Landscape Gardener — Jim Nicholson

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I tried to do a horticulture degree at Burnley College (University of Melbourne), but after Year 12, my maths wasn't good enough. So I looked around for a gardening apprenticeship. I found one at Melbourne City Council, and maybe I've learnt more by going this way.

The Council was a great place to learn the craft of gardening. We had three nurseries: the Conservatory in Fitzroy Gardens and another at Royal Park, and a tree centre at Wandin in the Dandenongs. For four years, I was working and learning in these localities, and spending one day a week at TAFE.

The job was interesting from the start. We were often in beautiful settings—the Fitzroy or Alexandra Gardens, or the Shrine. I learnt about turf management in the oval areas of Royal Park. And occasionally I'd be on the City Crew, tending to plants and public squares in the centre of Melbourne. I was even lucky enough to be able to be able to go on exchange to the Royal Botanic Gardens at one stage. My apprenticeship was often busy, but it was good fun.

After a couple of years, I was appointed as Leading Hand at the Royal Park Nursery. I was responsible for two hectares of plants (annuals and shrubs) being prepared for our gardens and other government departments. We grew five to six thousand plants a week, and moved them on to beautify the city. They'd go to places along the Yarra, near the Museum, the Arts Centre, or around the city wherever there was a function on. Plants had to be tough to cope with the pollution and people traffic. These were long days, with plenty to do. But it taught me about deadlines. I had fourteen workers to organise, and that was interesting too …

After nearly ten years with the Melbourne City Council, I was ready for a change. I took a job with the Geelong Botanical Gardens and after six months they made me Head of their National Trust Gardens. That was an interesting 'can of worms'. The job had too many complexities, committees (meaning decision-making was slow), lots of volunteer and community scheme workers, and no real sense of my being in control.

So I left. I started up a small nursery in Torquay. I stayed there for two years before I moved to Mansfield. This was on the edge of the High Country, and a great contrast to where I'd been before.

I now run my own landscape gardening business in Melbourne, but looking back, I learnt so much in Mansfield. I worked with the Council there, and the issues were so different from what I'd encountered before. The area was huge. Over 50,000 hectares, which meant three to four hours drive from one side to the other. We had heavy frost, high rainfall, really hot summers and poor topsoil to deal with. I learned to manage a problem as and where it arose. A machine would break down and you'd have to fix it. The technician was often two or three days away. I learnt a lot about tree-felling and fencing as well as developing my sense of initiative.

I enjoyed Mansfield, but when major changes came in the mid 1990s with council amalgamations, I was ready to move on. We moved to Melbourne and I soon started a small landscaping business. It's good. I'm my own boss, I'm on the go all the time, and there's plenty of variety. I have one guy helping me and we're often flat out.

I like this work because it gives me plenty of outdoors. It's good too, to see your efforts rewarded either with a creative use of space, or just by cleaning up a messy garden. It's like being friends with nature.