Mackay Botanical Gardens Project

botanical gardens rough plan
Just before I left Mackay, I had a great meeting with Richard, Maya and Aaron from the Mackay Botanical Gardens. I wanted to pitch them a crazy idea – a crop of sunflowers and sugar cane at the gardens. This is quite different from the usual thing you see at the Botanical Gardens. It’s big (maybe 4-5 hectares) and it’s a “commercial crop”.

Sugar cane is a very “meaningful” crop for this part of the world, and one of the functions of botanical gardens is community public education. What do botanical gardens have, as a context, that art galleries and museums don’t have? What do botanical gardens offer a project like this, that an ordinary farm does not offer? It’s the shift in context that we’re interested in.

I am delighted to announce that The Mackay Botanical Gardens folks are very interested and keen to work with us on this project!

Over a two year cycle, the project will be able to open up the process of planting, growing, harvesting to public awareness – including the difficult things. For example, the piece of land does not have water or irrigation access currently. That’s something that we’re going to have to nut out. Also, it’s covered with guinea grass. How can we transition the land to something that will enable a successful crop? Will we have to use herbicides? Down in the lagoons, there’s a profusion of azolla growing. Can we harvest this and compost it to feed the hungry cane?

Another big part of the project is the involvement of Starrett Vea Vea and the Australian South Sea Islander Community. Starrett sees an opportunity for his community to get involved and thereby tap into their own cultural heritage as indentured workers in the establishment of the sugar cane industry in Queensland from 1867 onwards.

In the spirit of transparency, I’ve pasted the text of the proposal below. No doubt this will all change as we go along, but I invite any input, suggestions, etc.

view towards possible site for dual crop at mackay botanical gardens



  • Lucas Ihlein, Kim Williams and Ian Milliss (artists)
  • Simon Mattsson (cane farmer)
  • John Sweet (local community activator and Keyline Design Consultant)
  • in collaboration with:

    • members of the Mackay sugar cane-farming community
    • members of Australian South Sea Islander Community
    • Mackay local botanical artists
    • the Friends of the Botanic Gardens
    • Australian Flora and Fauna specialists working at the gardens
    • Staff at the Mackay Botanic Gardens


    A crop of sunflowers + sugar cane to be planted, grown and harvested in the Meadowlands zone (SITE 1) at the Mackay Botanical Gardens, accompanied by an array of associated educational and public engagement events at the ASSI Community House (SITE 2) and the Lagoons Gallery (SITE 3).

    This art project takes an agricultural process (planting and harvesting a crop) and “transplants” it to the context of the Botanical Gardens, where it will be highly visible from the vantage point of the cafe verandah.
    The extended period of engagement (preparing the soil, planting, growing, and harvesting) provides the opportunity for a lengthy community collaboration, during which the Botanical Gardens becomes the centre of an ongoing discussion about agriculture, economic botany, technology, environmental impact, and cultural traditions.


    The idea is to draw broader attention to the important and often controversial role played by agriculture in the region. We want to open up public dialogue around soil health and new developments in sugar cane farming which will have benefits for the environment: particularly in relation to the impact of chemical run-off on the Great Barrier Reef.

    Artists Lucas Ihlein, Kim Williams and Ian Milliss have been collaborating with Marian-based sugar cane farmer Simon Mattsson since February 2015. Last year the team presented a proof-of-concept event called Sunset in the Sunflowers at Simon’s farm in Marian. Simon is the chair of Central Queensland Soil Health Systems, a farmer-led initiative to improve agricultural practices and environmental performance through a focus on soil health.

    The planting of sunflowers with sugar cane has (at least) two benefits:

    • Biological benefit: the dual crop improves soil health by introducing plant diversity into the sugar cane monoculture;
    • Aesthetic benefit: sunflowers are attention-grabbing – they are a magnet for media publicity, thus expanding public discussion about the complex role of agriculture in the environment, culture and economy of Central Queensland.

    The involvement of the ASSI community provides (at least) three opportunities:

    • It fosters cultural solidarity (connecting contemporary Australian South Sea Islanders to their important history in Mackay’s sugar cane industry).
    • It also enables cross-cultural connections to emerge with contemporary sugar cane farmers whose farms were built on the labour of South Sea Islanders.
    • It connects to the Mackay Regional Council’s 150th anniversary celebration of the arrival of South Sea Islanders in the area.

    The project will tie in with an exhibition at Artspace Mackay from November 2018 to Feb 2019.


    The process involves bringing together a group of interested collaborators, including:

    • contemporary sugarcane farmers
    • Mackay Botanical Gardens curators and staff
    • artists
    • members of the ASSI community
    • friends of the botanical gardens and native plant enthusiasts

    This group would collaborate to plan, plant, and harvest the crop over a 2 year cycle. There would be several events throughout this time which would take place under the umbrella of the Mackay Botanical Gardens (cafe-gallery and workshop space) and the ASSI Meeting Hut and outdoor areas.

    These events would be widely advertised for the broader public to attend.


    • participatory design workshops
      (where to plant? what patterns to plant the crop, eg on the topographical contour? preparation of the soil etc? other meaningful species to inter-crop? Composting of azolla floating water plant to fertilise crop?)
    • participatory planting workshop
      (with instruction on traditional hand-techniques for cane planting from elders of the ASSI community, and workshops from cutting-edge canefarmers at the forefront of soil health research)
    • kids’ and adults’ educational workshops
      (while the crops are growing – soil analysis, root growth, pests and bugs, soil chromatography, etc, with highly engaging soil scientists, farmers and artists)
    • exhibition at the Lagoons Gallery
      (including botanical drawings of sugar cane, sunflowers, legumes, and the various weed and pest species associated with the project. Ideally this component would be carried out in collaboration with artists from the Mackay Botanical Art Interest Group. )
    • participatory harvesting workshop and Harvest Festival
      (big, well publicised celebratory event connecting all three sites: Meadowlands, ASSI hut, and Lagoons Gallery, including food and drinks)
    • film screenings
      (showing films on the history of ASSI community involvement in sugar cane industry, and films about exciting developments in regenerative agriculture in Mackay and beyond – at the amphitheatre and at the ASSI hut)

    At each stage of the project, these events are intended to generate local, state and national media coverage.


    The process can begin as soon as it is given the green light.
    A two year cycle from soil preparation, planting to harvest could take place between early 2017 and late 2018.