. It means it’s feast or famine but from an organisational point of view, it’s a much more achievable goal doing a one-weekend event each year than something ongoing.

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