Jenni Eaton

Jenni is motivated by “being outdoors, being involved in things pertaining to the environment.”

Jennifer (Jenni) Eaton joined U3APP 15 years ago. She is a landscape designer, having run her own design business for several years whilst lecturing at various Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE. (Now Northern Melbourne Polytech)

Jenni has put her knowledge and skills to good use at U3APP, more recently devoting much of her time, in a voluntary capacity, in the local community.

Jenni was born in Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia. Her parents were in the British Colonial Service at that time. She was 4 years old when her parents returned to England. They migrated to Australia, subsequent to her father being seconded to work on the Snowy Mountain Scheme. They then moved to Tasmania, where her father worked with the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Scheme, then to Melbourne, where she completed her education and obtained a Diploma in Horticultural Science and Graduate Diploma in Landscape Design. Later in Canberra, she completed a Bachelor of Arts (TAFE).

What made you want to study Horticultural Science? With some amusement, Jenni explains that she wanted to do horticultural studies, “as I always had a real love of the outdoors.” Having obtained a scholarship to Burnley Horticultural College, the Headmistress of her “all girl’s school”, rang my mother as she did not think it was an appropriate thing for a girl to do. So, I immediately decided to go to this College!”

Why didn’t she think it was appropriate? “There were not many girls doing that sort of thing, also it was a bit of snobbery, I think.”

Jenni went on to study botany, zoology, horticultural science, and landscape design. “The ratio of men to women was 10 to 1.” She was the first female to be employed at the Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne, under the oversight of the well-known TV gardener Kevin Heinze. “Basically, I was propagating plants in the nursery and training apprentices. It was a fantastic experience.”

As was common at that time, Jenni enjoyed travelling overseas. “My father gave me a trip overseas for my 21st birthday.” She had contemplated living in England where many of her relatives resided but returned to Australia to continue her studies. Jenni travelled intermittently to Europe, Asia and also to Zambia, which held an affectionate resonance for her.

Jenni worked for a number of private landscape designers, architects, town planners and eventually obtained a position with the Ministry of Housing.

What did this entail? “This was very interesting work. Apart from designing the planting on housing estates I was designing and helping build playgrounds, often with recycled materials. We worked together with families, children, who lived in Housing Commission flats. Mostly at the high rise flats in Carlton and in the West Heidelberg Olympic Village, also in Richmond.”

“There was a lot of vandalism, so we decided that if we could get the kids to plant a tree,” this might give them something more constructive to do. “We would also get their families involved, we had so many people planting trees…parents, brothers, sisters, they took ownership, it was wonderful. I think it did work. In Carlton, we built a playground out of rubber tyres and other reusable objects.”

Jenni was 30 years old when she married Richard Gough. When Richard obtained work in Canberra, they decided to purchase a small house on 50 acres of land in Burra Creek, a rural area on the border of New South Wales. We didn’t really want to live in Canberra. “It was a great little community where everybody was building their houses, including mud brick homes.” They decided to rebuild their small “shack”, out of mud bricks.

Jenni recalls with some amusement that she gave birth to two daughters, “quite quickly within 14 months. This was initially very hard as it was also for other young mothers. I was a very independent soul.”

What factors led you to building a mud brick home? “Well, energy wise, we just knew it was the way to go. I had always wanted to build a mud brick home; they are great solar insulators.”

Friends in the community made the bricks for them, “out of our own clay.” Mud bricks are stronger than concrete, and very heavy which makes them good insulators. “We finally built a place, with north facing windows, made from our own mud bricks. Our visitors would ask what we are using for heating? I would say, we haven’t got any heating, it’s the sun! Of course, we had a stove which would heat our water as well as providing heat to the house.” This is quite an achievement given the cold winters in that area.

You were very environmentally conscious? “Yes, always, also it was a time when people did not have much money.” However, in 1984 their mudbrick and timber home was severely damaged by fire.

What was that experience like? “It was a horrific experience, terrible, we lost everything. But the community was fantastic. The local MP found us a place to stay. We managed, people gave us clothes, and told us how to survive.“ Their two daughters were aged 3 years and 1 year old at the time.

Our dreams all gone- the mud brick house burnt down.

They decided to rebuild their home. “We did a bit of a ‘phoenix’ thing. We thought it would probably be good for our health if we rebuilt.” They did not rebuild in mud brick, instead bought a “Fasham Johnson Home”, popular at that time and environmentally sound. The house was delivered to them on a truck and together with a local builder, they built their new home.

Was it a good decision in retrospect, to rebuild? “I think so. These houses were environmentally sound. We did not have much money. We had hoped to grow things on our 50 acres, but I realised we did not have enough money to grow anything. We had a goat and chooks.” They continued to live in this community for 10 years.

Jenni described with some amusement that, “everyone in the community, helped one another. During a bad drought, our children’s nappies were washed by a neighbour in return for our eggs. We had very little water as our creek ran dry. I love that it was very much a ‘barter’ community. People would look after each other’s children.” This was helpful as Jenni lectured at a TAFE College in Canberra, several days a week. Richard also worked in Canberra.

During this 10-year period, Jenni worked for 3 years at the American Embassy. The Ambassador’s wife was very keen on improving parts of the garden. They had gardeners, but she wanted assistance with the roses and landscaping, as the garden was surrounded by double brick walls for security.

Jenni and Richard then relocated to Melbourne. They had friends in Elwood and at that time “Elwood Primary was a good school. It was a diverse community with a number of refugees and the school received extra funding to cater for this.” (In the early ‘90’s.)

“I really liked the fact that our children would not go to a school where there were only English children. We wanted them to appreciate other cultures.”

At that time, Jenni obtained work with Hanover, which ran courses to assist people who were homeless for various reasons, to return to work. She ran several gardening courses, also supporting individuals by starting up a gardening business. However, a couple of violent incidents such as “a knife being pulled on me,” motivated Jenni to resume lecturing at a TAFE College. She feels proud of her students’ achievements. Many were involved in various design competitions, “we won lots of prizes, Australia wide.”

What are the main tenets of landscape design? “It’s a design of the outdoors. You meet the client and find out what they would like and then, as you know the various plant options, you make suggestions. I didn’t ever work for someone who just wanted a pretty garden.”

Flemings Nursery in the Dandenongs, imports plants from overseas, “a lot of these plants were on trial, they grew well in Canada and America, such as dogwoods.” Jenni liked putting imported plants together with Australian plants. “When planning a landscape, there is no point if you have to water the plant all the time, even if you love it to death, you have to move on, and let that garden grow.”

What are the current trends in gardening? “I think you will find that most people are quite happy with Australian and imported plants. Recent bushfires have shown that some Australian plants, close to the house, are terrible, as they encourage fires. Eucalypts burn very quickly, also the wattles.”

Your thoughts on the planting of plane trees across Melbourne? “Yes, we took these from London. They require a lot of water; their roots are as big as the span of the top of the tree. They also block drains, but they provide beautiful shade in Summer with their large canopies. Councils are now having to remove some of them mainly due to age.”

Following a partial retirement from lecturing, Jenni accompanied Richard on a 3 month sabbatical to Germany. On her return, she continued part time lecturing but due to her concern over the manner in which Australia treated asylum seekers, Jenni decided to volunteer at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. (ASRC). Over a period of 5 years, Jenni made lunches for 50 or 60 people on Mondays. “Monday is a terrible day as you don’t get many people giving away food on the weekend.” Despite not being a person “who cooks a lot, we made dahl, rice, roast potatoes, curries, depending on what vegetables were available.”

Your current volunteering activities? Jenni was past President of the Poet’s Garden, Elwood, a community garden, basically a vegetable garden. She is currently on the committee. “There are not enough bees in the world now, so we need to encourage pollinators, such as native grasses and Indigenous flowering plants. Some South African grasses are exceptional. There is a plan to plant grass verges from Melbourne through to the old Elwood wetlands, now Yalukit Willam Nature Reserve, providing a green space right down to Frankston.”

Jenni has worked in a voluntary capacity for the past 11 years at the Children’s Garden in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. “I could have been a guide, or a garden ambassador, but I chose instead to work in the Children’s Garden.”

Exploring a Flinders garden with Botanic Garden volunteers ( dressed in our smart red uniform)

“There are in Melbourne quite a few children who come from deprived backgrounds, who may have been previously in camps. They have real problems. They may attend a 6 week educational program if the grants are available. There are also a variety of other programs, which include holiday activities. The volunteers also just enjoy gardening together.”

Your various roles at U3APP? Jenni became a member about 15 years ago and served on the committee for 3 years when Jose Simsa was President. “I helped put out the magazine, including the very first online magazine, I learnt a lot about U3A, being on the committee.”

“U3APP is a wonderful place.” Jenni has run several short courses featuring landscape design, “basically visiting various gardens around Melbourne.” In 2022, “I wanted to try city gardens, so that we wouldn’t have problems with transport.” Previous groups have visited gardens on the Mornington Peninsula and other areas.

Jenni is active in several U3APP groups. She participated in Lorna Wyatt’s exercise class for 5 years, and is currently doing yoga. She has joined Nancy Corbett’s Poetry Class, does Life Drawing, online Films and also plays Pétanque.

Do you have a favourite plant or tree? “I have a lemon myrtle tree on my balcony which I really love. It is a beautiful tree and used in indigenous cooking. It is tough. I use it in cooking.”

Jenni summarises that she is motivated by, “being outdoors, being involved in things pertaining to the environment. I think people should have woken up 10 to 20 years ago. We were teaching about climate change 20 to 30 years ago, at my horticultural college.”

“I really do worry about the future, for children, for the next generation and the generation afterwards. One daughter lives in Canada, we have visited areas where glaciers are disappearing.”

Future plans? Jennifer is travelling with a group to Machu Picchu and then to the Galapagos Islands, fulfilling a lifetime dream, “I have always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands because of my interest in Darwin, the historical background, the animals and plants.”

Jenni developed her love for the outdoors and the environment from an early age. She has pursued a career in horticultural science and landscape design and has used her knowledge and energy to assist in many worthwhile projects. She continues to be fully involved with current concerns about our environment and shows no sign of slowing down. U3APP in turn, provides an outlet for members’ skills to be utilised, and an avenue to pursue alternate relaxing, and enjoyable activities.

Felicity May interviewed Jenni Eaton


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