The Dirt: Simon and Anna Ainsworth

It’s late afternoon and I’m on a tour of Eden Gardens, in the Sydney suburb of Macquarie park, with owners Simon and Anna Ainsworth. They’re fast walkers, not wanderers like me, and I’m only just keeping up.

I’m here to find out more about Simon and Anna’s ideas around people and plants, business and community. I grab snatches of their story as we explore the huge 2.5-hectare retail nursery and display gardens, followed lazily by Eden’s resident water dragons.

“I studied Psychology at university and ended up studying subjects like biology, ecology and earth sciences,” Simon tells me. “I soon decided I liked gardening so much that I should do horticulture instead. I worked in horticulture for a few years but then we got married and went overseas. Horticulture wasn’t, and still isn’t, the highest paying industry so I decided to do something else.”

Fifteen years of corporate life later, after indulging in his love of gardens and gardening on weekends only, Simon finally had the opportunity to realise his dream of opening his own garden centre. Of course, it wouldn’t be a small enterprise. No way. Simon’s not that kind of guy.

I didn’t want a small business because a small business just straps you down to the business all the time.  And I’ve got news, big businesses strap you down too!”

Simon’s idea was to integrate display gardens and a retail nursery – to illustrate how plants work in a garden setting, and then sell the plants to customers. He needed space for such a grand idea, so in 2002 he bought the site at Macquarie Park and in 2004 Eden Gardens opened its doors.

The site was designed by landscape architect Jon Shinkfield and consists of a top level housing the retail space, and a lower level housing a large series of display gardens. A long aerial walkway leads visitors across the site and down a series of steps to the gardens. The lower display gardens have a sense of being quite secret, and separate to the main retail space. It’s a playful spot, augmented at the time of our visit by a series of artworks installed as part of the inaugural Eden Unearthed exhibition.

I remember when Eden Gardens opened. I was studying horticulture at Ryde TAFE, just down the road, and regularly drove by the site. It was a big, bold move back in the days of TV garden makeovers and feature walls. It’d be an even bolder one nowadays, though. “Garden centres are risky,” Simon tells me.

Horticulture is a rough and tumble market. Almost everything that’s happened economically in the last 15 years has affected it.”

Eden Gardens has expanded to Melbourne and Brisbane, but plenty of garden centres are heading in the opposite direction. Many small independent nurseries have closed over the last decade, and the ways people live with plants are also changing. Spaces are smaller and gardens are becoming a luxury. At the same time, however, people are keen to have plants around them. It’s a tricky balance for a large independent business like Eden Gardens, who employ around 115 people throughout their three stores.

If dollars are the end game, horticulture is rarely a smart business move. But, it’s also the smartest of moves, if a wider view of what’s important is taken up. Simon and Anna Ainsworth clearly believe in the power of plants to enrich and nurture human lives.

Anna leads the charge in the community engagement department at Eden Gardens – her face lights up as she tells me about the Youth off the Streets traineeship program she and Simon started before Eden had even opened its doors. “We offer a traineeship to a young person from Youth off the Streets for six months. It’s a pathway to employment,” Anna says. The trainee spends six weeks in the various parts of the business – administration, marketing, gardening, retail, etcetera.

She tells me about one of their trainees, who is still working at Eden Gardens: “In the first week I thought he wasn’t going to make it.” He did though, and at the end of his traineeship Anna worked with their local council to try and get him a job, but it didn’t work out. “During this time, I had at least 30 staff come to my office and tell me how much he wanted to stay. We needed an apprentice so I told him he’d have to apply for the job like everyone else, and if he was the best he’d get it. Of course, he was the best, and got the job,” Anna tells me. He ended up being awarded apprentice of the year, and got to work on Philip Johnson’s gold award winning Chelsea Garden Show garden in 2013. “It was extraordinary,” Anna says.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Eden Gardens has a strong connection to the Cancer Council, with a dedicated memorial garden within the space, and they also contribute to Community Greening, an initiative by the Royal Botanic Gardens which involves promoting community gardens in NSW social housing areas.

A spin off from Community Greening, tying together Simon and Anna’s work with Youth off the Streets and Community Greening, is Youth Community Greening. This program, implemented by the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens with funding support from the Eden Foundation, works with disadvantaged schools, youth groups, juvenile detention centres and preschools to help create community gardens. “They go into schools in disadvantaged areas and run programs about planting, crops and health,” Anna tells me. “They do a whole training program based around the garden and food. It’s fabulous, and all goes back to our mission of enriching people’s lives with plants.”

It doesn’t matter where you come from, gardening is non-judgemental. A seed will grow as beautifully for one person as the next. Caring for something else teaches you how to care for yourself,” Anna says.

Playing with plants is powerful. Just ask Simon and Anna Ainsworth.

Visit Eden Garden’s WEBSITE / FACEBOOK

Entries are now open for Eden Unearthed 2017 – the largest significantly funded exhibition of temporal artworks in Australia. Eden Unearthed will launch in September 2017 and run for 6 months, allowing great exposure for both established artists as well as and up and coming artists. Submissions close 13th April, 2017. Find out more information here.