Plant / Life

Fitzroy Gardens Conservatory

by Georgina Reid
Thursday 20th August 2015

It’s awfully wintery in Melbourne right now, which hasn’t exactly been conducive to photographing gardens.  The mornings are wet and cold, tree limbs are leafless… let’s face it, winter is not the most photogenic time of year.

BUT, there are still gardens to admire if you know where to find them.  Today our gardens columnist Georgina Reid of The Planthunter takes us inside the Conservatory in Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne, which is green and lush year round. Built in 1930, the Conservatory has gathered an impressive reputation for its floral displays, which change five times a year. Right now, it’s very pink and purple in there!

When I grow up I want to own a conservatory. An old rambling one, big enough to house my collection of air plants, ferns, mistletoe cactus, hoyas and The Planthunter HQ. The ultimate office space for a hunter such as myself, huh?! I reckon one like the gorgeous old Conservatory in Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne would do me just fine.

As part of my future workspace research, I had a chat to Angela Hill, Senior Open Space Planner at the City of Melbourne. She’s responsible for the overall master planning and direction of Fitzroy gardens, and knows all about the Conservatory.

Built in a Spanish Mission/Colonial Revival style in 1930, the Conservatory has been an enduring and popular tourist attraction for visitors to Melbourne and locals alike. Since its opening over 80 years ago, it has garnered a reputation for its horticultural excellence and never ending floral displays, which change five times a year.

The current display, running until the 18th of September, is Cineraria and Cyclamen. It’s very pink and very purple! While the themes stay the same each year, the design changes. ‘The current display of Cineraria and Cyclamen will look quite different to the one created last year,’ Angela says. ‘The artistry of the horticulturalist is a key ingredient and so are the plants.’

The numbers of plants used in each installation is staggering. According to Angela there are: 1700 pots of Cyclamen and Cineraria currently on display; 400 ‘background’ plants such as Buxus sempervirens topiary, Magnolia grandiflora ‘Teddy bear’ and Cordyline fruticosa; and 20 hanging baskets. There are also back up plants with the same amount of Cyclamen and Cineraria being held as replacement display stock.

When I hear numbers like this I immediately wonder what they’ll do with the plants once the display period has ended. ‘The plants used in the display are reused or recycled in various ways,’ says Angela. Phew, I say. The feature plants in good condition (in this case – Cyclamen and Cinereria) are returned to the grower or re-housed for use in future shows. Feature plants that can’t be re-used or returned to the grower are often donated to charity organisations, schools and community gardens. The filler plants, the guys in the background, are kept and rested for use in future shows.

Conservatories were all the rage back in the 1920s and ’30s. Folks were into flowers, and in cooler climates conservatories were built to showcase new plant species and horticultural techniques in a controlled environment. Nowadays, rather than specifically being at the forefront of plant breeding and education, conservatories are perhaps more a place of respite. They take us to a fantasy land of horticultural delight, a taste of the tropics in the middle of a Melbourne winter, a journey to the orchid filled jungles of South America in Autumn, and a dive head first into a sea of Hydrangeas in summer.

Fitzroy Conservatory is a deep breath of green (and pink and purple!) amid a heaving, concrete city. Despite the changes in the way we garden, and the way the space is interacted with, it’s as popular as ever. It’s loved by international visitors, the staff members working there and locals. And, now I think of it, it’s quite spacious. I wonder if I could nestle my office into the back corner behind the ‘background’ plants. Please Angela, just don’t send me off to be recycled!

Nestled amongst the foliage is a bronze sculpture by Ailsa O’Connor of the first European  migrant woman to settle in Melbourne, Mary Gilbert. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

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