Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by plants.
From the age of three, I was digging nasturtium and tomato seedlings out of Dad’s compost bin and planting them in the garden. That interest never waned and so as I was growing up, one of the very special treats I got to enjoy on certain school holidays was a trip to Gardenworld in Braeside.
Gardenworld is a sprawling horticultural complex established by the Jackson family and consisting of seven independently-owned businesses that each specialise in different products or greenlife. For a small child fascinated by plants, it was like a theme park full of places to explore and all sorts of peculiar plant species.
By far the most iconic part of Gardenworld was the enormous cactus that stood at the main entrance to the complex, near the Gardenworld Café. It was absolutely enormous, and I assume it must have been quite old because it was propped-up with an elaborate assortment of steel poles, stakes and ropes.
What used to fascinate me as a child in the early 1990’s, sitting in the café with my meat pie and iced coffee, was the string of Japanese tourists who would come via bus and have their photos taken beside that cactus. For whilst Gardenworld was certainly well-known to keen Melburnian gardeners, it seemed odd in a pre-internet age that foreign tourists would even know of the existence of Gardenworld, let alone make a visit in a bus.
I shot the above photo of the front of Gardenworld in 1999. I think it might have been my last visit to Gardenworld because I’d started university that year and also acquired a job in a retail nursery far closer to home.
Just recently, Gardenworld re-entered my conscience and so last week I decided to make a long-overdue trip back to a place that had meant so much to me as a child. I didn’t really know what to expect, but thought it might be fun to take another photograph from the same angle that I’d take the ‘cactus’ photo in 1999:
As you can see, the large cactus has gone and the rolling lawn has given way to a maze of raised beds containing a selection of succulents. I am guessing that the lawn disappeared during the crippling drought.
My first stop at Gardenworld was Collectors Corner, a large business that sells a range of orchids, cacti, succulents and bonsai. Apparently Collectors Corner started at Gardenworld in 1984 and was rebuilt and expanded in 1987. Collectors Corner is almost as big as the Gardenworld Nursery itself and was always a source of fascination to me as a child.
When one enters Collectors Corner, they are greeted by a range of beautiful orchids, bromeliads and other tropical species which look so spectacular. I was pleased to see that the place hadn’t changed too much from how I remembered it.
It’s pleasant to walk the aisles, looking at the beautiful orchid species including Cymbidium, Dendrobium and Phaelenopsis. Collectors Corner is a serious business and so they have some serious facilities such as this beautiful but very humid orchid room:
The stock must be very valuable because signs warn of security cameras everywhere in that space. In fact, there is even a caged section where the rarest of rare species are offered for sale behind lock and key!
As one leaves the orchids, they progress to the cactus department. As a child, I always had a special fascination with cacti so this was a particular highlight. The cactus sales space was exactly as I’d remembered it, with row-upon-row of tiny pots for sale with every imaginable species of cactus on offer.
Like I did when I was a child, I walked every aisle, looking at all the various cacti.
One feature that has changed since I visited in 1999 was the cactus display garden.
One of the loveliest features at Collectors Corner are the display beds where one can see many of the species growing in a landscaped environment. I believe this also serves to house the proprietor’s personal collections.
When I used to visit in the 1990’s, there was a large hot shed with a clear roof that contained a large collection of cacti. One could walk along the paths around a small circuit and examine some massive prickly specimens. I recall being particularly careful to ensure that I didn’t trip over and fall because I could imagine myself tripping face-first into a barrel cactus!
The shed used to have a lovely trompe-l’œil on the wall which added to the impression that one was walking through an American desert. The shed has now been demolished and a new shed built in a slightly different location. Whilst being a larger space with a bigger collection of plants, it lacked the trompe-l’œil that gave the old space so much character.
From the cacti, one proceeds to the tropical species which includes Tillandsia, bromeliads and carnivorous plants.
One of the nicest spaces in this section of Collectors Corner is the small walkway through a mini ‘rainforest’ that is filled with many fascinating species. The walk even crosses a bridge over a ‘waterfall’ and ‘creek’ to a pond filled with fish. Unfortunately the waterfall wasn’t switched on when I visited, but I was really pleased to see the rest of this feature had been retained just as I could recall from my youth.
The combined and distinctive smell of humidity and moist potting mix is as evident here as in any glasshouse one is likely to enter. For me, it simply adds to the atmosphere.
The next section of Collectors Corner that one encounters is their significant collection of bonsai.
I was always impressed with their bonsai collection and even as a child, I understood that they must have been worth a considerable sum of money. The entire collection is housed in a yard that is bounded by a high fence topped with barbed-wire.
Some of the bonsais are literally chained to the pot and the bench that the pot is housed on, such as this amazing Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) that was sown from a seed in 1948.
The area consists of some very old bonsais, as well as smaller and newer plants for sale. I simply don’t know of another nursery in Victoria that has such an extensive range of bonsais of varying ages and species. It’s a real pleasure to wander the aisles and look at each individual work of botanical art.
Compared to my last visit in 1999, this area has changed somewhat. Having looked at the site via Nearmap, it seems that the space has been reduced in size and a new fence erected to accommodate works behind the nursery. There was still some building work occurring at the back of this space when I visited.
Of course, after so much horticultural exploration it’s time to proceed to the Gardenworld Café for something to eat.
When I used to visit as a child, my morning tea choice was always an iced coffee and a meat pie with sauce. Sitting there this time with a latte and slice, I was reminded of how things had changed.
Where once a few tables were arranged on a small area of brick paving under a giant Canary Island Date Palm, itself under-planted with Impatiens now sits an expansive decking area complete with café umbrellas. When I was a child I could see tractors ploughing fields on the other side of Springvale Road, but not any more. There are houses there now. The interior of the café used to have beautiful large pots of nodding violet (Streptocarpus caulescens) and these have gone too but otherwise it’s not too different, save for some minor redecorating internally.
From the café, it’s time to walk past Collectors Corner to the other parts of the Gardenworld complex. There used to be a soil supply business called “Soil’n’Spade” whose driveway we had to cross, but this seems to have disappeared. In its place is an expanded yard for Lotus Watergardens who specialise in aquatic plants, ponds, water features and the like.
I recall when I used to visit in the 1990’s that Japanese “deer scarers” (shishi odoshi or 鹿威し) were all the rage, but I could only see one on this visit and that specimen had somewhat rotted and was not operational. I do chuckle because for all the selling they did in those days, I have never actually seen one in anyone’s garden!
Next to Lotus is a hydroponics shop called Autopot Hydroponics. I am not sure if Autopot Hydroponics is the same business as the one that used to operate there. I do recall that aside from hydroponics, they also sold glasshouse systems and I recall as a child that I used to desperately dream of having my own glasshouse one day. For some reason Santa never did give me a glasshouse!
From Autopot, once proceeds to the actual Gardenworld Nursery. Even within the nursery, there are several businesses including One Stop Sprinkers and Semken Landscaping (a landscape architecture firm). But for me, it was the plants that were of primary interest.
Perhaps of the entire complex, the biggest changes were within the Gardenworld Nursery, especially the shop.
The large part of the floorspace within the shop that was once dedicated to plant stands, propagation equipment and sprinkler bits has been replaced with garden furniture and ornaments. This is not a phenomenon unique to Gardenworld by any means. I used to work at another retail nursery and witnessed the same trend during the time that drought-induced water restrictions were imposed and sales began to fall. Such a move became a commercial necessity. Other minor alterations had been made to the shop layout and to some of the entrances and exits.
As for the nursery, nothing much had changed with the exception of a decade’s worth of new cultivar releases. The nursery was still laid out as I recalled and the quality and diversity of stock was still very impressive.
Back in the 1990’s, Gardenworld Nursery used to sell lovely enclosed wooden gazebos that could almost serve as a small building. They used to have one of these as a central ‘help desk’ within the nursery, but I noticed that it had been removed for a more modest desk that was unattended when I visited.
When I was a child, I used to especially like looking at the flowering seedlings. They were always available in such nice colours and new cultivars were being released all the time. I used to use some of my pocket money to buy a few punnets of seedlings (as well as other potted plants) to grow in my garden at home. Even as an adult, I still enjoy potted colour!
In the past 20 years, the Victorian nursery industry has changed a lot.
Where once the sector was dominated my small family-owned business that made Gardenworld a lonely giant, there has been a lot of consolidation with the entry of Bunning’s into the market. A combination of increased competition and drought meant that a lot of the smaller non-specialist nurseries disappeared. As was alluded-to before, many nurseries have had to diversify in order to stay in business.
It is therefore satisfying to see that this great horticultural enterprise has retained the charm and diversity that made it special, especially to a young boy fascinated by plants. I am not just happy for nostalgia’s sake, but I genuinely believe that Gardenworld is one of Melbourne’s ‘hidden’ gems. It has something for everyone.
If you enjoy gardening at all, I highly recommend a visit to Gardenworld. If you do make the journey, make sure you take your children too!
Gardenworld is located at 810 Springvale Road in Braeside and is available on Twitter via @Gardenworld.