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A Life's Work

Date posted: 03 June 2015

Catching up with our long-serving Deputy Director Trevor Christensen, who's retiring after 37 years at the Botanic Gardens of South Australia.

When did you first start at The Gardens?

1977. I’d done an Applied Science degree, specialising in citrus, avocados and pesticides, but my interest in ornamental horticulture started when I got a job in the city council parks department in Toowoomba, Queensland. My wife and I came here [Adelaide Botanic Garden] because I got a job as a technical officer. From that role I went into plant records – the documentation of our living collections (we brought in the first database computing system here, getting the manual card system over to an electronic format) – and then I became horticultural botanist, so being in charge of naming and identification of plants. From there it was into managing our science and education area, before gradually moving into policy and strategic planning. My wife and I thought we’d live here for five years… been a long five years!

Has your passion for plants and botany waned?

No, it has increased! You’d think I’d know the Garden and its plants as well as anyone, but I could still walk around it today and come across things and say, “Oh, I never knew we had that!” It’s that sense of discovery and learning that’s kept me going.

Favourite parts of the Garden?

The Australian Forest is one. I was closely involved in converting that area into an Australian temperate rainforest area to complement the rainforest plantings that needed to be inside the [Bicentennial] Conservatory, under glass. It’s very peaceful, it’s cool on a hot day, it’s quiet, it’s subdued… it's just really good for the soul. The Australian Native Garden is another favourite because it shows what you can do with a very small space, and purely with Australian plants. You don’t need high water usage, Northern Hemisphere plants to create a wonderful landscape garden.

Fondest memories?

In latter times, the construction of new areas – the wetlands, Native Garden, SA Water Mediterranean Garden… prior to that it was the building of the Bicentennial Conservatory, and the sourcing of plants. Another standout was when the Palm House was refurbished and opened by Prime Minister Paul Keating. It was a superb evening, listening to a brilliant speech with no hint of politics.

How has the Adelaide Botanic Garden changed? How might it change in future?

Change has really been brought about from a resourcing base. As resources become harder to get, we’ve had to look more closely at collections. So while the number of different species and plants might have decreased, the collections themselves have become far more valuable because they come from a really planned and reasoned basis. Arguably the main role of living collections in a botanic garden is environmental education about plants. So what’s critical are the messages we want to get across to schoolchildren and the community… but also then how – through what collections, what group of plants, what individual plants? Those things are far more targeted [now, than what they used to be]. The main challenge of the Botanic Gardens [moving forward] is maintaining relevance and importance, and being proactive in looking at environmental challenges. And then, how do we communicate those things to the public to bring about behavioural change? I’d love to see the continued development of the Seed Conservation Centre. It’s been quite amazing that, in a short space of time and on a shoestring, we’ve been able to become a leading seed conservation program, not just in Australia but in the world, thanks to fantastic, highly skilled and enthusiastic staff.

What’s next?

I’m going overseas for six weeks from August – going to the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge (I’m a keen cricket fan). My son's getting married in October. After that will be all the things I never seem to get the time to do much of – fishing, bushwalking, archery, gardening and volunteering. I became a grandfather last year and my daughter’s going back to work this year so once a week I’ll be looking after my grandson, which will be great fun too!

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