By KIERAN FINNANE
The site was “brutal”: the concrete forecourt of the former Oasis garage, facing west, unfenced, often used as an informal carpark.
That was three and a half years ago. The artist-run Watch This Space had just moved into its Gap Road premises. As a resident artist who enjoyed working with public space, Jorgen Doyle (pictured above) was excited by the opportunities the forecourt provided for interacting with an incidental public – hospital patients looking for a place to sit, sunburnt tourists from the Ibis hotel next door, young families from bush communities passing by with strollers, tradies and truckers pulling out of the neighbouring Shell servo.
As a gesture towards its potential he put in a few plants – a senna, a Chewings Range wattle, a native lemon grass or two – by the front door of the gallery. From that small beginning, the garden has flourished and expanded, little by little softening and cooling the barren car park space – a stark contrast with the empty planting beds, the dead trees, the rock and gravel ‘landscaping’ that have become something of a feature around the town centre (see at bottom).
Before (mid-2017), photograph supplied.
Progress didn’t come in a straight line. Jorgen went away, the plants struggled with erratic watering, the couch grass flourished.
When he returned, this time for an eight-month stay, Jorgen took up caring for the plants again and started “eyeing off” the footpath – a strip of concrete between two strips of compacted dirt.
It was the middle of summer, the wrong time for planting, so he focussed on getting ready for the cooler weather.
He ran the reticulation out along a crack in the paving and worked on the soil, drilling and digging out the broken asphalt and gravel, mixing in mulch.
Then he made travel plans again, leaving some money behind for plants, which were duly put in. The real turnaround, however, came last year when the pandemic curbed Jorgen’s wanderings.
After (January 2021).
He started planting Centralian natives – flowering shrubs, some screening trees, and bush tucker plants – while continuing to work the soil and expand the beds. Friendly contractors dropped off a big pile of dirt in return for a slab of beer. He bought manure from Pyndan Camel Tracks, who were selling it to subsidise their camel fodder during the Covid downturn.
To make plant choices he turned to experienced locals – sourcing plants from Geoff Miers, from the Olive Pink Botanical Garden’s plant sale, from propagator Sam Hussey in Sadadeen.
His fervour though was costing him quite a lot of money. So he began to propagate himself, collecting seed around Hele Crescent, where Mike Gillam and Maria Giacon have flourishing native gardens on their properties and along the verge, which is another local showpiece for greening a public space.
When Jorgen was uncertain about how to propagate a particular species, internet searches answered most of his questions – as long as he knew the Latin species name.
This native hibiscus is only 10 months old.
Now the Space is running out of room for more plants, so he is starting to sell the lovingly nurtured surplus (you can find him and the plants on Saturday mornings at The Roastery in Hele Crescent).
Putting in lots of plants at the Space has helped protect them collectively. At times the forecourt is used to stage events and despite people in their hundreds gathered there, there have been very few losses.
It is also unfenced and unattended after hours on quite a high traffic street, yet still the plants have been left to thrive. Could it be that signs of care breed respect and appreciation?
Now that the beds at the Space are quite well established, Jorgen visits twice a week. As he picks up the rubbish blown in from nearby, he checks in on the plants and the drippers.
He likes to see Nature taking over – plants self-seeding, growing wild, surprises turning up like the hardy paddy melon that has spread across the paving as a ground cover.
From concrete and gravel to soft soil and greenery.
His success has been in part down to “lavishing water on everything” – by which he means running the irrigation for 20 minutes every day (every second day as the weather cools off).
This works out to a couple of litres for every plant every day. Not that lavish really when you think of how often you’ve seen sprinklers running for hours on end.
The other key is to dig a really big planting hole – he digs holes half a metre by half a metre, loosening up the soil as much as possible and adding plenty of organic matter. This encourages plants to develop deep roots quickly and thrive early.
The care Jorgen has applied to this garden contrasts sharply with the dire state of our public spaces, many of which are going backwards, with trees ripped out in this desert town, concrete spread in their place, minimising maintenance and discouraging anyone from getting too comfortable.
Meanwhile, the promised “heat mitigation” for the CBD by the NT Government moves forward at glacial pace. Concrete and steel shade structures are likely to be built before a single tree goes into the ground.
To an enquiry from the Alice Springs News, the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics advised that the landscaping design is complete, a contract is expected to be awarded in April and a schedule of works will be finalised with the contractor after this date.
Images below, from top: Just a stone’s throw from Watch This Space, planting beds of gravel and rock at the Alice Springs Hospital. • Outside the Coles Complex on Bath Street: trees that used to line the walkway between shops were ripped out and the planting beds were concreted over; street trees, the responsibility of the Town Council, have died. • Yeperenye Centre’s treeless and shadeless carpark and the almost treeless vista along Gregory Terrace. At least one of the street trees you can see in the middle ground is dead. • Coles’ treeless and shadeless carpark, corner Gregory Terrace and Railway Terrace.
Last updated 1 February 2021, 1.37pm.