Women in Horticulture: Fleur Flanery

In Conversation with Fleur Flanery – 1/12/22

Fleur Flanery is the Director of Outlandish Pty Ltd, who hosts the biennial Australian Landscape Conference (ALC) in Melbourne. Having bought the Conference in 2019, Fleur hit the ground running – both figuratively and literally, as Fleur is a keen runner – navigating the many and varied challenges and postponements of Covid-19. She managed, despite these hurdles, to provide a great myriad of ideas and presenters during the 2021 Conference.

Here one of EWHA’s newest members, Sandra Schwarz interviews Fleur for “Verdant”.

With the evolution of Outlandish Ventures, Fleur has grand and diverse visions that touch on horticulture, landscape, urbanism and ecological thinking (to name a few). She is a ball of energy with a passion for these fields, so I wanted to know some more about her background, her ‘journey’ thus far and what she has planned next.

Sandra: You took over the ALC in 2019, what is your own landscape and plant story that brought you to that point?

Fleur: In terms of background and experience my first degree was in communication and public relations and I worked as an event organiser for a couple of years. I really loved doing events and being creative, but I had got married really young and had children young. So, I just couldn’t be away all the time and do the hours that are required. It was a fun industry as a young person, but it wasn’t one that I felt I could sustain for five or ten years.  

As I age, I’ve realised I have also been quite emotionally driven. I grew up in a beautiful garden that was my grandparents’ and then my parents’ garden. It was based on Edna Walling’s style and it was designed by a lady called Kath Carr, who was a friend of my grandmother’s. So, I’ve always had a connection to place, I’ve only ever lived in three houses in my whole life and I feel very…maybe I’m borrowing, but I’ve always felt a connection to country and landscape. I’ve always had a strong interest in that area and when my children were little, and I couldn’t run, couldn’t do conference work anymore, I went back to study horticulture. But I’d always kind of aspired to be a landscape architect, I just didn’t jump into it initially, I’m not sure why. I just thought communications was probably a bit more “buzzy” and fun, as a, you know, 18-year-old. So, after the communications, I did horticulture and then I did landscape architecture and graduated well.

Sandra: Where did you study, where was your university?

Fleur: University of Canberra because I live at Yass, so it’s the closest place.

And then I thought ‘oh gosh, I now need to go and get a job’ because I’ve basically been studying for eight or nine years. I was trying to work out what would I do, how would I manage my children, how that would work with my husband beginning on a farm and working in a rural industry, so I basically panicked a bit and got quite depressed. I then went and worked in an administrative role with a fabulous organisation called Land and Water Australia. I worked for Land and Water Australia for 7 1/2 years under a man called Andrew Campbell, who was the Executive Director. Andrew was the first facilitator of Landcare and Bushcare, so that really opened my eyes up to environmental management of land and landscape. So, I did all their events and Land and Water Australia funded research into environmental issues. Charles Massey, who spoke at my first ALC (2021), part of his PhD was funded by Land and Water Australia, so I got to hear from all these amazing researchers.

Then I worked for Greening Australia, doing more environmental management and connecting landowners to research. And then a friend of mine was in the ACT government and said there’s a job managing Canberra’s urban forest and doing some strategic planning around that, so that stepped me into government, which is where I’ve spent the last sort of 12 or 15 years. I graduated, I guess that’s the way of saying it, from managing the urban forest – which got close to a million trees into the public domain, it’s one of the country’s largest urban forests – to Executive Director of Strategic Planning. That was running really large operational teams, like 500 people plus contracts and very large budgets. I looked after all the open space and the mowing program as the director of that area for seven years, and then put my hand up to go into rotations. Somehow, I rotated into managing all their public transport systems, as I’ve had operational experience and the executive wanted a female. I just didn’t love it, I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Going back to my earlier comment, I’m emotionally led, so I haven’t had a stepping-stone career and when my father died the grief really kind of consumed me.

When I  found out the ALC was being sold by Sue and Warwick Forge, I was with my mum and said ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sad this is going to finish because we always did it together.’ I haven’t been to all of them, but I went to them early in my career and returned to them again later. I was really sad and said ‘I’d love to do this’ and mum asked ‘why don’t you?’. And I thought, ‘why don’t I?’. It took a couple of weeks to contact Warwick and even when I bought the business, I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to do it, instinctively, or whether I was still trying to just find something that fit. But I’m really happy about it, because there’s just so much to see and learn, so it’s kind of a bit of a confluence of things that I did earlier in my career. I think that I can build the conference, and the business around it, into a totally world-leading event, that you know… I’m proud of Australia and proud of what our landscapes are and I really want to share what you and I see with other people. Unless you understand the simplicity and complexity, and the skills that are learned over time to make up these landscapes, they won’t happen. You need that creativity and that special someone who has the interest to look into them and I want to share those ideas, which is basically what I started with at Land and Water Australia, sharing ideas.

Sandra: I feel like that’s the nice thing about the horticultural industry in general, that people there are really willing to share and be very generous. But I think that also leads to my second question of expanding the business to Outlandish Ventures. What have you got planned, what are your big goals with Outlandish Ventures?

Fleur: As you know, the previous ALC owners are also book publishers, as only doing a conference every two years just isn’t a financial model that’s sustainable. I mean, it is an outstanding event and I want to make it a really well- curated and great experience, I want it to be excellent. Why is it Outlandish? Outlandish stands for the ‘outstanding landscape’, so it’s not just the Australian Landscape Conference. I didn’t want it to be put in a box, I don’t think like that, so I thought that’s what the event is called, but my business is looking for ‘outstanding landscapes’. Whether that’s travel experiences, whether it’s smaller or more bespoke events in regional areas.

I’m really interested in regional identity and how through having a landscape approach, we can give a regional identity. Along the East Coast, we drive to cities and you see the same plants. It’s like when I was talking to Matt (Reed) at Antique Perennials (Site for the 2023 ALC Masterclass: ‘Extraordinary Planting Schemes’), he said if we only ever see the same plants at our nurseries, we only ever get the same types of gardens. So, in the bigger picture, I want to get councils and designers to engage with how they can express regional identity through the plantings and design. I think our towns and our cities have an opportunity to express an Australian identity and that’s not only through native plants, but it’s expressing their own style. I look at the things that are publicly planted and while I understand there needs to be robust choice, are we ever really going to change that (homogeneity) unless you change the thinking? And you only change thinking through design and making it easier for people to find information and look at things that are different.  It’s a way of educating and changing perspectives of how we understand and look at open green space, plants etc., and in the future, it might even be through doing my own research and advising. I haven’t quite worked out what the next step is other than at the moment it’s the ALC, it’s the Land Escapism Series (starting in 2024) which will be smaller regional events and some travel (May 2023 California Travel Tour). It’s just building it all up, making sure all of those things are the absolute best they can be. At the moment I’m doing everything, which just stretches me too thin, because you’ve also got to be finding new stuff, so I kind of need to get it to be a sustainable financial model, then I can go the next step and get a team together. You know through your own work with therapeutic horticulture, the way nature is definitely more soothing than looking at concrete or white walls. We’ve lost our connection to how plants grow. Now everyone wants a bee-box and thinks they’re being sustainable with a bee-box. I kind of then wonder, what about our little native bees? It’s the whole big picture thing, it’s got to go a bit deeper than the superficial, we neglect our own little native bees just because they don’t make honey for us.

Sandra: And some native bees do produce honey, just not in the same way as European honey bees, absolutely. I think a couple of things you’ve said link well to the next question, because obviously this is for Encouraging Women in Horticulture, so coming from the perspective of a woman in a fairly competitive field – and you’ve done lots of things – what are some of the challenges and highlights that you’ve experienced?

Fleur: I have grown up in a very male- dominated environment, in terms of two brothers and three cousins all being male, so I was the only female in 17 years in the Flanery family. I’ve never ever thought of myself, or my parents never gave me the impression that I couldn’t do something because of my gender. I’ve sat around so many tables where maybe I’m the only woman. I’ve always tried to just be a reasonable person and take people as they are, so the challenges have definitely been more around having children. Just managing children as a young person and not knowing that when you come out of Uni and you do something, you don’t have to have all the skills. Those skills take years, time and dedication. I’m very action- oriented and often think ‘oh I should know how to do that’, but it really does take quite a long time to have a good design sense. For example, the gardens we looked at the other day* there’s so much complexity there and things like that just don’t happen over a day.

Sandra: That’s also interesting because ‘time’ is almost always the key professional “meritocracy” criteria. And as you say, because of women having kids, it’s actually the one criterion that women, because of their caretaking roles, will always struggle to be ‘equal’ with men. Either due to their own expectation or society’s expectation, that they stay at home with the kids. I get what you’re saying in that you need time to gain experience, but I feel we also need to stop making it the main criteria in recognising skills, because somebody can still be good without having been at it for 20 years and somebody else can have been in their job for 20 years and hasn’t learnt or grown much at all.

Fleur: Totally. I think the one thing about horticulture, landscape architecture and design is, they allow you to come in at any age, so that even though you’re looking after children or doing whatever, you can come into it later having read or just being a bit more mature. I guess  another challenge, it’s very hard for people initially to earn a living. Like for designers to come in and start their own business – getting jobs, doing the jobs, you’ve got to do all these different things. I want the ALC to be a place that provides opportunities for businesses at any scale to learn something. It’s a very efficient way for them to see the best of whatever it is they need. I’ve always liked doing lots of things, so I kind of hope people have one or two people in their business who could attend and say ‘that’s your training, that’s your inspiration’. Because where do designers like Kate (Seddon) and Myles (Broad – EGA) or Amanda (Oliver)…where do they find inspiration? So many people are taking inspiration from them and so I want to provide a platform that they come to and say ‘that was so great, I learnt something or I was inspired or even that will keep me in my industry’. They probably still do at some point feel a bit burnt out, but it can spark them or make them look at things in a slightly different way.

Sandra: That is such a great goal for the ALC. So, who are some of the women that inspire you (and why), be it in this field or from other areas?

Fleur: Some people are good practitioners or really good designers, it’s that creativity and where they draw it from and how they create space that’s clever. One person that has always stood out to me, that I’ve never met of course, but I read a book about her, was Georgiana Molloy (“An All Consuming Passion – Origins, Modernity and the Australian Life of Georgiana Molloy” by William J. Lines). She did plant-collecting in WA (first half of 1800’s) and it just astounds me how someone who wasn’t trained, went out and did this purely because she was genuinely interested in Australian flora and fauna. She didn’t gain all these accolades or do it for anything other than interest, and what shines through is that without someone like her going out and patiently collecting…one of her plant specimens from memory took 10 years to collect! All of the different parts like the seeds, the flower…and she was so disciplined in her thinking and realised how important this would be, so she sent her pressed specimens to von Mueller at Melbourne (RBGV) amongst others. I’d actually also say that Joseph Banks is one of my heroes, but I just think someone like that (Molloy) on her own started collecting and was just curious, and she was extremely good at it, is the jackpot.

Which leads me to gardens, which have often been seen as the domain of many women, and you know why, because they’re homemakers. I think my mother and my grandmother have been really massive influences on me in terms of spending time with them. They didn’t sit me inside to play dollies or anything like that, they just took me outside and sat me down or planted or picked flowers. These are very early childhood memories for me, picking flowers or cutting things back or even mowing the lawn, which I always really liked. We’re from a farming background, so it was observing when something is flowering, what’s the effect of frost on different plants, how does rainfall affect different things? They’re not hard things to pick up, but they’re things that have just been present in the conversation. It’s my early days and you know, for that I’ve been really, really grateful. I don’t think I’m actually an observant person, I often like doing two things at once. But it’s good when someone takes the time to stop and look, because when you’re looking at some planting schemes, you need those observational skills to work out how one plant behaves next to another. Otherwise, you don’t get your effect or you can’t perceive that something can be different.

Sandra: So last question, what do you think women in particular can bring to the concept of landscapes and horticulture?

Fleur: I think I can’t be gender- specific about that, because I think that we can all share information and ideas. It’s not a profession that actually discriminates against you because of your gender, which I think is great. It’s a similar way to how I think about running: you’re on the start line and you look right, look left and it’s all within you. It’s not that they’re better because they’re a man, or they’re better because they’re a female. I think that it’s a great profession because you can actually be a complete amount of equal. Aside from how you manage children, and if there’s shared time in bringing up children and family, then I think you’ve just got the best profession that offers lifelong learning. Even as a very old person you can arrange plants, like look at my mum who has come around with me (for work) and she’s in her 80’s. She’s still constantly learning about things and when I thanked her for coming with me, she said “how could you not want to come and do things like this?”. I think that is so great, you give it a go and keep active like her, ‘active mind and active body’.

I want to thank Fleur for her time and energy, in sharing her knowledge and ideas and bringing designers and like-minded people who love plants together.

* The gardens to which Fleur is referring here are those that will be part of the optional Garden Tours for the ALC (Friday March 17th), ‘Outstanding City Gardens’ based around Melbourne (which can be participated in separately to the Conference itself), and ‘Extraordinary Gardens of Melbourne’s Coast’ based around the Mornington Peninsula. They feature designs by designers mentioned here, such as Kate Seddon, Myles Broad (EGA), Fiona Brockhoff and Amanda Oliver.

The 2023 ALC event showcases a stellar international lineup of speakers from China, Chile, the US, Italy and UK, plus some of our own local heroes to whet your appetite. Being held March 17-21, at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre – www.outlandishventures.au.

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