Kate CatterallOpen Gardens Victoria: one year old and thriving

Just over a year has passed since the national open gardens scheme closed, but in Victoria at least, the emergence of Open Gardens Victoria has turned a ‘sad ending’ into a vibrant new beginning.

Cake and crowds in Attila Kapitany's garden

Cake and crowds in Attila Kapitany’s garden

 

On 27 August, OGV launched its second open gardens season at Attila and Michele Kapitany’s incredible garden of succulents. To me it was a garden visitor’s dream – whimsical and reminiscent of a landscape from Dr Seuss. Located in outer suburban Melbourne, and enclosed by a zig-zag-cut conifer hedge, the garden is punctuated with striking aloes emerging from twisty paths, ‘rivers’ of ground-covering succulents, a randomly stepped stone staircase bordered with bottle trees and a hidden basin filled with quirky stacked rock sculptures. Lots to learn from – the perfect open garden.

Attila Kapitany's succulent garden

Attila Kapitany’s succulent garden

Colourful aloes in Attila Kapitany's garden

Colourful aloes in Attila Kapitany’s garden

 

By the end of December, OGV will open a further 23 private gardens, in addition to hosting a bus tour of historic gardens in Mount Macedon and a night listening to Steven Wells talk about his Churchill Fellowship tour of therapeutic gardens.

Hard to believe it was all doom and gloom just two years ago.

Bottle tree walk in Attila Kapitany's garden

Bottle tree walk in Attila Kapitany’s garden

 

If I cast my mind back to September 2014, I remember feeling a little sick when I read that Open Gardens Australia was closing after 27 years. This was more than just my weekend garden escape. I had career-changed into horticulture many years ago, and visiting open gardens had become vital to my ongoing professional development. I had found no better way to learn about garden design, construction and maintenance than to step inside private gardens, talk to garden owners and designers, discover unfamiliar plants and make mental notes about what was successful or unsuccessful.

Peeking through the hedge at Attila Kapitany's open garden

Peeking through the hedge at Attila Kapitany’s open garden

 

I had lazily presumed that an organised ‘scheme’ would always be there. Yes, there was always the prospect that individual groups might independently open gardens in the future. But for me, this was like a football fan wanting to go to a weekend match without the AFL to provide a weekly footy fixture! I was feeling a little lost.

The final OGA opening for Victoria was at Stephen Ryan’s fabulous garden of horticultural curiosities, ‘Tugurium’ at Mt Macedon. At that last opening, I scurried up to Stephen and pressed him for more information about what might take OGA’s place. He reassured me:

“I believe that something will rise from the ashes. There’s a small group creating something just for Victoria”.

 

Stephen Ryan at the Open Gardens Victoria launch

Stephen Ryan at the Open Gardens Victoria 2016-17 season launch

 

And rise it did. Liz Fazio, now Chair of Open Gardens Victoria, was part of a small core group of ex-committee members and selectors from the Victorian branch of the old national scheme.

“We all looked at each other and said ‘do we let it die, or do we do something?’”

Liz says, of that turning point.

We had so many people begging us to keep something going in Victoria – there was quite an outpouring of distress – we felt we had to create something new.”

Open Gardens Victoria first committee meeting

Open Gardens Victoria first committee meeting

 

Over many meetings, the newly formed committee set up a new, state-based scheme, wrote a business plan, commissioned a new logo, developed a new website, reconnected with selectors and garden owners and put together its very first program of garden openings.

Open Gardens Victoria

Open Gardens Victoria

 

In its first year, OGV’s main goal was survival. The new scheme managed to open 15 gardens in its first season and attracted some 10,600 visitors.

It was all about setting up and staying alive,” Liz says.

OGV was fortunate to receive a boost of $25,000 to get started – a combination of sponsorship from Flemings Nursery and seed funding from Open Gardens Australia.

But what about the challenges? If the national scheme couldn’t survive, what made OGV so sure it could go the distance?

We were confident we could make the numbers work because we still had a very strong visitor base when the old scheme closed. While some states were struggling, over 38,000 people visited Victorian gardens in the last OGA season,” Liz says.

OGV is a very different model to the old scheme. Our overheads are much lower. We have no rented premises and have only just begun employing someone part time to assist with administration and keeping our website up-to-date.”

Under this leaner model, the day-to-day running is essentially conducted from volunteers’ home offices. OGV has also been supported by the University of Melbourne’s Burnley campus, which has provided the committee with office facilities, access to its conference room for meetings and storage space for signage and equipment.

Open Gardens Victoria at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, 2016

Open Gardens Victoria at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, 2016

 

Gone too is the printed open gardens guidebook, which required 18 months lead-time and was very inflexible. Today, OGV’s activities are listed on its website, which has this year averaged 100 unique visitors per day*. Openings and events are communicated via direct email to its mailing list and OGV is working hard to expand that list by having a presence at key garden events such as MIFGS and various Victorian plant fairs.

Book signing at 'Lubra Bend', open in 2015 for Open Gardens Victoria. Photo Annabel Reid

Book signing at ‘Lubra Bend’, open in 2015 for Open Gardens Victoria. Photo Annabel Reid

 

The old scheme opened 130 gardens in its final year in Victoria, averaging 300 visitors per garden, however OGV is deliberately taking a more conservative approach.
We don’t want to overload our volunteers and we firmly believe that less is more,” Liz says.

It doesn’t seem right to open so many gardens each weekend that they end up competing with each other. So far we’ve managed to average 700 visitors per garden, and we’d like to maintain that.”

A cheerful volunteer at the Attila Kapitany's garden

A cheerful volunteer at the Attila Kapitany’s garden

 

Relying on volunteers creates its own challenges for OGV, especially when many also have full time jobs to go to.

I personally decided that it was time to stop barracking from the sidelines and to ‘pitch in’ with OGV. Earlier this year I joined the OGV Friends group and have now found myself really enjoying the experience of helping out on a sub-committee. I had skills to offer from my past life in writing and communications and felt it was time to help build a scheme that has given me so much in the past.

Anne Atkins' garden, open for Open Gardens Victoria. Photo Annabel Reid

Anne Atkins’ garden, open for Open Gardens Victoria. Photo Annabel Reid

Without volunteers, we can’t operate,” Liz says.

So, we’re working really hard to build up our OGV Friends group and get more volunteers with different skills on our various sub-committees. A succession plan is really important and our hope is that gradually some members of our sub-committees will choose to come through to the main committee in years to come.

To get those volunteers in the first place, we have to demonstrate that OGV is a worthy organisation that is good for the garden opening public, and hopefully, people will in turn, want to join us.

'Astolat' open for Open Gardens Victoria. Photo Annabel Reid

‘Astolat’ open for Open Gardens Victoria. Photo Annabel Reid

 

OGV has embraced social media as an important tool to spread the word about its activities. Already it has almost 1,000 Facebook followers and more than 3,000 following on Instagram. Whether those followers will translate to younger visitors remains to be seen, however, a basic survey sampling more than 250 garden visitors at the last opening showed half were under the age of 50, and 20 per cent had heard about the event from social media.

Open Gardens Victoria's compost workshop. Photo Annabel Reid

Open Gardens Victoria’s compost workshop. Photo Annabel Reid

 

I hope that we can work more with young garden designers too,” Liz adds.

I’d like us to showcase the future of garden design in this state and make sure we appeal to a broader range of visitors.”

'Frogmore' open garden

Brilliant hot-coloured double border at ‘Frogmore’ open garden

 

Giving back to the community and contributing to horticultural education through its share of gate fees, is another important role for OGV. Discussions are currently underway with the University of Melbourne to establish an annual prize for a horticulture student. Gate fees are now split 50/50 between the garden owner and OGV, also allowing owners to donate more to charities if they choose.

Musk Cottage open garden

Musk Cottage open garden

 

OGV is looking for more opportunities where it can partner directly with communities, particularly in regional areas, to help them open gardens for fundraising purposes.

In November we’ll be opening six gardens in the Traralgon area to raise funds for the Latrobe Valley Life Skills Program for Young People,” Liz says.

“It’s really lovely to be helping make a difference through gardens.”

For more information, go to Open Gardens Victoria

*[Source: AWStats August 2016]

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Kate Catterall

About Kate Catterall

Kate Catterall is a Melbourne-based horticulturalist, plants and garden enthusiast, writer and blogger. In 2003 she left a career as a professional communicator to complete a Graduate Diploma in Horticulture at the University of Melbourne’s Burnley College. She went on to run her own successful business maintaining, installing and designing suburban gardens. Kate is passionate about the importance of open gardens and now volunteers her garden communication skills with Open Gardens Victoria. You can find Kate’s blog at Garden Euphoria

5 thoughts on “Open Gardens Victoria: one year old and thriving

  1. Thanks for such a fabulous story and here’s hoping to a great future with many open gardens for Victorian’s to visit in the future.

  2. Michelle mccubbin Gannon on said:

    Fantastic

  3. Excellent article Kate and great to understand what has, and is happening with Open Gardens. Love the ‘seed’ funding reference – ha! Love your work!

  4. Ruth Bennetts on said:

    Wonderful

  5. Clare Bell on said:

    Kate, I am delighted to read of the great success of OGV due to the vision, dedication and hard work provided by a small committee and sub-committee during the first year.
    Thanks for the insight!
    Interesting to read of the transformation of the old scheme by using new communication technologies and the exisiting Burnley University resources together with donations from the former OGA and the Nursery industry through Flemings Nursery.
    The love and passion for plants and the environment depends on schemes like this as do the Nurseries and associated horticultural industries!
    Hopefully, the WA model will also also be successful.
    Come on NSW!

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