His perennially smiling face is, it seems, everywhere in Australia’s gardening and horticultural universe. His is a familiar voice on countless radios and TV screens every week, offering advice and radiating a love of gardens.
There’s a good reason Graham Ross is an institution in the horticultural industry here — he has put so much of himself into every facet of the industry over nearly half a century, and that isn’t about to stop.
He’s so busy that it was a challenge pinning him down for an interview, but once pinned he and his wife Sandra were more than happy to while away an afternoon chatting about their background, extraordinary horticultural adventures, and the love and work life the close-knit Ross family shares.
It must be said, Graham can talk the leg off a chair; but that love of a good tale comes from an obvious and compelling curiosity about nearly everything under the sun. He has fascinating stories with a wide cast of characters famous and not so famous, including personalities from every medium, business leaders and identities, and politicians, both state and federal, whom he has corralled over the years into projects and visions for a better connected community through the power of the natural world.
A family affair
Graham is the first to point out that his is really the story of the Ross family. His wife Sandra has been integrally involved in all the Ross family business interests, and their children, Linda and Kent, are closely involved. (Read Linda's Sydney Hills & Hawkesbury Living’s regular column!)
“We started our little company, Graham Ross Horticultural Consultants, when I had just got my qualifications and he was teaching at Ryde School of Horticulture, and we’d just had the kids,” said Sandra. “Graham has always been so ambitious. You’ll never meet a more positive man. He’s such a good teacher, and he wanted to take that to a broader audience.”
Graham and Sandra have worked in every medium since the 1970s with some of Australia’s leading lights, notably on 2GB's weekend program Garden Clinic since 1980, and Graham's segments on Better Homes and Gardens for the past 22 years. But while television cemented the Ross name in Australia, they still share a love of radio.
“The radio has always been the linchpin of it. Television has always been there, but radio has been the centre of it,” said Sandra.
Graham still has, after 37 years, more than half a million people listening to his radio program every weekend.
“Now that we broadcast on the web I’ve got listeners in Chicago, in Copenhagen and Shanghai, who email me with their questions. The other thing they do is listen to us on podcasts. Radio is such a special medium because you’re in people’s heads,” added Graham.
Spreading the Ross wings
The Rosses’ “little company” is not really so little any more. Aside from all their media work, the Ross family business includes Garden Clinic, a gardening club boasting thousands of members with a glossy magazine and regular garden events and exhibitions. Graham also presents regularly at exhibitions and shows around Australia.
The Rosses also direct what has been labelled the largest garden tourism company in the world. It runs about 25 garden tours every year to every corner of the globe to visit famous gardens and gardening events.
Their adult children, Linda and Kent, are involved in all the family business activities.
“We never asked our kids to join us. It just happened,” said Graham. “We’re lucky that we have Linda and Kent in the business. They also keep us up to date in technology, so we are both phone friendly and internet savvy. Not everyone our age is, and that’s a shame.
“We had all these balls in the air, with radio, TV, publishing, the garden club and the travel company, so the two of them were very valuable to all of it,” added Sandra.
The Garden Council
As if all that isn’t enough, Graham has been a key driver in the establishment of the Australian Garden Council, a body set up to promote the importance of gardens and gardening. He is presently chairman.
“Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the Garden Council for us in November 2015, and we are now a charity, and getting donations from industry and the community. People can see it’s practical and real, and they can become a member,” said Graham. “The Garden Council was my attempt to focus on three problem aspects of gardening in this country. It’s an umbrella organisation nationally, designed to re-engage with high school students so they can learn about gardens and the environment, and to educate careers advisors about horticulture and gardens. It provides a national mentoring program of experienced people and who have a passion to pass on the word.
“It is also designed to re-engage with home gardeners, especially through organisations such as district gardening clubs, and to gain employment for older, experienced gardeners who can no longer find a job.”
The garden as tourist attraction
Graham is adamant that greater employment in the horticulture sector is only possible by generating a wave of interest in it.
“The way that interest is generated is through tourism,” he said. “Unless you’ve got a viable gardening tourism industry you don’t have that input of income. Garden tourism is the key to a lot of employment in horticulture and gardening. In the northern hemisphere we know that there are 300 million garden tourists. It’s one of the largest industries in the world. There are 15 gardens in the northern hemisphere that have over a million visitors annually. Chelsea Flower Show is a prime example. The Royal Horticultural Society is the largest charity in Britain.”
This line of thought leads directly to another of Graham’s primary interests — an international gardening festival in Australia, called Australis.
The idea isn’t new — major gardening festivals grew out of Europe’s desire to revitalise devastated areas after World War 2. The first was in Amsterdam, and there have been dozens in Europe.
“Now it’s all about Asia,” said Graham. “There have been two in Japan, two in Taiwan, and there have been nine in China. The next one in China will be in 2019, and it will be the biggest event in human history.”
The Australis concept was actually devised before the Sydney Olympics in 2000 in tandem with then Premier John Fahey, who was keen on the idea. The concept was researched, but ultimately shelved with the change in state government.
“Australis is an international garden festival that will continue for six months, in time to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Cook’s and Banks’ journey past Australia’s east coast,” Graham explained. “It is hoped it will be held in Olympic Park. It’s five times bigger than the OIympics. It will run from September 2020 to March 2021, and have a minimum of four to five million people visiting over six months. It’s an enormous exercise.
“Australis is now at a critical stage, with a number of very large sponsors very keen to go. It’s a $340 million project, but the profit on 2.2 million visitors is projected at $1.6 billion. Within three hours of Sydney are seven million people, and that’s without tourists,” he added with unbridled enthusiasm.
A green future?
The Rosses have definite views about the future of gardening and the living environment. They pinpointed a phenomenon that may well become problematic, and another that is well past due, but very welcome.
“I interviewed Jeff Kennett on the radio last year and he was very generous at 7:30 in the morning,” recalled Graham. “I asked him what he thought would be our largest problem. ‘Without a doubt,’ he said, ‘children growing up in high rise without dirt under their fingernails.’
“I think the solution is more than just having indoor plants. They need to engage with the dirt. There’s no room here [in the Rosses’ suburb] for a community garden,” said Graham.
“It works on so many levels,” said Sandra. “You need a couple of levels of interaction throughout the community. Gardens and gardening, and community green space provide that.”
“Developers are not providing the green space. We’re going to have to drive community gardens or they won’t happen,” added Graham.
On a positive note, though, is a fundamental change in gardening practices.
“The other big change is organic gardening,” said Sandra. “When we started it was all DDT and chemicals. Now 92% of gardening products for home gardeners are organic.”
Into the sunset?
There appears to be no chance of the Rosses sliding gently into a quieter lifestyle away from the cameras and the action.
When asked, Graham said categorically, “Retirement doesn’t appear on the agenda. Bob Rogers is 84. That’s my answer.”
Okay then, expect to see him on a screen near you for quite some time yet.