Meet the winner: Gardener of the Year
for his work over 40 years transforming Glenrock Scout Centre from a barren, former coal-mine site into a series of native gardens brimming with wildlife
Talented individuals who are labelled ‘overnight sensations’ have usually toiled for years within their chosen field. This is certainly true of John Le Messurier, whose 42 years of dedication to developing the gardens at Glenrock Scout Centre have culminated in him being voted 2018 Gardener of the Year!
His incredible gardening journey began even decades earlier. “Seventy years ago, when I was eight, two wonderful things happened,” says John. “I began pushing seeds into my very own vegetable patch at our North Dubbo home, and I became a Cub Scout. Both were adventures that would give me a lifetime of pleasure.”
the early years
John’s varied early experiences with gardening and nature shaped his career, and developed in him a real passion for volunteering and sharing his knowledge.
On bush camping trips with his father, young John delighted in multi-trunked mallees, prompting a lifelong fascination of trees and eventually leading to a stint as a forestry field worker. He speaks fondly of a south-eastern Queensland Plunkett mallee (Eucalyptus curtisii) he planted at Glenrock.
Aged 10, John lived with his uncle, who was the gardener at a property in the heritage garden village of Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. “I was drawn to all the glorious gardens in the area, and my love for gardening increased.”
John first visited Glenrock as a Scout in 1954. At the time, the former coal mine, 6km from Newcastle’s CBD, was a barren landscape that was devoid of topsoil and useful plants but flourishing with invasive weeds. Aesthetics aside, John spent many enjoyable years with his Scouting peers, adventuring, socialising and developing outdoor skills. He gained his Scout Gardener badge at 15, then later became the district Scoutmaster and a trainer and examiner of Scouts working towards their Venturer Scout Environment badge for the Queen’s Scout Award.
a growing passion
When he finished school, John studied environment protection, pest control and water-borne disease control. At 19, he began a traineeship with Newcastle City Council and eventually became Deputy Director of Environmental Management, before retiring after 40 years. He was also a TAFE teacher for five years and has written numerous published articles.
John has deliberately broadened his horticultural knowledge over the years by saturating himself with relevant pursuits and activities, including visiting open gardens and volunteering with expert organisations such as Landcare Australia. His proficiency, coupled with his deep appreciation of the natural world, saw him lead the way in returning Glenrock’s degraded landscape to flourishing beauty.
In 1976, to celebrate Earth Week, John joined colleagues from the Newcastle Apex club to conduct an inaugural planting of trees at the site, and so began the slow and steady resurrection of the area where the Awabakal Aboriginal people had lived for centuries, enjoying an abundance of fresh water and food from the land and ocean.
The 6.2ha property is situated within the Glenrock State Conservation Area, alongside Glenrock Lagoon. Besides the blackberry, bitou bush and lantana, John
and the many other volunteers battled strong, salt-laden winds and erosion. “I learnt a lot back then from the Forestry Commission about selecting suitable plants for front-line coastal gardens,” says John. Also, living on a clifftop property at nearby Redhead and making holiday visits to beachside locations has given John and his wife Pam a deeper understanding of the challenges and solutions related to coastal gardening. Banksia and westringia top John’s list of coast-tolerant plants.
Since 1976, John has initiated and overseen the development of 26 gardens within Glenrock, using only native plants, which was unusual in the 1970s and ’80s.
“The Scout camp sits between a littoral rainforest and some extensive eucalyptus woodland,” he says. “It was environmentally correct to create native gardens that would return wildlife to the camp property. It is now a cradle of life for possums, lizards, birds, butterflies, bees and other insects.”
Garden bed themes include the Bush Tucker Garden, Wastewater Transpiration Tree Bed, Erosion Garden (swamp she-oaks that accept brackish lagoon water), Wild Garden for Bird Safety (native raspberries, spiky vines and sandpaper figs), and a much-longed-for Grevillea Bed.
Sticking to the themes and dreaming of what plants would go in each bed, according to aspect, soil and mature plant height, was often easier said than done, as it depended on plant donations. “I was very grateful for anything we received,” laughs John. “A favourite memory for me is receiving a call from Charlestown TAFE inviting me to collect plants that horticultural students had propagated.
I was there with a trailer in record time!”
John and other enthusiastic volunteers have planted thousands of seedlings during numerous working bees. “Scouts who’ve assisted me have contacted me years later to relive their experiences and say how much they learnt,” says John.
Bringing the property’s soil back to life to ensure plants thrived was integral for the initial success, and continues today. “Gardens are mulched with every possible vegetation,” says John. “We use worm castings, prunings, straw from billycart race barriers, compost and grass clippings.”
Open expanses of lawn at the centre provide ample space for Scouting activities, while plantings of callistemon, melaleuca and calothamnus, among others, envelop the Scout camp accommodation cabins and other facilities. “I cherish all the plants, but I’m drawn to the Hakea ‘Burrendong Beauty’ and the weeping pittosporum (Pittosporum angustifolium) that I adored during my boyhood,” says John.
John is grateful to receive recognition from the extended gardening community of readers who voted for him, and is excited to win. “It is an opportunity to share the joy of this occasion with my voluntary colleagues at Glenrock, and use my wonderful golden Digadoo spade for new plantings!” We wouldn’t expect anything less, John!
CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT The swamp oaks John planted help protect the foreshore of Glenrock Lagoon; many trees have been grown to provide shade for campers; one of the many grevilleas at the site; John makes and paints the plant signs at home, using discarded pieces of wood; the Burwood Colliery in operation in 1894 at Glenrock Lagoon.
The Sundial of Human Involvement is the result of a bequest donation. Two South Australian sundial scientists, one of whom was a King Scout, built the structure and gave installation advice. To tell the time, someone stands on the north-south line, with hands raised, causing a shadow to fall on columns that mark each hour.
BELOWe buildings at Glenrock Scout Centre are set among thousands of native plants planted by John and other Scout volunteers, who also spent time enriching the soil.