Julie Parker is a retired landscape designer and volunteer for the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens at Blackheath. The Gardens, with their unusual massed plantings of rhododendrons and azaleas in native bushland, are one of the delights of the Blue Mountains.
Q: How did you become involved in the Gardens?
A: My husband Ross and I lived in England for seven years and fell in love with the cold climate gardens there, so we looked for somewhere similar back in Australia. We retired to Blackheath last year and I wanted to get involved in the community. There were lots of choices, but I’ve always loved gardening and have a horticultural background, so when I saw the Rhodo Gardens and learned they were run by volunteers, I jumped at the opportunity.
Q: What attracts you to rhodos?
A: Their amazing colour and variety. There’s over a 1,000 known species, mainly in the Himalayas and Eastern Asia but elsewhere too. There’s even a couple of species of tropical rhodos (‘Vireyas’) in north Queensland. Rhodos flower at different times through the season, from August to December. Many of the red ones are early flowerers, while many purple ones come out in late November.
Q: What do you do as a volunteer?
A: There’s about 15 of us, and we work on Mondays. We’re affectionately known as the ‘MonVols’. Some of us concentrate on tasks such as weeding, pruning and planting, while others maintain the paths, mow, improve drainage, tidy the entry areaand do any necessary work with the trees. It’s a very friendly team and a rewarding way to start to the week, and there’s always plenty to do. The gardens cover 18 hectares, so we’re always looking for more volunteers! (See below for contact details.)
Q: Tell us about the Gardens.
The Gardens are in a valley along a water course that meets a swamp formed by Hat Hill Cree, which eventually joins the Grose Valley. Rhodos like the typical Australian acidic soil as well as the Blue Mountains cold climate. The idea was to set up a rhododendron garden beneath the canopy of the Australian bush. Because of this they are unique. It all started with the formation of the Blue Mountains branch of the Australian Rhododendron Society in 1969. The initial idea was proposed by Ib Sorenson son of the famous Paul who designed Everglades and lots of other gardens up here. Ib became the first President. The Society obtained some crown land and began their plantings of rhodos followed by azaleas, which are closely related,. Norm and Olive Campbell were a driving force – Norm created the original design – which is why the gardens are now named after them.
Q: It’s been a huge success, hasn’t it?
A: Ib Sorensen said they hoped the gardens would become a tourist attraction, and they certainly have! During the October-November Welcome Weeks we had thousands of visitors. We also open up the Lodge as tea rooms. We’re busy in autumn too - people enjoy the brightly coloured leaves of the many maples.
Q: You were hit by the big fires of 2019/20 weren’t you? I Iive just up the road, and I remember seeing the Grose Valley fire just reach the Gardens.
A: We lost roughly one-third of the gardens - some of the dead trees are still falling. We’ve had to plant over 300 new rhododendrons. Although amazingly, a few have miraculously come back to life this year. The fire reached the swamp below the lake and completely changed the ecology. The native vegetation recovered quickly, particularly the acacias which want to take over, so we’re trying to restore the balance.
Q: Tell us about your marvellous lake.
A: Back in 1971 it was decided to create a lake by damming the creek which runs through the valley. It was thought it would enhance the environment and provide a constant source of water for new plantings and wildlife. It is now so beautiful, and home to frogs and birds. We’ve even created a nesting site for turtles. The reflections are a photographer’s paradise!
Q: The lake was almost empty for a few years, wasn’t it?
A: Over the years the water levels have dramatically risen and fallen. We thought we had a leak and tried many remedies to no avail. Once drought came, the water disappeared and all we could do was wait for rain. But with La Nina, the lake’s full again.
Q: Has the rain been good for the gardens?
A: Because we’re in a valley, the rain water just runs down and creates new water courses through the garden beds. Rhodos don’t like all that water, and we’ve lost a few from that. We’re now working on diverting much of this water and hope things will improve soon.
Q: Has it been a good season?
A: We waited for spring to arrive for so long, and with all the rain and cloudy skies the plants are a bit confused. But it turned into a great season, and we had the Garden Gnome Convention for the first time, 1,000 gnomes visited us for the Rhodo Festival weekend, thanks to Blackheath Rotary. People loved that!
Q: The Gardens seem to me to have established a place in the hearts of the local people?
A: That’s true. Everything from people who walk their dogs here each day to those who want a memorial for a deceased loved one who enjoyed the Gardens. We often get asked to accept a plant for a memorial planting, and of course we’re happy to do that. We’re part of the community.
Q: What’s happening now, in late November?
A: We’ve had a bush regeneration team in to help us clear a big outbreak of Scotch broom. Now’s the time for pruning azaleas so we have been concentrating on that – A big job! - as well as fertilising.
Q: And you’re on the Gardens committee too?
A: I felt I had a useful background to offer to the committee so joined in August. I also took on the marketing role and do all our social media. It’s a great group and a really productive, friendly committee. It’s very satisfying to provide such a service for the community, and all the tourists. It’s such an asset for Blackheath. Some days we have busloads of visitors. The only thing I’d say is, it’s a big job for 15 people. So if you’d like to join us, please get in touch!
Julie Parker can be contacted on email: email@example.com
For membership and volunteer enquiries contact:
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