Remembering Turfculture At The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

Turfculture, 2001 (L to R), Charles, ?, Bill (front), Jerry (rear), Janelle and John
Turfculture, 2001 (L to R), Charles, ?, Bill (front), Jerry (rear), Janelle and John

Vale, John Morgan of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: greenkeeper, gardener, ranger, friend since 1992.

I’m reminiscing about the Turfculture team, a vital service, where John Morgan began his career in my department. Together, from 1992 to 2003, our team transitioned the lawns from conventional horticultural management to almost organic standards.

When I moved to Brisbane, I used experiences gained at Australia’s most frequently used public lawns to create my own, equally heavily used, sustainable lawn.

I headed the recruitment panel which appointed John to his first position as a Greenkeeper. Recruited in late 1992, John completed Turfculture, a team of three greenkeepers assisted by two horticultural apprentices and two horticultural labourers.

What is a lawn?

The objective of a lawn in a landscape is to provide green space, a verdant void against which specimen trees, palms, garden beds and borders can be better appreciated and inspected.

Sydney Gardens’ lawns separate the numerous garden beds, features, facilities and especially buildings in a heavily visited inner city environment. Both formal and informal lawns serve to reveal garden ornaments, such as statuary, leading the eye to focal points or scenic views. Lawns are used to host events and passive recreation by visitors. Passive recreation means walking, exercising and use for the staging of plays, weddings or filming (such as the movies, ‘The Sum Of Us’, ‘The Matrix’), but not active recreation, like sport which require more intensive management to sustain them.

The Domain permits regulated sports and major events on certain lawns and sports fields. The majority of the lawns there are informal and composed of mixed, unrefined species.

Sydney Gardens’ lawns are composed of warm season grasses, like buffalo, couch, kikuyu, Queensland Blue couch and durban, suited to the local climate, features and function. Cool season grasses, like rye and bent grass, viable in cool, moist temperate climates, are less suited to Sydney’s warm temperate climate and therefore they wear out without intensive care. Only Lawn 8b was trialled with cool season grasses because of its favourable micro-climate and minimal foot traffic.

Where possible pure lawns of different cultivars of turf grass were laid so that visitors can compare both demonstration plots in the Turf Plots Display (in the Palace Garden/ Conservatorium of Music area) as well as in the form of established lawns. In key areas of the gardens, formal lawns of pure, named cultivars are employed to harmonise the landscape with constructed features, for example Wintergreen Couch is grown on the Director’s Lawn, a formal space to the west of the heritage Anderson Building (the former National Herbarium of NSW).

Lawns, a historical perspective

Pleasure lawns, like the Flower Bed Lawn and other lawns around Farm Cove, have been part of ornamental horticulture for hundreds of years. Some of the oldest recorded lawns were in Persian gardens. 18th century European landowners employed lawns in the grand style of emparking to create picturesque landscapes, symbols of their wealth, power and good taste. Emparking was a powerful influence on the British landscape, often resulting in the removal of entire villages which intruded upon land being relandscaped by the aristocracy.

Scything by hand produced the top quality lawns of the 18th and 19th centuries. In Europe a one acre lawn took three men one day to scythe, and women would collect the clippings. In the European summer, lawns may have been cut two or even three times a week for perfection.

In Europe, sheep often grazed grass away from the residence, but at Sydney’s first Government House they trialled using wallabies to crop their lawns. Kangaroos and wallabies crop turf neatly and low, a pleasant look, but it is not recorded if this naturalistic method of maintenance was for its looks, or to save labour, or an attempt to adapt to the Australian environment.

Manicured lawns as we know them today only became possible with the British invention of the mechanical mower by Edwin Budding in 1830. Pony-drawn broad acre mowers were patented in Britain by Alexander Shanks in 1841, and were used in British royal residences shortly afterwards.

During the nineteenth century Sydney Gardens’ current landscape of undulating lawns was established. To achieve this landscape effect, natural outcrops of sandstone were substantially removed or covered over with infill, then turfed or over sown with grass. Lawn 29 surprised ATRI, the Australian Turf Grass Research Institute, revealing that it contained ‘heritage’ kikuyu grass capable of producing viable seed. This was used in colonial times. Modern kikuyu turf is more or less completely sterile, incapable of self-sowing.

In Sydney, Queensland Blue Couch was the predominant fine turf grass up to the 1960’s. Most lawns in the gardens are now mixtures of Kikuyu with remnants of Queensland Blue Couch. Kikuyu remains green longer in drought and less susceptible to fungal disease during autumn. Queensland Blue Couch is sensitive to modern selective herbicides developed for use on Couch, Bent and Fescue lawns. Pure, top quality Queensland Blue Couch lawns generally require more staff labour to keep in good condition than can be afforded, hence their decline in Sydney Gardens.

The current industry trend is to use Couch, Bent and Fescue cultivars for formal and sports lawns. These are cool season grasses, better suited to cool temperate Tasmania than warm temperate Sydney. To help them survive a warm, wet, humid summer requires thorough, ongoing care, which is fine if you’re really dedicated to lawns and are relatively wealthy.

This is where gardeners need to remind themselves that there’s a world of difference in the methods used to maintain a sustainable home lawn and turf dedicated to sporting events. Whether it’s for cricket, croquet or golf, turfed sporting surfaces must be firm, level and even with grass cut at just the right height in order, for example, a bowling ball to roll in the right direction at the speed it is played. This requires daily attention and much skill.

Sydney Gardens’ Turfculture Team

In March 1994 I formed the Turfculture team, out of a staff of around fifty horticulturists and apprentices, to maintain the hard working lawns of the Botanic Gardens, Domain and Government House.

Together, these comprise the most frequently visited public open space in Australia. The sort of activities that turf supported included vice regal functions, 500 outdoor events – weddings, TV,  major events, like symphonies, opera, Christmas carols, Cirque de Soleil, the Biennale, etc, plus around 2.5 million individual visits (eg pairs of feet) per year – and an awful lot of weather.

During my time (1992 – 2003), much of our horticultural work transitioned into sustainable, organic methods. The trigger for this was a phone call I received one day from a concerned parent some time in 1993. Her son lived with multiple chemical sensitivity and every time he was exposed to garden chemicals, or household cleaning agents, he became too ill to attend school. Since lying on turf is one of the commonest visitor activities, it seems clear that my duty of care was to ensure that visitors were able to touch our turf in safety.

Working with an enthusiastic team of greenkeepers made converting techniques straightforward. We were able to demonstrate that it is easier to prevent problems occurring by changing the growing conditions – the horticulture – of turf. Raising the height of cut, keeping the soil pH to between 6.5 and 7, feeding the turf organically, alleviating compaction, improving drainage, all these things helped us to enhance turf vigour and resilience, which in turn helped prevent the incidence of turf disease and to smother and out compete lawn weeds, reducing the need to control weeds by spraying.

Simply by adjusting the soil pH and feeding turf with granular (not pelletised) poultry once in spring, summer and autumn, we greatly improved turf vigour, enhancing the lawns’ tolerance of wear and tear caused by heavy visitation. I inherited this situation in 1992, and that single change in horticulture saved my budget from funding the replacement of 1.25 hectares of turf (12,500 sq. metres) each year. This turf wasn’t just bought, I also had to pay for contractors to lay it. Our staff capacity enabled us to prepare the ground for turf laying only.

Liming, mowing and feeding turf was quicker, easier and cheaper than paying for replacing worn turf, and I could redirect saved labour and money into other projects that also enhanced the botanic estate. Initially, managers were concerned that we were ‘lavishing attention’ on the turf unnecessarily, but once they saw the statistics – of labour and financial savings – that could be redirected elsewhere, they realised we were on to something demonstrably beneficial for everyone.

Every year, usually in April when the weather was mild and the lawns looked magic, Turfculture ran greenkeeping courses for the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Sometimes they also trained other gardeners in the public service, such as school gardeners, people who maintained lawns but had no training in greenkeeping.

All in a year’s work (1997 – 1998)

Below is a review of an average year’s work for turfculture’s team of seven, the sort of stuff we got up to during the financial year of 1997 – 1998. I kept my diaries and much of my computer files.

As you glance at our list of tasks, you may wonder what coring is about. Coring is a technique I sometimes recommend for heavily compacted lawns. It involves a walk behind machine which removes small cylindrical plugs of turf and soil. If there’s time (and money) the holes can be filled by spreading sand over them. This alleviates compaction, assisting healthy root and shoot re-growth, and creates hundreds of miniature infiltration wells which allow air, water and nutrients to enter the soil. This, plus seasonal organic turf food, encourages earthworm activity which also benefits turf and waterway health by reducing stormwater runoff and, by reducing siltation, improving stormwater quality, vital elements of sustainable horticulture on land surrounding and draining into Sydney Harbour.

Topdressing is another common task. Following coring, turf might be sprinkled with horticultural grade sand. Sand fills the hollow cores, assisting aeration and drainage. Sieved organic matter, such as screened cow or sheep manure, may be applied as a top dressing to ornamental turf to improve turf vigour. Sieved soil may also be repeatedly applied in thin layers as a top dressing to raise the height of dips in turf. This eliminates puddles and allows mowers to cut the turf at an even height. Topdressing with organic matter and soil stimulates earthworm activity and these gardening allies help cycle organic matter into the soil, opening up natural drainage/ aeration channels, and increasing turf resilience to drought, flooding and disease.

Turf aprons
Developing ‘turf aprons’ was a signature of Turfculture. Lawn grasses need sunshine to grow thickly, something they don’t get under the canopy of evergreen trees. If you try to cut grass that is starved of sunlight at a standard low height, it thins out and dies back.

By raising the height of cut – cultivating an ‘apron’ underneath the tree canopy – we were able to establish grass right up to the base of trees. Rather than having just dust, or bark mulch, turf aprons created a verdant, shaded space for visitors to picnic and rest during hot weather. Gardening Australia filmed this handy tip with me in the lead up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Almost organic
Before those lawns hosted the Olympic Triathlon, Turfculture had pretty much become organic. The only routine chemical spraying that we could not eliminate was turf and nutgrass, etc, escaping lawns and growing into cracks in bitumen roads and footpaths. If our bid to management to lease a steam weeder (used to cook path weeds to death) had been approved, those botanic gardens could have sought organic certification – Sydney Gardens could have become the world’s first organic botanic garden.

Keep it real
Do not get stressed if your lawn dries out and goes brown. Home lawns tend to be rain fed, so colour changes from green and growing, to brown and resting are common. In Wynnum, I found that by raising the height of cut and foliar feeding with seaweed solution once monthly, my lawn kept its colour for ten months of the year during the Millennium Drought (2004 to 2010).

Farewell, friend

John Morgan, always a character, enthusiastically played his part in transforming the botanic grass of 1992 into harbourside lawns worth displaying to the world’s gardeners during the Sydney Olympics in 2000. After twenty three years of service, John was still proving me right.

Working life at the gardens can sometimes be very tough, but during the period I was there, the horticultural, arboricultural and greenkeeping teams created a botanic garden that everyone in NSW could enjoy and be proud of.

During the Olympics, Janet Holmes à Court said those gardens “looked their best in the thirty years she had been visiting them”. John certainly deserved his share of the credit for that.

Vale John Morgan.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
25th August 2015


DATE: 3rd JULY 1998


/ Strategy 2.1.1.

Events support/ lawn repairs
* Deferred the leasing of a replacement ride on mower, freeing up $20,000 over the three year period of the lease;
* decompacted tree root zones in lawns affected by events
* dead-wooded Domain Summer Concert areas, Mozart in the Gardens

Lawn maintenance

Events support
* Completed repairs to lawns affected by Summer Concerts, Mozart in the Gardens, Domain Phillip Precinct, etc.
* Lawn 8a – core, prepare for turf, lay turf, and topdress 120 sq.m.

General area of lawns repaired for A. Sydney Gardens, B. for Domain, C. for Gov Ho 

A. Sydney Gardens
July 97
370 sq.m. Soft Buffalo in Rose Garden,
August 97
110 sq.m. Wintergreen Couch in Rose garden, 
replace 70 sq.m. turf cells at entrance,
 60 sq.m.
Soft Buffalo For Terrace above the Herb Garden (49a),
70 sq.m. Wintergreen Couch in Rose Garden,
September 97
270 sq.m. Wintergreen at lawn 8a,
130 sq.m. Windorsgreen Couch in the Herb Garden
85 sq.m. Windorsgreen Couch in Turf Plot surrounds
October 97
50 sq.m. Wintergreen Couch at lawn 1b
January 98
100 sq.m. Kikuyu at annual lawn
50 sq.m. Kikuyu at Tarpeian Way
March / April
98- 580 sq.m. Queensland Blue Couch at lawn
85 sq.m. of Queensland Blue Couch at lawn 29
140 sq.m. Windorsgreen Couch at Rare & Threatened Plants Garden (R & T)
140 sq.m. Wintergreen Couch at lawn 8a
100 sq.m. Kikuyu at lawn 18

B. Domain

November 97
150 sq.m. Kikuyu at Domain Island
January / February 98
120 sq.m. Soft Buffalo at Phillip Precinct near Restaurant
210 sq.m. Kikuyu at Phillip Precinct near Restaurant
February 98
5,000 sq.m. Kikuyu at Phillip Precinct
1,970 sq.m. Kikuyu at Phillip Precinct
855 sq.m. Durban Grass at Phillip Precinct
667 sq.m. Kikuyu at Phillip Precinct
February / March 98
244 sq.m. Durban Grass at Phillip Precinct
180 sq.m. Durban grass at Phillip Precinct
850 sq.m. Kikuyu at Fleet Steps
150 sq.m. Kikuyu at Fleet steps
March 98
1,050 sq.m. Kikuyu at Crescent Precincton Touch Football Fields
May/June 98
2,400 sq.m. Kikuyu at Hospital Rd/ Phillip Precinct

C. Government House
August 97
130 sq.m. Soft Buffalo at BBQ lawn
January 98
260 sq.m. Buffalo at Lower eastern bank
March 98
70 sq.m. Durban Grass at Eastern Terrace
March / April 98
35 sq.m. Queensland Blue Couch at Eastern Terrace, lower side.

Area of lawns re-sown, for A. Sydney Gardens, B. for Domain, C. for Gov Ho
A. Sydney Gardens
April / May 98
Four Plots of Bentgrass at Turf Plots
July 98 – Chamomile at Turf Plots

Area of lawns fertilised, for A. Sydney Gardens, B. for Domain, C. for Gov Ho

A. Sydney Gardens. Fertilised with poultry manure:
July 97
Lawns 20, 21, 40a+b, 43a+b, 2a, 3a, 41, 33, 4, 5, 67, 28, 44a+b
August 97
Lawns 1a+b, 26a,b+c, 49a,b+c, 50, 46, 47, 48, 17, 18, 19, Turf Plots, 14, 15
September 97
Lawns 1a+b, 14, 15.
October 97
Lawns 1a+b, 21, 49a
November 97
Lawns 49b, 2c+d
December 97 – lawns 24, 25, Turf Plots, Rose garden
January 98
Lawns 20, 21, 2c+d, 11, 10, 9, 8a, 13, 14, 15, 55, 57, 58, 62b, Rose garden
February 98
Lawns 1a+b, 2c+d, Turf Plots
March 98
Lawns 1a+b, 3a, 20, 21, 19, 46, 47, 48, 49a,b+c, R&T, 8a, 14, 15, Rose garden
April 98
Lawns 58, 59, 29
May 98
Lawns 1a+b, 26b+c, 2c+d
June 98
Lawns 23, 40a+b, 43a+b, 41, 39

B. Domain
February 98
Phillip Precinct, Crescent Precinct, (Touch Football Fields), Fleet Steps
March 98
Fleet Steps
April 98
Phillip Precinct and Soccer Fields, Touch Football fields

C. Government House

March / April 98
All lawns fertilised.

Area of lawns top dressed, for A. Sydney Gardens, B. for Domain, C. for Gov Ho

A. Sydney Gardens

August 97
Lawn 49c
September 97
Lawns 14, 15 and rose garden
November 97
Lawn 49c
February 98
Lawn 8a
March 98
R & T, Cool Season grasses at Turf Plots
April 98
Lawn 58

B. Domain

February 98
Phillip Precinct/ Concert Areas
April 98
Crescent Precinct – Touch Football Fields

C. Government House

Area of lawns treated for weeds, for A. Sydney Gardens, B. for Domain, C. for Gov Ho
A. Sydney Gardens
July 97
Lawns edged: Lawn 27, 19, 17, 40a, 43a, 42, 39, 2c+d, 2a, 28, 30
August 97
Lawns 49a,b+c, 50, 46, 47, 48, 17, 18, 19,
 lawns 1a, 49b,
 lawns 8a, 14, 15, 
Rose garden, 
Lawns around Morshead Fountain
September 97
Lawns 14, 15
October 97
Lawns 17, 40a+b, 1a+b, 49a+c, 3a, 2c+d,
 lawns 29, 49b,
 lawns 33, 
lawns 17, 2a,b+c,
 lawns 14, 15, Rose Garden,
 lawns 14, 15, Rose garden, 
lawns 8a, Turf Plots, Pioneer Garden, 
lawns around Morshead Fountain

Spot spraying for weeds, for A. Sydney Gardens, B. for Domain, C. for Gov Ho
A. Sydney Gardens
November 97
Lawns 39, 17, 18, 46, 48, 41,
 lawns 24, 17, 30,
 lawn 1b
December 97
Lawns 1a+b, 26b, 49b
January 98
Lawns 49c, 1a+b, 2c+d,
 lawns 2a, 1a+b, 49a+b, 52, 39, 3a, 26b+c, 36 lawn 8a
February 98
Lawns 8a,
 lawns 8a,
 lawns 14, 15, Rose garden,
 lawns 14, 15, Rose Garden
March 98
Lawns 1a+b, 2c+d, 
lawns Turf Plots, 
lawns 8a
April 98
Lawns 2c+d, 1b,
 June 98 – lawns 14, 15, Rose Garden, Turf Plots, lawn 8a

B. Domain

August 97
Crescent Precinct

C. Government House

August 97
Formal lawns, Croquet lawns, Formal lawns, Croquet lawns
October 97
Formal lawns, Croquet lawn

Lawns pH tested and limed, or treated with gypsum, for A. Sydney Gardens, B. for Domain, C. for Gov Ho

A. Sydney Gardens
July 97
Test all lawns for pH
October 97
Apply Dolomite to Lawns 62b, 8a
June 98
Apply Lime to Lawns 2c+d

B. Domain

C. Government House

Turf Plots Maintenance Plan

Plan reviewed on time. Changes made. Awaiting Management Sign Off/ Feedback

Area of garden beds turfed
Time & money spent in the process documented

Garden bed 142 (lawn 58) turfed with 580 sq.m. Queensland Blue Couch
1 week, 2 people to prepare and 6 people 3 hours to lay turf. $2,300 for Qld Blue turf;

Garden bed 103a (lawn 29) turfed with 85 sq.m. Queensland Blue Couch
3 days, 2 people to prepare and 5 people 1.5 hours to lay;

Lawns cored, for A. Sydney Gardens, B. for Domain, C. for Gov Ho
A. Sydney Gardens
July 97
Lawns 2c+d, 20, 21, 40a+b, 43a+b, 2a, 3a, 41, 33, 44a, Tarpiean Way, 11a+b, 12, 13, 64, 9, 57 and 58
October 97
Lawn 8a
November 97
Lawn 49c
December 97
Lawns 11b and 12
January 98
Lawn 49b+c
March 98
Lawns 1a+b, 31, 25, 8a, Rose garden
April 98
Lawn 24, 14, 15 and Rose garden
June 98
Lawn 23

B. Domain

November 98
Soccer Fields,
 Touch Football Fields
January 98
Phillip Precinct near Hospital Rd
February 98
Soccer Fields,
 Fleet Steps, 
Phillip Precinct
March 98
Fleet Steps
Core under trees in Phillip Precinct and Stage area at Phillip Precinct
April 98
Fleet Steps

C. Government House

April / May
All lawns.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Karen Wilson says:

    Good article, Jerry. Very sad news about John. Karen

    1. Thank you, Karen. I hope you are well and happy. My very best wishes to you. Jerry xo

  2. Peter Sweedman says:

    Hello Jerry. I echo Karen’s comments. John was certainly a real character with a restless soul. Thank you.


    1. Thank you, Peter. What a tragedy for such a fantastic group of people. All the very best, Jerry

  3. David Bidwell says:

    hi Jerry lovely article about John with some great history too. I hope you are well


    1. Hi Dave, Thank you. I still say ‘we’ when I talk about the gardens. A wonderful place sustained by some wonderful people. My very best wishes, Jerry

  4. John Coco. says:

    Hello Jerry.

    John Morgan was a good man who loved the Gardens and always did his best.

    It is so sad that Turfculture at the RBG has had to end in such a tragic way.

    Kind regards to you.

    John Coco ( retired)

    1. Dear John,
      Really good to hear from you, but very sad to connect this way. I can’t believe you have retired. My very best wishes to you! Jerry

  5. Eva Gregorich says:

    Hi Jerry, Wonderful article! thank you for all your articles. I am in Victoria but I get a lot of inspiration from your writing. I was wondering about steam weeder that you mention in your article. Can you recommend a home version? I am pulling out my hair trying to control weeds in paving and in path ways. I have been thinking about sourcing a steam weeder for a long time as I know there are industrial versions. Any help you can give me will be very much appreciated. Kind Regards Eva

    1. Dear Eva, no such thing currently exists. I boil a kettle! Regards, Jerry

      1. Eva Gregorich says:

        Hi Jerry, Kettle won’t cut it for my area. I’ve tried after seeing (I think you) on Gardening Australia give that advice. If there are professional units that can be hired, then why are there not home units?
        Is there anywhere overseas I can investigate that you know of. Any lead would be appreciated. Maybe I can find one somewhere in the world? Kind Regards, Eva.

      2. There are no commercial options in Australia, over to you 🙂

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