The Propagator

Self portrait of Naomie Sunner in her newly planted garden.

Have you ever walked past a rundown park or an abandoned stretch of creek and thought ‘Someone should do something about that,’ and then brushed the thought aside and kept walking? Luckily not everyone avoids acting on such thoughts.

Writing a story about Westgate Park recently, I met Naomie Sunner and learnt how she inspired the transformation of a neglected wasteland into a thriving inner-city park. 

I grew up in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne in Blackburn North. My mum and dad were both librarians, so we had lots of books. Mum’s parents are Hungarian and my grandparents on the other side were Irish Catholic and Scottish Protestant. All of my grandparents were gardeners. They talked about back home which wasn’t a country I had ever visited. We were here now and what was that? I felt confused and wondered, ‘What is our identity in Australia?’

When I was 21, I needed a life changing experience, so I walked for seven days from the mouth of the Yarra to just past Warrandyte. We all need a time to consolidate and review who we are. I was doing my third year of photography at the Victorian College of the Arts and had to do a project. I’d just read Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks and was very inspired by that. It was a very intense experience; I realised the only thing I was scared of on the walk is people.

I wanted to start at the mouth of the Yarra, so I got a taxi at 5am to Westgate Park. I was under the Westgate Bridge and thought, ‘What is this place?’ There was very little vegetation, just weird hills and a big expanse amongst an industrial landscape. It was really interesting to me that this is a big touchstone in history but it’s a neglected wasteland.

I kept going back to the park and wanted to do something. I helped Friends Groups and volunteered with the St Kilda Indigenous Nursery because I knew nothing about local plants.  After organising some plantings with Parks Victoria, I started a Friends Group because I thought you can’t just plant a little bit and walk off, this park is massive.

 All I had was sheer determination. I was really naïve. There were occasional successes, but it would always pitter out. I was unemployed and got put on the Work for the Dole program. The supervisor didn’t rock up for three hours and then I didn’t get asked to do anything. I thought, ‘I could run a better program, I’ve got something to do that’s real work people can feel proud of.’ So, at 22, I started supervising a Work for the Dole program at Westgate park. I met some really incredible people through that and developed a lot of skills.

Growing the Friends Group was slow. I did wonder a number of times if I could keep going. It took me two years to really have the start of a proper group and it only gathered momentum when other people got involved. I think what’s really important is how many people have had something to do with that park and put their energy, passion and thoughtfulness into it. That is a really important and precious thing.

When I left the Friends Group eight years ago after 13 years, the park looked very different. There were a lot of birds, diverse vegetation, insects, fungi and a lot more people enjoying it. Today it’s very different still because those older plantings are still growing and there are lots and lots of water birds in the southern wetland which is lovely.

This is the land that I live in and I want to feel part of it. Being the granddaughter of migrants, indigenous plants are really important to me. I feel there’s a lot in Australia that gets dismissed by my grandparents and many other people, the ecologies and the people, as being lesser than the things from the countries we came from. I now work as a Propagation and Volunteer Co-Ordinator at the Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-op.

There’s something magic in sowing a seed and watching it germinate. All the fascinating textures and colors and parts they play in the ecosystem. If you ever get a hand lenses and look at plants closely, they are just gorgeous. They are the basis for all life. Without plants, none of us would be alive.

People ask me why I’m a good gardener and I say because two out of every three plants I plant die. Not everything is going to work, it’s a learning process. Just take baby steps, do what you can and what you feel comfortable with, and don’t be disheartened by anything that’s failed because it’s an opportunity to learn and try again.

There are so many things you just learn as you live. I think I learnt in a non-traditional way. That’s why I’m at Melbourne Uni now doing a Masters of Environment to fill in the gaps. I’m ready for another challenge in a year or two. I don’t know what the future holds, but I think that challenge and I are going to seek each other out and meet halfway.

Visit Westgate Biodiversity: Bili Nursery & Landcare and Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-op to learn more.

© Matilda Bowra 2020


The Riverkeeper

Every day I walk my dog to one of the parks along the Yarra. These short bursts of nature create a sense of calm and escape from the city.  But we can’t take the river for granted. Dramatic increases in population, overdevelopment and climate change threaten the things that make our river special. It is good to learn Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly is leading community voices to ensure the Yarra remains a vibrant, iconic river for generations to come.

Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly 

As a child, the river was always a place of excitement and drama. I grew up in South Yarra in Domain Road with the Yarra just below us. We’d roam along the banks after school and on weekends. As a 10-year old, I used to think that the homeless men who lived under the mirror bushes on banks of the river had a great life, perpetually camped out. Once my friend Phil and I crossed the river illegally on the railway bridge to Cremorne and that was exciting.

Becoming a publisher really suited my butterfly like approach to knowledge. I could flutter around here and there, learning a little bit about this and that. When my wife and I sold Black Dog Books to Walker Books, I had time my hands. I had always been interested in the environment and decided I wanted to learn about water and rivers in depth. The Murray Darling Basin was too big. Cape York’s too far away. The only place I was ever likely to come to grips with was the one I would cross every day which was the Yarra.

The Yarra is unique in that it brings the country so far into the city. That’s what we are defending. When the City of Melbourne created their river strategy, they found 97% of people valued the river for its role in creating a natural environment in the city. The great thing about the Yarra is there is rural life very close to the centre of the city, with vineyards in Kew and cattle around Rosanna Golf Club.

The Riverkeeper role is about engaging with the community and being a channel for community views. I speak for the river. I am the community voice for the river, and I am also the spokesperson for a group of citizen advocates. We give talks, make submissions to government, run public events and write carefully researched, well-respected reports. We have an advantage in that, unlike government, we don’t have to ask someone ‘is it alright if we say this?’ We can freelance as independent citizens. Community needs to be involved because it’s our river.

What I do is tell stories. That’s where my publishing background comes in. I take things that are difficult to express and distil them down to something that is easy to understand. The river has many stories, so there’s a plenitude to choose from. One of the stories that intrigues me is how do we manage our relationship with the natural world? How do you make understandable the story that the wearing away of our car tyres is contributing to the deterioration of the health of waterways? It seems a long bow to draw from worn-out tyres to a lack of fish. As tyres wear away, a residue of copper and other heavy metals is left on our roads. The residue washes into our waterways when it rains. Then you start learning from scientists about copepods, tiny little micro invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain that live in the mouths of our rivers. If you put copper into the water, you start to kill them off and then there’s nothing for the fish larvae to eat and no fish means a much-depleted river.

I feel privileged to be out there telling stories about how we have transformed parts of Melbourne in the past 50 years. Herring Island, Westgate Park, Merri Creek, Darebin Creek. Herring Island was built up by soil dredged up from the river. I remember going past on the way to school and the dredge would be at work dragging up sediment full of toxic nasties from the factories further up the river. The mud would be dumped on the island. Now the Friends of Herring Island have turned it in to an exquisite sanctuary with 60 or 70 different types of birds.

I am excited about the Yarra Strategic Plan; we have to deliver on that. Melbourne Water are working with the Traditional Owners, the Wurundjeri Woi wurrung people, and 15 other agencies such as councils to come up with a plan to manage the Yarra as one living entity. It’s never been done before and we need to acknowledge it’s special and we are doing something transformative, but we won’t pull it off unless everyone pulls together and brings the community behind it.

There are a lot of pressures on the Yarra, but of all the places in the world, I think Melbourne is one of best places to do something about rivers. We have been really fortunate here to have a spacious landscape that faces plenty of challenges, but we have the prosperity to do something about those challenges and a willingness to recognise we need to do better.

Visit to learn more about the Yarra Riverkeeper Association.

© Matilda Bowra 2019