This article was first published on The Victorian Connection by  |  22 May 2023

The Gargarro Botanic Gardens and sound shell ampitheatre.

Residents in the small town of Girgarre devoted a decade to turning an empty paddock into a world-class botanic garden, which opened this month.

The Gargarro Botanic Gardens in Girgarre are world-class. Their contemporary landscape design creates a geometric series of distinct sections, with plants cleverly grouped to grab the attention of the senses and retain rare species.

The gardens are open Tuesday to Sunday.

Gargarro is not the first botanic garden designed by Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL). The award-winning landscape architecture practice also designed Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens’ Australian Garden, in Cranbourne, and Bendigo Botanic Gardens’, Garden for the Future. For this project, TCL created a breath-taking natural space for people among the unique dry landscapes of the Campaspe region.

Author, designer and horticulturist Paul Thompson is well known for his expert knowledge of Australian native plants – what they are and how they behave. Paul worked with TCL on plant selection for the Gargarro Botanic Gardens. There are rare and endangered species, as well as species native to the area and those that will thrive in the future with a changing climate.

A stream runs through Gargarro that’s a treat to hear, see and touch. It begins just beyond the garden entrance and winds through to the sound shell. The amphitheatre hosts the annual Moo-sic Muster, 'Victoria’s most inclusive music festival'. The five-day event includes workshops, concerts and dances.

From atop the gardens’ lookout tower, the geometric patterns, and contrasting blocks of colour and texture are revealed.  In the coming months, as the gardens become more established, see if you can spot the Hot Pink Garden.

While the gardens have high-profile names behind their landscape and botanic design, its true champions are people you’ve probably never heard of. The Girgarre community dared to imagine a world-class botanic garden for their town a decade ago. They’ve worked hard to make it a reality, including planting more than 26,000 plants. Girgarre’s is no ordinary community.

Small Town, Big Ambition

Gargarro’s Athol 'Doc' McDonald.

Girgarre is a small town about 40 kilometres west of Shepparton in the Campaspe region. Most people make their living in the food production chain, in farming and agriculture.

Girgarre once had a supermarket, butcher, café, garage and newsagent. Economic changes and the 10-year Millennium drought saw a gradual decline in services, businesses and in the number of residents. The Heinz company, which operated a tomato sauce factory in Girgarre for about 20 years left town in 2012.

Local farmer and Gargarro garden’s convener, Athol McDonald (Doc) says, 'the company offered the community a cash donation, with the intention the money would be spent on something worthwhile.' He adds, 'we went back to the company and said the community would like the parcel of land you own.'

The company gifted the people of Girgarre a 12-hectare parcel of cleared land with a water entitlement in the town’s centre. 'We talked about using it for housing, a cemetery, a skatepark,' says Doc before deciding to build 'a bold, beautiful, breathtaking and crowd-pulling place for events; a place for education and a place to showcase native planting.'

'We set up a company to develop and maintain the garden, engaged the most acclaimed architects in the country, and did a lot of planning – it’s taken 10 years,' says Doc. The gardens are called ‘Gargarro’, which is the Yorta Yorta name for ‘Girgarre’,' he adds.

It was the community who planted the 26,000-plus plants that have mostly been grown locally. 'The school pitched in on a regular basis,' says Doc. 'It’s been a great experience; the kids seem to enjoy it and it gives them a real sense of ownership.' He adds: 'Otherwise, we had two shifts a week of four or five people.'

Adjacent to the gardens is a small community-run nursery. Green Thumbs Nursery has been growing and selling plants for around a year. Money from the nursery goes to the replacement and operating costs of the Girgarre community car. It also supports Gargarro and other community projects.

Next to the nursery is a new two-storey café, which will be a welcome meeting place for locals and visitors.

The Power of Plants

Gargarro blends water features and native plants in the Botanic Gardens.

The Gargarro Botanic Gardens will grow more than plants. They will grow the Girgarre community’s opportunities to socialise. They’ll also grow the town’s reputation as a place to visit.

It’s been a long journey, to transform a paddock to a botanic garden. The community has demonstrated its resilience and creativity, to establish the Gargarro Botanic Gardens. Now, it’s the gardens’ turn to give back to the community all the benefits that spacious, curated and culturally significant green spaces offer.

Time spent in nature is good for us physically, mentally and emotionally. It lowers stress and has been shown to enhance community resilience and help communities cope with adversity.

The Gargarro Botanic Gardens will pull out-of-towners, too. Located between Shepparton’s Australian Botanic Gardens and Bendigo Botanic Gardens, it’s an important stop on the unofficial ‘garden enthusiasts trail’.

For a dose of Gargarro, head to Winter Road, Girgarre, and visit Gargarro Botanical Gardens or follow Friends of Gargarro on Facebook.

The Victorian Government supported the Girgarre community to establish the Gargarro Botanic Gardens through its Regional Infrastructure Fund. The fund is part of the Government’s record investment of more than $36 billion in rural and regional Victoria.