We talk to Chris Cole, the man who keeps our largest garden green.
Proverbs advocating the virtue of gardening would have you believe that Chris Cole, the Director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, has the most stress-free job in the state. But he’s quick to clarify: “Oh, there’s stress in the job for sure!”
As director, Cole oversees the strategic direction and planning of the gardens, from asset management to public programs and everything in between. It’s a big job that ensures the 1.6 million annual visitors experience one of the leading botanic gardens in the world.
Suffice to say, it’s a role that Cole finds very satisfying. “I can walk out of my office and see all the people enjoying the gardens and I take a lot of pride in that,” he says.
Originally from the UK, Cole moved to Melbourne two and a half years ago to take up the role. Despite having little chance to build his own garden while he’s been renting (he’s just bought a property and has been busily dividing and propagating plants in anticipation), Cole still has the chance to put on the gardening gloves. “I make sure I get out into the gardens every day,” he says.
Once a month Cole runs what he calls a ‘Management Working Bee’, where all the management and horticulture staff in Melbourne gardens office don their working gear and get into the motor buggies to start a project.
On a larger scale, Cole is addressing the future planning of the gardens. “We’re looking at landscape succession planning for a more future climate suitable garden, so whenever we do new planting from now onwards we’re thinking of the climate in the future.”
It’s not just about shifting to natives: “It’s about looking at climates around the world and looking at what Melbourne might be like in 50 to 100 years time, then selecting plants from those regions to ensure the provision of the gardens for the future while still maintaining the diversity of our plant palette,” Cole says.
During his tenure, Cole has overseen a 40 per cent reduction on the gardens’ reliance on drinking water for irrigation purposes. His next goal is looking at ways of becoming totally independent of drinking water for the irrigation of the gardens.
When asked to select his favourite area of the gardens, Cole speaks of the serene ambience and the incredible topography that connects the gardens with the city.
“My favourite area of the gardens is the perennial border,” he says. “It has a beautiful backdrop of Gardens House, the former director’s residence. The border changes throughout the seasons; it grows up and flowers beautifully in late spring, into summer and indeed into autumn, then dies down over winter, so it’s an ever-changing landscape,” explains Cole.
“Then I think the view over eastern lawn, across southern lawn to the city in the background is one of my favourite views.”
Cole’s tips on propagating a green thumb for oneself? “I don’t think I was born with a green thumb,” he says. “It was something I learned to love.”
Indeed, growing up in urban London, Cole spent a lot of time in his father’s veggie patch. “I knew by the age of nine or 10 that this was the career for me. It’s all I’ve ever done and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else! It’s infectious.
“Plants are very much in my blood and I enjoy being in a garden environment,” he continues. “Having the opportunity to lead such a world famous garden is indeed a real privilege.”