History of the Geelong Botanic Gardens
Eastern Hill, on the edge of Corio Bay, was set aside in 1851 as the location for Geelong’s Botanic Garden. The Wadawurrung (Wathaurong) people had cared for this land for 60,000 years, and it had provided food, medicine, tools and clothing. Near the Gardens, middens provide evidence of a diet rich in plants, seafood and land animals. A survey undertaken in 1838 described the land as ‘lightly wooded [with] gum and wattle’. Neighbouring lime kilns used in the construction of Geelong’s city buildings consumed much of the available timber, and by 1851 there was little remaining vegetation.
Geelong Botanic Gardens is the fourth oldest botanic garden in Australia, after Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne. A committee of management was appointed in 1852 and the nursery site was selected, with paths laid out and a curator’s cottage built before the arrival of Daniel Bunce in 1857.
The site of the 19thC garden was chosen on the lee of a seaside hill, where moisture was conserved and the soil was rich and deep. This was essential due to the prevailing winds coming off Corio Bay and a lack of water… all new plants had to be watered by hand.
The garden’s first curator, Daniel Bunce had spent time in Hobart as a nurseryman and amateur botanist. He had studied Aboriginal languages and accompanied Leichhardt on one expedition, investigating plants and collecting seed. Bunce became a defender of the Aboriginal people at a time when many Europeans considered them to be ignorant savages.
As the first curator, Bunce set about establishing Eastern Hill as an extensive park to be surrounded by windbreaks, with shrubberies planted along the carriageways. Evidence of these can still to be found.
A conservatory was constructed (1859), followed by a ‘pit glasshouse’ (1860) and an aviary (1864). In 1862, Bunce established a small lake, where he installed black swans and ducks. This is still part of Eastern Park and home to thousands of indigenous plants and a thriving ecosystem providing recycled water for use in the gardens.
The 1860 Catalogue of plants under cultivation in Geelong Botanic Gardens listed more than 2000 species, including Australian native plants, which Bunce shared with other botanic gardens. The Gardens became popular with locals and visitors from further afield.
An article in Geelong’s Advertiser in December
‘To those who have not paid our Botanical Gardens a visit … we say go at once. A rare treat is in store there for the most phlegmatic of mortals. What with the hum of bees, the chirping of small birds, the clear full notes of the magpies, the gorgeous panorama of varied hues and the delightful perfumes … seems to be a terrestrial paradise … where nought but happiness …(barring the mosquitoes, by-the-by) may be found.’
Many of Geelong’s prized heritage trees were planted during this period, including the Ginkgo biloba, Jubaea chilensis, Fagus sylvatica purpurea, Quillaja saponaria and Corymbia maculata. As a result, more than fifty trees in Geelong Botanic Gardens and Eastern Park have been listed on the National Trust
Significant Tree Register. See The Heritage Tree Walk .
A new curator John Raddenberry (1872–1896) replaced many eucalypts with English trees, and added new and rare species to the collection. He added garden structures: a large octagonal picnic rotunda, overlooking the bay; a smaller rotunda (still standing); and a thatched summerhouse. A replica of the summerhouse can be seen today. Raddenberry was responsible for the building of an enormous timber lattice fernery, with a pond, which he surrounded with a rockery of ferns and foliage plants. Aspects of the fernery are still visible today. The fernery was reputed to hold the largest collection of ferns in the Southern Hemisphere.
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897) was marked by the planting of an imposing avenue of Ulmus minor ‘variegata’ along the carriageway that led to the nineteenth-century entrance. Some of these unusual trees remain today. The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of lean budgets and limited development for the Geelong Botanic Gardens. In the city, Market Square was being developed into a shopping centre. In 1912 its fountains were relocated to the Gardens where they grace the 19thC garden. A statue of Queen Victoria, also in Market Square, was moved to Eastern Park where it is located just off Garden St. The Customs House (1838), originally from the waterfront, and one of the oldest buildings in Victoria, had been moved to the city in 1854, where it became the Telegraph Office. By 1889, it had been moved to the Gardens. The Cabman’s Shelter (1905) came to Eastern Park from the city in 1929 and was restored in 1997.
The period between 1945 and 1960 was another period of hard financial times resulting in the demolition of the old fernery, which was falling into disrepair. By 1960, the Gardens had nearly doubled in size, with extensions to the south and west. During this period, the rose gardens were established, the A.L. Walter Conservatory was constructed, and new gates were donated by a grateful Danish migrant. The sculptures of the Japanese cranes that had previously graced the driveway of the historic property, St Albans Homestead (1873), and more recently Eastern Beach, were moved into the Gardens. The bequest of the Florence E. Clarke Geranium Conservatory in 1972 saw increased interest in the geranium and pelargonium collections. The sanctuary the gardens provided for these many historical artifacts now enhance the depth of cultural connection that the gardens provide every day.
In 1985 the Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens was formed. It had been an excruciatingly dry summer with volunteers helping to water the gardens. The new group worked to finance and improve facilities, establish new gardens, including the perennial border and the rose gardens – the latter with the assistance of the Heritage Rose Society. A trained guides group was formed and a plant Nursery was established. The Friends recognised the need for public awareness of the garden’s scientific, educational, recreational and conservation functions. The Friends raised funds through events and programs such as the popular summer, ‘Music in the Gardens’, botanic art classes, talks and trips. The Friends lobbied the City Council, culminating in an evaluation and master plan for conservation and development, undertaken by Chris Dance Land Design and jointly funded by the Friends and the City in 1995. The main recommendations of thestudy were:
- open up the Gardens towards the cityand Corio Bay, incorporating plantsappropriate for the environment
- redevelop ‘Bunce’s Lake’, collecting the precious stormwater, which had previouslydrained into the bay
- reconnect with Eastern Park’s history
- promote education, conservation and ecology.
An advisory committee, which included two representatives of the Friends, advanced the implementation of the master plan. The City’s Department of Environment and Recreation appointed John Arnott as the new curator to lead work on the master plan, with Chris Dance as design consultant.
Work on the 21st Century Garden began in 2000
The basic principles of the design were to open Up the Gardens to the city and the waterfront And to promote plants adapted to drought and extreme climate conditions. Indigenous plants and local materials were used with a focus on regional relevance, plant adaptation and plant evolution. The opening of the 21st Century Garden in September 2002 created huge interest – and some controversy – with both locals and visitors. Some people were shocked by the stark landscaping and the absence of lush green lawns, but it was eye-catching and innovative and perfect for the changing times. The 21st Century Garden soon became an important tourist attraction in the Geelong area.
Annette Zealley arrived as the new Director in 2007, and continued work on stage two of the master plan, with an increased focus on Eastern Park. Senescent trees were replaced, and original avenues of the park restored. This work is ongoing. A new stormwater-harvesting facility enhanced the park, as well as supplying water for the Gardens and other plantings in the city from Water collected from East Geelong. On the site of Bunce’s lake, there is now an attractive expanse of reclaimed water, edged with indigenous plants and enjoyed by water birds. This is in fact a high-tech water recycling system which has supplemented water needs of the gardens whilst removing water run-off into Corio Bay.
More recently, the Friends obtained grants for the rejuvenation of the 1880s rotunda and the ‘ladies’ kiosk’. In 2019, the reconstructed Walter Conservatory was opened, and a new visitor facility was built for the many groups who use the Gardens. In 2019, the Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens received a Heritage Victoria award for their outstanding support of the Gardens.
Three centuries of Gardens
Visitors to Geelong Botanic Gardens today approach the gates along a modern regional grassland drive. Unique metal gates and sculptures mark the entry to the 21st Century Garden, created around a basin of granitic sand and local rocks. Through the Hansen Gates lies the twentieth-century garden, with its sweeping lawns, feature trees, the conservatory, the teahouse and the new visitor facility. Iconic urns and a fountain mark the entry to the original nineteenth-century garden, where colourful beds of flowers, magnificent heritage trees and interesting historic buildings can be seen. Visiting Geelong Botanic Gardens encapsulates rich culture, local history and plant collections across three centuries.
Reference: Article by Liz Bennetto in Australian Garden History, vol. 32, no. 1, July 2020 21
Liz Bennetto is a volunteer guide at Geelong Botanic Gardens