Flower power in Toowoomba



TOOWOOMBA — I love gardens. The vast diversity of flowers, bushes and trees is a remarkable tribute to nature and its evolutionary development over millions of years. It is a continual source of wonder.

You may not think gardening has much to do with socialism and socialists. Not many people would be aware that Peter Cundall, the host of the ABC's Gardening Australia, is a long-time socialist, having been brought up as a poverty-stricken child in Manchester before serving in the British army, then becoming a metalworker and moving to Australia. He became a member of the Communist Party in Tasmania. He is one of Australia's most redoubtable environmentalists and opponents against genetically modified food. No wonder the federal government's ABC henchmen would like to axe his show.

The Spring Carnival of Flowers festival, held every year in late September in this small country town, is famous all over Australia. It even attracts international visitors who appreciate beautiful gardens. The festival has been going since 1950, the longest-running in Australia.

Toowoomba, at a height of 300 metres above sea level atop the Great Dividing Range, has a special climate. It is a lot cooler than tropical Brisbane on the coast. It is very well placed for showing off flowers of all colours, varieties and sizes, both native and introduced.

The key attraction for most people is the suburban gardens. More than 100 normal suburban households enter a competition for the best Spring garden. There are many categories: small gardens; large gardens; a prize for gardeners more than 80 years' old; Australian native gardens; and commercial business' gardens.

While most of us don't have the time or money to pursue and develop our innate talents and abilities, gardening is an affordable way that ordinary people can express their creativity. It requires skill, experience, research, experimentation and knowledge that is not necessarily obtained from books — and hard work.

To enter the competition, gardeners must allow their gardens to be viewed by the public. For that special week in Toowoomba, three times a day, there are bus tours of the suburban gardens. Some householders spend a small fortune — for example, the owners of the prize-winning garden put in 9000 seedlings and their water bill for that month would have been close to $1000.

Toowoomba's water rates are rather high compared to other cities, as water is scarce and the drought is still in effect in western Queensland. One couple, who both work, employed a gardener while they were away from home. Of course, some owners make a little money selling soft drinks and pot plants during the festivities.

Meanwhile, the capitalists are busy raking in the money from the hard work of Toowoomba's green thumbs. The Sizzlers restaurant usually has a maximum of 150 customers for lunch. During the festival on weekdays, they were feeding 500 at lunchtime. The motels and hotels are absolutely full. The bus companies are also making large sums touring visitors around the gardens.

None of them contribute a cent to the family gardeners, the very reason people travel to Toowoomba.

And the prize money for this magnificent community effort, a measly $500.

From Green Left Weekly, October 29, 2003.
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