3 February 2023

From little things, big things grow: National Arboretum celebrates 10 years

| James Coleman
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National Arboretum

The National Arboretum has become one of Canberra’s go-to tourist attractions. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Picnics, school formals, dates, marriage proposals, weddings, anniversary lunches – not to mention a perfect backdrop for car photography – the National Arboretum has seen it all. Little wonder the 250-hectare site has become one of the jewels in the Canberra crown since opening 10 years ago this February.

So it might be hard to believe it wasn’t always thus.

“There was a lot of negativity about it when it first started,” executive branch manager Scott Saddler says.

“A lot of people thought putting trees back in an area that had just been razed by bushfire was a bad idea.”

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Scott joined management in 2015, but the idea of Canberra having a botanical garden devoted to trees dates back to 1911.

In his original plan for the then-new federal capital, Walter Burley Griffin envisioned an arboretum on the western side of the lake. Inspired by Gondwana and the idea that today’s continents were once one land mass, it would feature plants from different continents in corresponding areas of the arboretum.

But it took former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope to make it happen decades later in 2003. He launched the National Arboretum Canberra on the site of a burnt-out pine forest as a tribute to the resilience of Canberrans following the tragic January firestorm that year.

A joint proposal called ‘100 forests and 100 gardens’ won the design competition for its presentation of 100 monocultures forests of rare, threatened or symbolic trees from Australia and around the world.

National Arboretum under construction

Construction on the National Arboretum. Photo: ACT Government.

The first trees were planted in 2007, while work on the visitor’s centre, café, Bonsai and Penjing Centre, children’s playground and other infrastructure started in 2010. The terraced ‘Central Valley’ development near the Village Centre even became Australia’s largest sculpted earthwork since the Sydney Olympics.

By 1 February 2013, the National Arboretum was ready. More than 15,000 people attended the opening day festival, with predictions more than one million would visit in the first five years.

Turns out they were wrong. More than six million people have come through the gates since then. The annual count now numbers about 700,000, including 30,000 school children.

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“This is a world-class facility,” Scott says.

“There’s nothing else like this in the world, where you can immerse yourself in a monoculture – a whole forest of one tree species. It’s very special and the public loves it. We haven’t had any negativity for some years now.”

Now as the Arboretum passes the 10-year mark, it’s looking better than ever. A huge amount of rain in 2021 brought on the greatest growth in its history – more than 30 per cent in many of the forests. Before this, Scott says pumping water from the lake was another major boost.

“We used to have just enough water to manage the trees, but since that irrigation infrastructure was added about seven years ago, we have enough water for the trees to be sustainable and increase the growth levels of all the forests,” he says.

“They’ve grown exponentially.”

Man standing on grass at the National Arboretum

National Arboretum executive branch manager Scott Saddler. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

But the forests wouldn’t be the way they are if it weren’t for the staff and volunteers, as well as the non-profit community organisation Friends of the National Arboretum Canberra. Combined, these number more than 900 people.

“Our ‘Friends’ are judges, pilots, solicitors, lawyers, and others who turn up every Tuesday and Thursday – rain, hail, or shine – to help with anything from weeding around the base of the trees to mulching around the gardens,” Scott says.

“I have to say a huge ‘thank you’ to each and every one of these people.”

In addition to more growth bringing added depth and height to each of the forests, Scott says there’s a full calendar of birthday events to look forward to in 2023.

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These start with the Kite Fest on Sunday, 12 February, described as the “perfect family day out”. There’ll be a selection of pop-up food options, kite-making workshops, kite demonstrations in the amphitheatre, live entertainment and much more.

The AMPLIFY Tributes at the Arboretum concert follows on 25 February – also held in the outdoor amphitheatre.

On 28 April, the Canberra International Music Festival is holding a solo recital in the Margaret Whitlam Pavilion followed by a ‘”musical walk'” among the gardens, culminating with a performance by Canberra’s own Australian Dance Party.

To top it off, there’s also a black-tie gala evening on Friday, 5 May, with invitations extended to the Prime Minister and Governor-General. Entertainment will be provided by Aria Award winner, 2023 Queensland Australian of the Year and Kalkadunga man William Barton, on the didgeridoo.

Visit the National Arboretum Canberra website for more information or to book tickets to events.

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Ross of Canberra7:43 pm 09 Feb 23

I do love the Arboretum and hope that survival though drought can be weathered by careful management. What’s the exclusivity around Amplifty with its General Admission $90?

HiddenDragon8:16 pm 06 Feb 23

The Arboretum might, as some here would have it, have been conceived as a living monument to Canberra progressivism, but with that same progressivism now expressing itself in the form of a rapidly growing land-hungry city with an increasingly indebted government, it might – when the next big fire event comes our way – turn out to have been an artful example of long-term land-banking.

Time will tell.

Capital Retro8:39 am 06 Feb 23

I have been a critic of this political pet project since the first day. Can you tell me how much it has cost so far, Ashley?

How I love the National Arboretum. A vision that has evolved following the 2003 bushfires. All thanks to the foresight of Jon Stanhope. The Canberra Liberals, this backward looking party, opposed the National Arboretum every step of the way. I remember the frothing at the mouth we saw from Zed Seselja and Brendan Smyth as they railed against the Arboretum.
Remember this next time you drive past or take your family to enjoy the National Arboretum.

Good that you love it Jack but the criticism of it was well and truly justified.

The whole site is underwhelming and could have been used for far better community facilities and so could have the funding.

This was purely a vanity project from Jon Stanhope using taxpayers money for something he personally wanted.

Seems to be a continuing theme for the local ALP and Greens members, always very good at spending other people’s money.

Ha Ha you’re so funny chewy14. I’m still trying to get my head around 10 years of conservative government. So much scandal, rorting and illegally spending other peoples’ money. This includes the unlawful Robodebt scandal, deaths and a Royal Commission (with an additional $1.8bn in settlement costs to victims); jobs for the boys (AAT, prompting its disbandment); bushfire response (PM going overseas on holiday to Hawaii while Australia’s east coast burned in three states); Pandemic (the vaccine rollout favouring NSW at the expense of the states and territories); Sports Rorts affair; destruction of Aboriginal cultural sites; Brian Houston; ignoring allegations of sexual misconduct in Parliament House etc. etc.

Capital Retro4:04 pm 06 Feb 23

Gee, chewy. This is difficult to say but this is twice in one day that I have agreed with you.

Jack D,
But as you’ve outlined here, spending other people’s money isn’t rorting or corruption, it’s visionary thinking for the future.

As you’ve shown repeatedly, you have no problem with politicians making decisions outside of robust frameworks for their own personal reasons and benefit.

Oh, i forgot, only when your favourite political parties are the ones doing it and for projects you personally support. What could possibly go wrong with that type of thinking……

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