At the risk of stating the obvious, if you like what you do, then you tend to get better at it. And as the years roll along, the expertise you build up makes your work life more interesting - and the results even better. Here’s a good example, the proof in just one person’s path since the 1990s...
Back then, Matthew (Matt) Robertson had joined the ACT Parks and Conservation Service as a horticultural apprentice who’d later do his trade in arboriculture. This was the early era of Canberra’s Floriade, the annual mass flowering-bulb display inspired by The Netherlands’ famous Keukenhof gardens. It was a time when Matthew was busily gathering the knowledge that would support him in his career. It’s also where and when he was first exposed to the notion of testing new tools which might make the job easier. “I remember we agreed to do a trial on a road nearby, planting native trees and shrubs with a soil conditioner – some with, and a control group without. It was the first time I’d worked with TerraCottem and we all saw a definite difference, with improved plant establishment.”
Matt later moved from the public service to manage a private contracting firm, then he re-joined Parks in 2006 to manage the South Canberra area. “We did a lot of planting: tree plantings and floral displays for many years, throughout the urban environment.” By the time Matt left Canberra for Melbourne in 2010, TerraCottem was widely used for Canberra’s street tree plantings and park upgrades. The first nine months in Melbourne were spent on contract at the bayside City of Port Phillip before landing the role of Parks Services Unit Manager in Melbourne’s west at the City of Brimbank. “I came at the moment when there was a massive push for the re-establishment and upgrade of parks as there had been little done from a capital works perspective for many years.” These were interesting times where Matt’s maintenance team worked in conjunction with the designers of the new works, together putting in place successful landscapes that could be maintained and sustained. And from his box of previously learned tricks, Matt helped introduce TerraCottem into the specs, especially where the subcontracted tree plantings were concerned. “By the time I’d left we were planting in excess of 3,000 advanced street trees a year, in soil conditions which were hideous and that additive really gave the trees a head start.”
Which brings us up to the present day. A little over a year ago Matt made another career move to base himself in Queensland’s Dalby at the Western Downs Regional Council. It’s a setting that is happily drawing on his years of experience. From street trees to parks, to flowering ‘show-stopper’ garden beds, it’s all here, spread out across 38,039 km². From Westmar in the south to Wandoan in the north; west to Dulacca and all serviced from Dalby in the east.
“The team of 50 is based in and around the area and I travel at least two days a week to places like Moonie which has just a park, a pool and a playground or to Wandoan which is bigger with its sports fields, playgrounds, swimming pools and the showgrounds.” In this scenario there’s nothing, seemingly, that Matt and the team aren’t responsible for: trees, parks & gardens, sports grounds, playgrounds, cemeteries (and burials) and the high profile floral plantings along the shopping precincts. It may not have been long since Matt arrived, but already he’s trialling an adopt-a-street-tree program. “We’re looking at increasing canopy cover to offset the urban heat-island effect.” Knowing that everyone has a different take on trees in their nature strip, and that a blanket planting often comes with some trees being cut or removed overnight, Matt and his team are hoping to encourage an emotional buy-in. “We’ve asked the community to register their interest to have a tree planted on their nature strip. We’ll plant an advance stock sized tree and in return we’ve asked them to put a bucket of water on it each week and report to us with any issues.” This is also the first time Matt has used the tree-specific version of TerraCottem, Arbor, so he’s interested to see how that goes.
Matt also organised a planting workshop for his team, a general horticultural refresher but with a focus on planting effectively. “None of them had used TerraCottem before or had heard of it. There were no sceptics; they were keen and interested. Which is good because the crew have to buy in and not cut corners or we won’t get the results we’re after.”
And one of the areas Matt and the team are working on needs to get fabulous results given it’s the planting out of high-profile shopping precincts across the region. “It’s something the CEO and Mayor really love. They set the directive saying they’d really like us to raise the bar.” So where previously the beds were often left bare apart from some perennial foundation plantings, they’re now a blast of colour year round. “When we see that the previous display is starting to look messy and has about four weeks left, staff come up with the designs and we order in new seedlings.” It’s then a case of ripping out the old, rotary hoeing a top-up dose of TerraCottem complement, and putting in the new.
“The seedlings put out growth fast enough to keep down the weeds though we tend to put down sugar cane mulch in the early stages. And where we’re hand-watering, the soil conditioner stretches the interval and saves me money.” This planting process now happens about four to five times a year, an ever changing show from things like: chrysanthemums, violas, snapdragons, ornamental kale, five colour silver beet and calendula in the cooler months; and when it gets hotter: petunias, salvias, marigolds and lavender. Both Matt and the Western Downs Regional Council are well aware of the many and varied benefits that shady avenues and bright floral displays bring to a community. “The management team are visionaries and I enjoy making the effort to strategically plan and develop the community’s assets.”
This is a May 2017 street tree planting, part of Dalby’s Myall Creek upgrade project. In Matt’s words, “There are 46 Araucaria cunninghamii (Hoop Pine) planted in an avenue which we’re hoping will provide quite a spectacle when they start maturing. (Along with Araucaria bidwillii (Bunya Pine), the Hoop Pine is a dominant species in the Bunya Mountains close to Dalby in Queensland.) These large trees were selected for this site as there were no overhead or underground services and I prefer to plant the largest species of tree possible for a specific location to increase canopy coverage. We generally use recycled mulch generated from tree works and I use the two stake method as it gives the tree enough support whilst establishing but still enables a little movement to encourage the tree to develop its own structural integrity. The tree stakes are removed two years after planting.”