Walk around the Wombat Gardens’ layered avenues. Feel our shared history seeping through the dappled light falling on this ancient volcano with its unique arboretum of international trees and shimmering views of Dja Dja Warrung country.

The Gardens were opened with a procession and great fan fare to plant two oaks to celebrate the marriage of the Prince of Wales in 1863. They have been one of Daylesford’s iconic features ever since.

They are a mirror for the town. Established with a flourish during the Gold Rush as a symbol of affluence and colonial dominance of the landscape. This was the the expansive enlightenment writ large in botany. A movement that spread throughout Victoria. Botanic gardens were a symbol of status and wealth, but also a demonstration of European sensibilities. The categorising, labelling and preserving of a colonial history of plants and trees that ironically sought to replace an ancient forest and indigenous culture.

The Daylesford Gardens also became a place of reflection, social activity and great beauty. But, as the town’s wealth diminished over time, they became a sleepy and shrouded jewel slowly falling into neglect in the taken-for-granted mists of institutional indifference. For a long period they were a nostalgic but fading reminder of a glorious, if flawed, colonial past.

But that is changing. Already the entrance to the garden has been transformed with new plantings, paths and the re establishment of the grand gates of an earlier time. Now close to a $1 million will be spent on projects to begin to bring these unique gardens to prominence again. Much of it thanks to the Friends of the Wombat Botanic Gardens group.

The Friends held their Annual General Meeting in their garden shed next to the Wombat Hill Cafe last weekend. A shed that doubles as an enormously successful social enterprise selling plants to support the development of the Gardens. There the Friends welcomed the opportunity to gather again to reflect on the year, congratulate their committee and plan for 2022 – and off course share a snack and a drink in glorious sunshine.

In normal times the volunteers who make up the Friends assist in maintaining and developing the Gardens’ beds and raise money for projects through open gardens, plant sales and social events. As with much of the community, COVID has dented the social and organisational life of the Friends, but, remarkably, plant sales have continued to do well – perhaps demonstrating that gardening has been a therapeutic distraction from endless concerns about ’the virus’.

The Friends have raised over $200,000 to support Garden projects, cannily using their money to nudge the Council and the State Government into putting in a further $700,000 between them.

This will see a major project to repair and renovate the ‘day basin’ where the tower stands, so named because it once provided a day’s worth of water for the town. From eyesore to attraction, the area around the basin will be landscaped and  provide water to the fernery cascades. The adjacent toilet block will be rebuilt and stone steps will be added beside the fernery.

As well the gradually decaying Alf Headland Conservatory, where each year visitors come to admire the begonias and other flowering plants, will be restored.

Plans for an ornamental viewing pavilion on the South East corner of the Gardens have also been completed as part of what the Master Plan for the Gardens refers to as the ‘Garden of Views’.

This is no mean feat for a group of volunteers with a love of the Garden and an obvious enjoyment of one another’s company. This year’s AGM saw the presidential baton passed on from Ray Robinson to Frank Page.

As the meeting noted, Ray’s metaphorical gum boots will be hard to fill. Much of the drive, inspiration and a fair bit of the prodding has come from Ray, ably assisted by the other members of the Friend’s committee including Andrew Lowth and Shai Tabassi who also retired from the Committee at the meeting.

The challenge for the new committee will be to continue the project of nurturing and reinventing the Gardens for future generations.