John Viska – Western Australia’s historical garden champion

John Viska

When we think about historical gardens we tend to think of Chatsworth and Blenheim Palace in the UK, the chateaux of the Loire in France or Tivoli in Italy. But there are also heritage gardens in Australia and even some in WA.

With a few exceptions these have flown under most people’s radar.

This is beginning to change. The Australia Garden History Society was formed in 1980 and a West Australian branch began in 1988, with John Viska as chairman and prime mover.

John’s Greek and Albanian heritage introduced him to plants and gardening. He was always interested in gardening as a young man and followed his interests through collecting and observing seeds growing and exchanging plants with others who shared the same passion. 

His working life started as a primary school teacher but he also studied horticulture at Bentley Technical College. Later he was seconded by the Education Department to Kings Park Education Centre for five years. He also lectured at TAFE for 25 years, teaching horticulture and the history of gardening, especially in a WA context. 

This led to his enthusiastic involvement with the Garden History Society. 

“WA is different from Europe – poor soils and climate governs WA gardening,” he said. “Early settlers established subsistence gardens in Perth, growing vegetables and fruit for consumption and olives for oil, important for cooking.

“We are fortunate to have an early photograph of one early colonial garden. Alpha House St George’s Terrace was on a long block reaching Hay Street. Every block had to be fenced.

“It and similar kitchen gardens grew English fruit and vegetables but also tropical and native plants.

“Researchers use diaries and historical records to unearth what plants were grown in the 1850s. They have identified more than 800 different plants including vegetables, olives, vines, fruit trees, guavas, pomegranates and even bananas. Flowers came later.

“People were interested in native plants but restricted by the horticultural technology of the time,” he said.

“When Bishop Mathew Hale came to WA in 1857, he established a garden at Bishop’s House. It consisted of a kitchen garden, orchard and vineyard. The garden is still there although the house is now a restaurant.”

The Worthington Nursery was the first garden centre, established in 1860 on swamp land (now Perth Arena), it was run by a ticket-of-leave convict.

Pleasure gardens began to be established around 1870. First was Queen’s Garden, East Perth where clay pits considered a drowning hazard were converted into ornamental lakes.

The Forrest government began to develop it as a  pleasure garden in the 1890s. The tall palms they planted are still there. There was an artificial grotto, typical of the period. The gardens have been modified three times, most recently in 1966 and have lost much of their historical landscaping.

Hyde Park was established in 1897 with a £3000 donation from Sir John Forrest. This paid for fountains and two lakes with artificial islands. 

“Forrest gave Hyde Park to the City of Perth for recreation only. There is now a commercial kiosk. This causes issues with extra traffic, litter, vehicles, rubbish. There are also problems including the demise of 125-year-old trees caused by shot hole borer,” said John Viska.

Another outstanding historical garden is the four-acre Wirra Willa Gardens in Armadale. The City of Armadale recently bought this run-down property to restore and preserve its cultural and environmental heritage. 

The Garden History Society promotes knowledge of historic gardens, significant landscapes and research into their history. It aims to examine gardens and gardening in their widest social, historic, literary, artistic and scientific context.

It also advocates to preserve our garden heritage. Advocacy work includes objections to the proposed chairlift in Kings Park and the pressing need for a conservation plan to maintain the cultural integrity of Hyde Park.

The West Australian branch of the Garden History Society has recently published Historic Gardens of Perth: European Settlement
to Modernism
 co-authored by John Viska, with the aid of a grant from the City of Perth.

“It is the under-lying story of the gardens, not how to grow plants. The book has been a 40-year project leading to an exhibition in 2011. The panels were brought together in a book with further research,” John Viska said. 

The book contains historic photographs, maps, plans, artworks and text and a list of plant species available to early gardeners. It is the first publication to deal solely with the history of gardens in Western Australia.

Historic Gardens of Perth is available from for $50 plus $10 postage.

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Frank Smith was trained as an agricultural scientist in the UK, moving to WA in 1974 and shortly afterwards began lecturing at WAIT (now Curtin University) in soils and agronomy. In 1979 he joined the Agriculture Protection Board in charge of publications and media relations, studying part time for a degree in Journalism. In 1992 he spent a year as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Later he ran a small publication company with his wife Mary-Helen. He then began freelance writing, editing and book indexing. He has written articles for more than 40 magazines in four continents and indexed more than 20 books. In 2007 he started writing for Have a Go News and gradually reduced his writing for other publications. He later took over the subediting, ensuring Have a Go News is consistent in style and highly readable. He and Mary-Helen live in a passive solar home in the Perth Hills with a varying collection of quendas and native birds.