Jon Kingston is an outstanding man, whose passion and commitment to nurture Sydney's urban flora and fauna is compelling. Along with a generous sharing of his horticultural skills, Jon has an inexhaustible enthusiasm to educate the public on gardening. Along with his commercial enterprises, he’s the head gardener at my local community garden and a regular volunteer at the Wayside Chapel. Jon’s one of my favourite types of human: talented and practically compassionate and I interviewed him recently to find out more about his work.
What’s your job exactly?
I’m a garden designer, horticulturalist, consultant and educator. Along with running my own business, City Garden Wise, I also do work for The Edible Balcony.
Who are your clients?
I mostly do private residential garden work, as well as restaurants, roof tops and balconies. Local councils and community gardens get me to run classes.
What do you love about your job?
Every client has different requirements. My job is to figure out the style of garden they want, and how to create it with a nod to budget and lifestyle, as well as the character of their house. It’s creative and interesting and because I work for myself, I can be flexible. Also, I get to spend a lot of time outdoors.
Where did you previously work?
I’ve worked for myself for over 15 years, but previously I was in hospitality and managed the head office training store for an ice-cream franchise. I've also done bush regeneration and worked in nursery production.
What was your first paid job?
Mum paid me four-cents a bucket to move the rocks out of her front garden.
Can you remember what your child-self wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?
A singing ice-cream man - I was obsessed with the Mr Whippy van.
What did you study?
Horticultural Science then a diploma in bush regeneration. I’ve also done a lot of courses in areas that interest me, such as bee keeping.
What makes you choose the courses you do?
I'm a big reader and get absorbed with new ideas, and once I get hooked I obsess about learning everything I can about whatever it is that's grabbed my interest. Invariably, it relates to a garden’s ecological environment – such as habitat gardens.
Garden’s aren’t just about paving and plants, they include everything that has a relationship with the garden, such as insects, birds and blue tongue lizards.
What’s your typical work schedule?
I do a lot of running around. Aside from working on a garden, I shop for plants and equipment for clients. I’ve got an offsider who rotates through jobs, so I need to make sure he’s on top of client needs and has materials each day to do his job. I quote, I design, I do paperwork, I teach on Saturday afternoons, I volunteer at Wayside on Thursday afternoon and where possible I find time for my community garden.
What do you wear to work?
At the moment I wear boots, jeans, a warm long-sleeve shirt and a hat.
Are clothes important in the workplace?
I’ve got to find a balance between functional work wear and looking professional for the client.
What is your standout proudest career moment?
I don't have one standout, but I've lots of happy moments. Some of the designs I’ve done I’ve been really happy with – nice spaces to be in and relax in; I’m really happy with a garden I’m working on right now. I’ve designed the gardens for my Mother’s last three houses – I’ve laid them out and then she’s pulled them together. That’s made me happy. Working with Indira Naidoo on a couple of garden shows, when I’ve designed and implemented space for the shows. I’m really quite happy to work at Wayside every second Thursday – I think the work we do there makes a real difference. I’ve never had a lot of money to give to charity, but I feel the work I do there is my best way to help people. That’s not a proud thing, but it gives me a sense of satisfaction.
If you had the possibility to go back and change anything in your career, would you?
I would have studied merchant banking and then retired at 30 onto my own farm.
Do you have a mentor?
Not really – though Indira’s inspired me to lift my game, and to be more confident.
Is there anyone whose career or work you really admire?
Yes, Costa Georgiadis because he’s always passionate about his work and he can inspire people. Costa's found a way to spread a very important message across Australia, which is to be more aware of what we're doing in the gardening environment. This includes the principals of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, a relatively new concept of improving the land while harvesting from it and (re)building the community. (Watch Costa interviewing Jon [and me] for Gardening Australia)
What do you want to do next in your career?
I’m learning more about teaching. I’ve started to give lectures on ecologically based gardening at The Coal Loader and assist in teaching organic gardening at Randwick Environment Centre. Teaching’s been a 5-year plan, which finally came together this year.
How do you unwind?
I go up to my community garden and garden for myself. Also, I’ll visit my friend Pi Wei whose got a property in Robertson, which has got a beautiful rainforest and an orchard.
What would you like to see more of in Sydney gardens?
I’d like more people to not just do what their neighbours are doing, and to be brave and more diverse in garden style. I’d like to see a lot more creativity and colour in gardens. I’d like to see more native plants being used as well as more attention given to the ecology and functionality of the garden.
And less of?
Hedges! They’re boring and there’s too many of them. Hedges are a way of excluding the neighbours and the world and I think that they encourage people to live in a box and hide away from the world. Also, large hedges can shade too much of the garden, limiting what you’re able to do.
What do you think the biggest fail someone can do to their garden?
Over-emphasising the need for grass, and having gardens that aren’t climatically appropriate. I think unimaginative gardens end up being a space that people don’t use – they retreat inside.
Have you got future career plans?
My dream job is to be a smallholder, that is, to have a small farm. It would tie all my interests together – raising animals, becoming more self-sufficient (chicken, eggs, fruit) and creating my own ecology.
If you knew me really well, you’d know …
I’m passionate about getting the details right in the garden.
What kind of impact do you think you have on clients?
I hope I expand their idea about what a garden can be.
Other than your work, what are you loving about life right now?
That answer lies in the small things - I really do appreciate the small things that life throws out.
All images provided by Jon Kingston.
If you enjoyed reading about Jon's career, here's a link for more interviews from people who love their work.