Whether it’s eucalypts in Coleraine, rare apples in Templestowe or threatened species in Canberra, arboretums are all about amassing trees and parading them in the one spot. That was the way of it even before Scottish garden designer John Claudius Loudon introduced the term to the English-speaking world in the 1830s.
But what’s to say that’s how it has to be? Some flout-the-rules horticulturalists are now maintaining that a botanically significant group of trees can be woven through a whole town and still be considered an arboretum.
Central Victoria’s Ballan, with 3500 residents and a gold-mining past, is the testing ground for such lawlessness. A series of designs by RMIT landscape architecture students, who propose how Ballan – in its entirety – might be both arboretum and township, are on show for the town’s Autumn Festival on Sunday, March 22.
One design has groups of trees strewn all over town and connected by bike paths; another has them spilling out of a central shopping strip, while a third has trees arranged to reflect the land’s original topography (the town now taking the more regular form of a grid.) There’s an arboretum based on the shade patterns different trees will cast on the footpath, and another highlighting the myriad effects they can have on wind movement.
Pure fancy these are not. One of the 15 proposals has already been given the go-ahead. Erin Wait’s “design insertions” at the town’s east and west entrances are to be installed from May. Her proposal, which also suggests grouping trees at the train station and near the Werribee River, considers how you might navigate your way around Ballan through colour. The plantings she has laid out for the entrances will be composed of different varieties of Acer saccharinum, which is renown for its fiery autumn colour.
With these designs sounding as much like creative urban planting as a systematic process of establishing a tree collection, RMIT landscape architect lecturer Michael Howard says it is a way of looking at “how you can interrogate two ideas and bring them together”.
Just as modern-day meadows have merged the allure of the perennial border with that of the wild grassland, he wonders whether an arboretum can’t marry something of both the street tree and the botanically significant “park-type” collection.
Howard credits Ballan local Stephanie Day with first coming up with the whole-of-town arboretum concept. In a catalogue that documents the student designs, Day describes how she was inspired to broaden her thinking about arboreta during a visit to Singapore where she was struck by a sign that read, “Treat Singapore as your garden.”
“I considered it a thought-provoking idea,” Day writes. “How could we engender such a sense of ownership of public space in Ballan? As Singapore has become a city within a garden could Ballan become a township within an arboretum?”
Day and four others formed an arboretum committee and Howard, who not so long ago became a Ballan local himself, fell for the idea of “appropriating a township as an arboretum” after reading about the committee in the local paper.
Where landscape architects often distance themselves from the more folksy-sounding world of gardening, Howard, who has also worked as both a plant buyer and hands-on gardener, straddles both camps. The first task he assigned his students was to make a survey of what was already growing – ashes, oaks and lindens were the trees of choice in the 19th century, with expansion in the 1970s seeing more native specimens, such as acacias, eucalypts and melaleucas. Then Howard encouraged students to talk with residents to gauge how they felt about the town.
Ultimately, much of what the students have suggested, though, is both idiosyncratic and experimental – groupings of medicinal plants so residents can treat some of their own ailments, say, or trees with flowers the colour of local sports clubs.
“It’s about contesting things,” Howard says. “How do you do trees differently? What is an arboretum if it’s not a park and not a streetscape? Landscape architects are still struggling to know how to teach plant content but if the landscape architect gets the trees right they are the anchoring points for the landscape . . . people want trees and they want stories to go with them.”
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald by Megan Backhouse at 20 March 2015 — 11:45pm