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The horticultural history of Fawkner Memorial Park

Date

Megan Backhouse

Thinking ahead: Cemeteries' horticultural chief Kevin Walsh in Fawkner Memorial Park.

Thinking ahead: Cemeteries' horticultural chief Kevin Walsh in Fawkner Memorial Park. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

There are stately avenues of trees, rolling lawns, clipped shrubs, numerous ponds and 14,000-odd roses. Fawkner Memorial Park is a landscape of groves and graves and, although bound by arterial roads, it hums with the sound of birds rather than traffic. 

Like the early 19th-century garden cemeteries in America, the park was designed not just as a place for remembrance but also as an escape from urban life. Although architect and surveyor Charles Heath was primarily thinking about the commemoration of death when he devised his layout of radiating roads, trees and bridges, the aim was also to create a peaceful setting for all sorts of visitors. 

And now 108 years after the first burial took place there, Kevin Walsh, the Manager Horticulture Planning at the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, is endeavouring to forge even greater ties between the cemetery and the wider community.

In a first for the trust, he has orchestrated free rose-pruning demonstrations at Fawkner (as well as at two other Melbourne cemeteries) and is now considering other horticultural-related events to foster a wider appreciation of Fawkner’s heritage-listed landscape, rare trees and monuments.

For while the park’s key role is one of memorialisation, Walsh says the cemetery should be enjoyed by the public “on other levels” as well. “There is a lot of wildlife, interesting trees and quiet spaces in which to relax. You wouldn’t know that Sydney Road is just there or that we have a rail line running through us,” he says. “While we are different from other public parks in that you don’t see people kicking a ball or flying a kite, you do see people walking dogs and, in an increasingly dizzy world, why wouldn’t they?”

The park’s oldest trees include oaks, elms, palms and - in keeping with the heavy reliance on dark foliaged conifers in Victorian-era cemeteries - both Monterey Cypress and Monterey Pines. Subsequently planted avenues of both exotics and natives (eucalypts in particular) reflect garden trends over more than 100 years.

Burial trends over the same period can also be traced, and are not necessarily distinct from the garden. Where some graves are topped with grass, others are covered in perennials. Some graves are marked with a simple plaque and others with headstones nestled in plants. Sometimes a single rose grows as a memorial for four people while some of the private mausoleums have conifers or potted plants on either side of the front door.  

“These cemeteries are massive and so they develop over time. It has taken 100 years to get Fawkner like this,” Walsh says. “Every nook and cranny has got something going on.” 

Sometimes what’s going on appears weathered and simple, like the rocks and boulders gradually positioned about the park after being dug up during the digging of graves. Then there are the gazanias, first planted by visitors tending burial sites in the mid 20th century and which have now run amok, thickly scrambling over some of the older areas (“it’s a dilemma what to do about that, they do bind the soil together but we will have to look at alternative ground covers,” Walsh says.) 

There are tough shrubs (think box, plumbago, lavender, westringia, correa and eremophila) that cope in hot, dry summers and which are regularly trimmed “to keep the park looking as presentable as possible”. 

But Walsh says the highest-maintenance plants are the 14,000 roses - mostly modern hybrid standards secured to their stakes with adjustable Velcro straps, fed four times a year, repeatedly deadheaded when in flower and pruned in July. 

While the roses - which are up to about 40 years old - are continually being replaced, a more fraught issue is the cemetery’s trees. Just as the City of Melbourne is expecting 39 per cent of its trees to be at the end of their “useful life” within the next 20 years, Walsh says the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust is now confronting issues around tree replacement at Fawkner and other sites.

Walsh, whose 1993 book Waterwise Gardening is currently into its fourth edition, says the trust needs to balance heritage considerations with those of climate. 

“Like general park planners we have to decide what works in our hot, dry summers and increasing heat waves, and what doesn’t. In that we are no different from any other public green space but we do have this special set of circumstances around our central mission.”

There will be free rose pruning demonstrations at both Fawkner Memorial Park and Altona Memorial Park tomorrow at 10am and at Lilydale Memorial Park on Sunday June 29 at 10am. While bookings have officially closed, phone 9355 3199 for last-minute inquiries. 

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