2 February 2020

Behind-the-scenes at Floriade: snow angels, bum marks and an army of gardeners

| Glynis Quinlan
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Head gardener Andrew Forster celebrating Floriade’s 30th birthday and 20 years in the role. Photo by Glynis Quinlan.

The biggest floral display in the Southern Hemisphere was launched on our doorstep last weekend – bringing to bloom months of work from a small army of gardeners who must now prepare for whatever eccentricities this year’s visitors will throw at them.

Head gardener Andrew Forster has seen most of it before as he celebrates his 20th year in the job at the same time as Floriade enjoys its 30th birthday.

Unashamedly proud of the floral festival, Andrew has worked on it since its beginning in 1997 and believes that each year it just gets better.

This year the designers and gardeners have pulled out all stops, bringing back the best-performing and favourite flower beds since Floriade’s inception, with feature gardens themed around music, art, technology, food, culture and more.

But what goes on behind-the-scenes at Commonwealth Park? Does everything tend to go according to plan or are the gardeners kept busy replanting?

According to Andrew, the biggest culprit which causes them to have to plant more flowers is “bum marks” – where people decide to sit in the flower beds to have their photos taken.

While this is a problem in various parts of the park, it is the humble poppies which bear the brunt of it, with various errant visitors seemingly unable to resist the attraction of sitting in the poppies.

Errant visitors seem unable to resist the temptation to sit among the poppies to have their photo taken. Photo by Glynis Quinlan.

Thankfully, however, the gardeners don’t normally have to cope with much worse and keep a special reserve of plants (pictured below) hidden away for when replanting is needed.

This secret stash of flowers for replanting is hidden away from the public gaze. Photo by Glynis Quinlan.

Asked whether people ever try to lie down in the flowers, Andrew says that this isn’t usually an issue but on the last night of Floriade there is a special celebration for volunteers where both volunteers and staff have been known to do ‘snow angels’ in the flowers.

3,000 box trailers of potting mix

Andrew said a team of about 20-25 gardeners are involved in the planting for Floriade, with 7-8 gardeners working in split shifts during the festival – and no doubt keeping a particular eye on the poppies!

According to Andrew, around 3,000 cubic metres of potting mix are used for Floriade, which is the equivalent of 3,000 box trailers of potting mix.

Behind-the-scenes, preparing for Floriade 2017 was a massive process, with the gardeners started to mark out the grounds way back in February and digging starting in March.

The planting of more than one million flowers – to help mark Floriade’s 30th – started in April and continued until the end of May, with the gardeners ordering replants in June as a contingency in case something doesn’t work out.

You would think that after 20 years as head gardener Andrew might be getting a little sick of flowers but that definitely isn’t the case and he is quick to point out his favourites.

“I love the poppies,” he said. “There’s a tulip called Ad Rem that’s really nice and the double daffodils are really cool.”

A poppy growing in front of Sydney-based Lucy Humphrey’s incredible Horizon sculpture. Photo by Glynis Quinlan.

What happens when it’s over?

Floriade 2017 runs until Sunday October 15, with its school holiday peak period set to start next week. However, once the event finishes the work starts again as the gardeners clear the plants, recycling materials and returning Commonwealth Park to its normal state.

But what happens to all the plants? It’s quite a big effort but also a beautiful story where nothing goes to waste.

The volunteers have a special ‘thank you’ dinner on the last night (October 15) and are then given 60-90 minutes to dig up plants to keep.

The next morning flowers are cut and delivered to hospitals and nursing homes around Canberra. Then schools are given the opportunity to come in and get resellable flowers, while any left-over plants tend to go into selected parks around Canberra.

From start to finish Floriade is a mammoth feat as befits such a huge tourist drawcard that injects around $40 million into the ACT economy across 30 days.

The behind-the-scenes activities are a world of their own and make you value even more the blooms on display.

Next time you think of sitting among your favourite flowers for a photograph spare a thought for the gardeners who will have to take care of the results. If you really can’t resist, become a volunteer and enjoy a truly interactive experience on the last night.

Event details

Floriade is a free event which began on September 16 and runs until October 15 at Commonwealth Park. This year it has extended opening hours from 10 am – 7 pm and there is a new Floriade’s app featuring interactive maps to guide you through the park.

For the first time, NightFest runs across two weekends this year – beginning this weekend (September 22-24) and also running next weekend (September 29 to October 1). This ticketed event is an after dark experience combining amazing lighting installations with a park full of live music, comedy, roving entertainment, food, wine and local produce.

One of the favourite attractions from last year’s NightFest. Photo by Glynis Quinlan.

For more information about Floriade 2017 go to www.floriadeaustralia.com


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Glynis Quinlan3:27 pm 25 Sep 17

Maryann, what a lovely memory and also an insight into Floriade’s past that will no doubt be familiar for many people who have traced the event’s growth. I wish we could still dig up bulbs at the end but it is good that this is a reward for the volunteers and anything left goes to such worthy purposes.

Glynis Quinlan3:23 pm 25 Sep 17

Futureproof, it was certainly a shame that happened, although obviously outside Floriade’s control. I understand they worked hard to rectify things and were able to open the gates again quite quickly. The only good point was that apparently all the water was good for the tulips!

I tried to get into Floriade yesterday. Arrived early, stood in line for an hour, then an announcement – ‘due to a burst water main, the park is closed.’ Off I went, along with many others. Not a good look.

Maryann Mussared6:31 pm 24 Sep 17

I have fond memories of Floriade from 1993. There was no fence and I rode my bike through the flower beds on the way to the School of Art. One morning it was particularly cold, and the black tulips were covered in frost. At the conclusion of Floriade, it was a public free-for-all to dig up bulbs – I suspect the reason it is now so closely controlled. I filled my basket with black tulip bulbs (as I remembered exactly where they were!) and enjoyed them popping up the following spring. Andrew has done a mighty job over the years!

Glynis Quinlan10:57 am 24 Sep 17

Good point Paul. This article was obviously meant to be a look at some of the quirky and interesting facts and happenings associated with Floriade rather than being a comprehensive behind-the-scenes run down. However, the designers do an amazing job and their imagination and expertise are critical to the success of Floriade. They probably have some tales to tell too and I’d be interested to hear them. On that point of behind-the-scenes acknowledgement, it is probably good to also mention the team at Mandylights who are responsible for the superb NightFest lighting installations, and also the Gema Group for their work in the hospitality/food/catering area (also a mammoth feat). In a festival of this size, there are also many others doing amazing work.

Paul Costigan7:55 am 24 Sep 17

Further ‘behind the scenes’, and often overlooked by media covering the ‘behind the scene’ story, is the Canberra design group who have been responsible for the design of the Floriade gardens for 13 years – Landscape Align: Harris Hobbs Landscapes, dsb Landscape Architects and SPACELAB.

If we didn’t have the design each year – the gardeners hard work would not deliver the wonder that is Floriade for all those tourists.

Always good to promote local design expertise and to give credit where credit is due. Well done to all involved with Landscape Align – Harris Hobbs Landscapes, dsb Landscape Architects and SPACELAB.

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