Flemington roses

Pruning the 16,000 roses bushes starts in April, given that it's all about timing when it comes to getting those famous roses ready for November. (Photographer Jason Edwards)

The show must go on

Since the departure of his boss and good friend Terry Freeman who retired last year, Ryan, who is no stranger to Flemington having worked in the gardening team for 30 years and sold papers there as a boy, has never seen the course quite like it during these unprecedented times.

“It’s strange to think that this year we could have no crowds at the Melbourne Cup Carnival, or very limited ones if we do,” said Ryan. “I am aware though that although there won’t be too many people there, the TV cameras will be looking to focus on something, so I’m feeling pressure to have the roses and the rest of the garden looking the best they possibly can for all of those close-up details shots!”

Even with a skeleton staff due to the COVID-19, Ryan and his team – who are on staggered shifts through the day – have managed to keep the garden schedule on track, given that it is all about timing when it comes to getting those famous roses ready for November. “With 16,000 rose bushes to prune, we need to run to a strict timeline. We started pruning the roses in April as we always do, and also have all of the other plants to cut back of course. There’s always something to do.”

In his first year as Head Gardener, Ryan had a number of new projects in the pipeline before COVID-19 hit, which have understandably been put on hold for now. “I had started on a few new things on course, such as moving some rose beds, and had grand ideas for other things that we wanted to improve on, but they’ll have to wait,” he said.

Something that is also currently dormant is the racecourse’s vegetable patch, but is eagerly anticipated by all who work in the kitchens at Flemington when everything is up and running again. “In the nursery we not only grow our temporary plant displays, such as petunias and annuals that we use in different areas to add colour on race days, but we also have a fantastic veggie garden,” said Ryan. “The chefs are really excited about utilising the fresh vegetables and herbs grown right here on course, for the paddock-to-plate style Flemington dining is known for.” 

Other sustainable measures employed by Ryan and his team include caring for a group of goats who rid certain areas of noxious weeds, as the goats eating them is preferable to spraying chemicals. The goats are temporarily relocated but Ryan looks forward to having them back on course, where they can join the bees that are also in residence. “The bees are in hibernation but we keep an eye on them and the beekeeper comes once a week. The plan is to extract the honey ourselves eventually, so the chefs and some staff are obtaining their beekeeper license to do so. The honey will be used in the kitchens here, and I can’t wait to taste it myself.”

With no dining on course of late, the compost situation has also been different, without the usual food scraps and coffee granules that Ryan and his team use as fertiliser. There is still plenty of leaf litter from the hundreds of elm trees, however, and straw from the horseboxes. As for horse manure, that is something that never stops: it is collected daily from the stables and taken away to a mushroom farm for composting, as it isn’t suitable for use on roses and there just isn't the space on course to keep it.

Ryan’s enthusiasm for the racecourse and garden he clearly loves shines through when he talks about his job, even when faced with a very different-looking Carnival. “It will be strange to not have the marquees and structures that are usually in place, as well as the foot traffic that we usually contend with.  But I just love the gardeners and so do my team, so although we will miss the usual buzz and the atmosphere of the big race days, we’ll definitely make sure our gardens look the best they can be.”

Listen to Flemington Racecourse’s Senior Grounds and Gardens Manager Mick Ryan update The Sport of Gardening podcast on all things roses, including Mick's favourite and pruning tips, along with other sustainability initiatives at Headquarters like the introduction of goats to help with weed management and bee hives to help the Peter Rowland chef's paddock to plate ethos.