National Arboretum boss Scott Saddler acknowledges what a fantastic summer it’s been for Canberra’s living institution and is also quick to dispel any notion that the place might be suffering if the grass is dying off.
“Every single tree has a drip tube, every single tree gets watered,” he says. “So it’s all about the trees really, rather than the grass.”
So while the drought and Black Summer may have blasted the hillsides and the irrigated grass offered the only tinge of green on the ground, the 44,000 trees continued to prosper thanks to the Arboretum’s sophisticated watering system which calculates rainfall and switches off for days at a time depending on the weather.
With about 500mm of rain received in the last six months, and more good falls expected, it means the Arboretum has only used half its water allocation this financial year.
But for the uneducated, the greening of the Arboretum during the La Nina event has been a marvellous spectacle and Mr Saddler admits the trees are really loving it.
So are Canberrans, who flocked there during the pandemic restrictions, eager to escape the confines of home and be in a place where social distancing could be easily achieved.
“This has been Canberra’s head space,” Mr Saddler says.
“We left the gates open and people came in their thousands to sit on the grass, walk through the forest and ride their bikes through the forest and bring their kids here to play on the playground. The car park over the COVID period has been just about full every day.”
He says it was amazing to see thousands of people just sitting in the amphitheatre.
The Arboretum drew 750,000 people last year and is well on the way to a million visitors a year which would put it in the top 20 or 30 attractions in the country.
Schools from all over Australia visit the Arboretum, averaging nine buses a day.
From its conception, the National Arboretum has been an ambitious project and, while the COVID slowdown has put the proposed eco-hotel on hold, it is now in the third phase of development with big plans for taking people into the forests, establishing a Forest Sculpture Gallery, forest gardens and a purpose-built stage in the amphitheatre for major concert performances.
Seventeen kilometres of trails have been cut for riding, biking and walking through the forests, and are already busy.
“It’s been like Pitt Street in Sydney of a morning – the bikes riding to work in the city and then riding back to the western side of Canberra in the afternoon,” said Mr Saddler.
A tourist bus driven by an Indigenous education officer already takes visitors on a loop tour but $1.9m of Commonwealth money will go to sealing roads for all weather use and in about 18 months to two years cars will be able to travel through forests where layovers will allow vehicles to pull over so visitors can explore their favourite forest.
Mr Saddler says this will allow a range of events to be organised such as Lunches in the Forest.
The Forest Sculpture Gallery will contain 24 pieces of art from international, national and Indigenous artists placed throughout the forests on a 7.5km loop.
A panel of art experts has been convened and the project will be launched in the next few months with artists falling over themselves to donate their art to the Arboretum.
But Mr Saddler says the Arboretum will take its time selecting artworks so they are the right fit.
Events are on the way back, in particular weddings with the Margaret Whitlam Pavilion booked out for the next 18 months and Mr Saddler hopes to see concerts returning later in the year.
Conceptual plans for the stage have passed the National Capital Authority but that is likely to be three to five years away with another entry-exit required into the grounds to avoid the traffic congestion that plagued one big concert at the site.
The original Arboretum design is for 100 forests and 100 gardens and at the moment there are 36 gardens including the donated Gallery of Gardens. Fifty of the forests are designed with a central section to accommodate a garden and there are 24 designed for the walk down to the Central Valley with nine already donated.
For those wanting to donate a garden, the Arboretum has a prospectus available.
For Mr Saddler, his role seems tailor-made for a man with a background in horticulture, arboriculture and management. It’s as if his entire career has been about preparing for this dream job.
“I pinch myself every day,” he says. “There are not too many people who get to leave a legacy – not just for 50 or 100 or 200 years, this place will be around for hundreds of years and to leave a legacy for future generations is exciting.
“I tell my staff all the time that we are working in a world-class facility and they have the opportunities as well to leave legacies for future generations.”
As an Indigenous man it must be particularly gratifying to have an impact like that and he has ensured that First Nations culture has a strong presence whether that be the Bush Tucker Garden, the basket weaving area or education programs.
But as he puts it, it is not just the Scott Saddler Show and he praises his staff and their contribution.
“I have wonderful staff, we all come together to work on projects,” he says.
“We all put our stamp on little bits and pieces. It’s wonderful when you can visualise something, put it on to paper, and then actually build it.”