Texans are an exotic species in Sydney, so when I recently read that Jimmy Turner joined the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust as director of horticulture operations, I did an especially happy little chicken dance. Dallas certainly felt the loss — Turner spent ten years as a beloved senior staffer at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden. Lucky man, he now oversees three magnificent botanic gardens and four parks in and around Sydney. He describes it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
I never let a stay in Sydney pass without making a pilgrimage to at least two of the city’s botanic gardens. My personal favorite is Mount Annan, which specializes in Australian natives. And on New Year’s Eve we head to the Sydney garden to watch the fireworks over the harbor.
How has Turner adapted to the extreme climate change? I asked him that, and a few other questions:
What do you miss most about Texas gardening?
My plants that I left behind. Gardening is part of my heritage and family, so you could in some ways say that a walk through my personal garden was a walk through memory lane, too. The Hippeastrum that was the favorite plant of my Great Aunt, who had thousands and showed me how to grow them from seed. The Narcissus that were planted by the last eight generations of the women of my family. The Clivia that was the only item I had from a prior love who had passed away. Every plant, as every gardener knows, has a little back story that plays in your head when you walk about your domain. I dug all of mine up and donated most to the Dallas Arboretum or passed them back to my Mom’s garden in East Texas.
Other than that, I must say I do not miss the erratic and extreme climate swings from torrential flood to drought in a week or the extreme swings of temperature. Oh, and that black stuff we like to call soil in Dallas — I definitely don’t miss that.
Those of you in Texas: I’m sorry, but I’ve landed in plant paradise.
Despite the differences in climate and plant material, are there principles of good gardening practice that pertain across the continents?
There are certainly bad gardening practices that are universal:
· Bad plant placement of too-tall plants next to houses and power lines
· Over-planting and planting too close
· Bad pruning during early development of shrubs and trees
Good practices that work everywhere, too:
· Good classic design never is a bad thing (that said, my personal garden is always in drifts of one!)
· Good maintenance. Don’t plant more than you can take care of (yeah right, who are we kidding?)
· Right plant, right place –- no use trying to grow roses in part shade (you know you’ve tried)
Most delightful discoveries about gardening in Sydney?
Everything I ever wished I could grow, I can. Those of you in Texas: I’m sorry, but I’ve landed in plant paradise. I manage three Botanic Gardens and four parks reaching from the top of the Blue Mountains to the Sydney Harbour. There just aren’t many plants I can’t grow. Everything is a perennial; unfortunately, sometimes they shouldn’t be. Just because that geranium (Pelargonium) is 20 years old is most likely the reason you should rip it out and start over. Want to know what we can grow here? Look at your house plants and imagine them as trees and you’ve got a good starting point!
Favorite plant material there?
Anything native. I’m learning a whole world of new plants that just never appear on the American continent other than a few odd bits here and there along the west coast. Every day I run across a plant (or 20) that I don’t know and have to run to look them up online.
Also, I have a penchant for the over-the-top, showy tropical. I’m in love with the Brugmansia everywhere, and the Tibouchina. One thing that Sydney doesn’t realise is how blessed it is with a gardening climate.
One of the things I have learned in Sydney is to follow my nose. Walking about the city and getting a whiff of some heavenly plant perfume, I’m off up the alley down the lane, peeking over fences to see what it is. Some of the plants here are magical in their fragrance. That said, I’ve tracked down enough Murraya and Citrus trees now that I’m learning not to sniff them out.
Any fresh lessons learned in Australia that we can use here in Texas?
Same ones I’ve been preaching for decades: Try something new. Find the right plant for your garden. Always be on the search for a new or old variety, because not all plants are created equal.
Is your “g’day” now as believable as your “howdy”?
No, not yet. When I’m on the east or west coast in the US, everyone has a devil of a time understanding what I’m saying with my fast-talking and Texas accent. Here in Sydney, surprisingly, everyone seems to understand me perfectly. Conversely, something about the Australian accent works with my Texas ears, too, and I understand the lingo easily. Except for the strange desire here to shorten everything to four letters!
Here’s Turner (second segment, after the garden feature) talking with “Central Texas Gardener” host Tom Spencer about “flameproof” plants for the Texas heat: