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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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]