Simon Rickard is a Player
Simon Rickard is a player. Of music, I mean. He’s a baroque bassoonist with very impressive facial hair and a serious passion for plants. In fact, Simon was one of the founding members of the Canberra Orchid Society way back in the 1980’s, when he was a mere 12 years old.
He credits his grandmother, and K-Mart, for nurturing his plant love. “Whenever I went to visit my nan I’d be handed a pair of secateurs and given free rein in the garden – to pick Mum a bunch of flowers, eat strawberries or pick apples.” And K-Mart, well that’s where his orchidelirium began. “I saw a native orchid in K-Mart one day, and nagged my parents to buy it, which they did. It started my whole collection.”
Simon was serious. Plant hunting back then required it. “Orchids were quite rare,” he tells me. “I’d write away for a catalogue, receive it, then write back with my order and money stuck to the letter.”
Throughout his teens he amassed a collection of around 150 orchid plants and was very committed to the idea of studying botany or horticulture at university. After a couple of rounds of work experience at the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Simon’s plant love was left unsated. He found that botany, horticulture and science didn’t fulfil him as he’d expected. “It left me cold, which was weird because I loved plants.” He decided to pursue his other love, music, studying at the Canberra School of Music before heading to the Netherlands for three years of postgraduate study.
On leaving Australia he bequeathed his 150 strong orchid collection to his parents. They’re still going strong; “Mum and Dad still send me photos of them on the dining room table,” he tells me. After six years overseas, Simon returned home, lecturing in music history at the Australian National University. Three years of 13-week temporary employment contracts got the better of his sanity so he said:
Okay, you know what? I’m off to mow lawns and cut hedges for a living, because at least I know where my next job is coming from.”
Simon ended up moving to Melbourne in 2001 to work at the Diggers Club as a gardener and was soon promoted to head gardener, a position he held for around eight years. He tells me he loved working at Diggers. It was there he found his true planty calling: Gardening. Simple old gardening. Not horticulture, not botany, but gardening. “For the first time it clicked in my mind that gardening is a different pursuit to botany and horticulture – it has an artistic element of blending colours, textures and shapes. It’s a creative pursuit.”
“To this day, people always say to me, ‘Oh, you’re a horticulturist, are you?’ I think they think the word horticulture sounds fancier than gardener, it gives more cache and credibility. But I always correct them and say, ‘No, actually I’m a gardener.’”Of course, when Simon decided to become a gardener he didn’t throw his bassoon away. The two artforms are absolutely entwined in Simons world (even if he confesses he doesn’t play music to his plants). Our conversation soon meanders towards the timber used in the bassoon (Acer psuedoplatanus), and how landscapes influence music – violins, for example, are made from maple and spruce timbers. Simon tells me the reason the 17th and 18th century northern Italian (Stradivarius) and southern German (Jakob Stainer and Klotz) violin makers were located where they were (in the butt of the alps), was because that’s where spruce and maple trees grew together, side by side. These places became the violin making centres of the Baroque period.
Presently, Simon’s time is split between music and plants. One month he may be in Sydney playing with the Pinchgut Opera, the Australian Haydn Ensemble or his own renaissance consort Unholy Rackett, the next leading a garden tour of Japan, and another working on plans for one of his garden design clients. “It’s a pretty precarious existence but I enjoy everything I do so I can’t complain,” he tells me.
On a deeper level, it seems both pursuits nurture him in different ways. “To me, gardening is a new art form – I’m creating new things and exploring new ideas that haven’t been done before,” Simon says. “Whereas with my music, I’m reconstructing old music on old reconstructed instruments. In a way, both pursuits allow the two different sides of my creative spirit to come through. One is about perfecting or reinterpreting something from the past and the other is about forging a way into the future.”
I see gardening as the highest expression of human art because it addresses all the senses,” Simon tells me.
“Painting deals with visuals, music deals with sounds, cooking deals with flavours and smells. But in gardening, you’re actually composing something that speaks to all of these things.”
His canvas is his half acre home garden in Trentham, central Victoria. It’s a series of rooms with a focus on texture, colour and seasonality. His vegetable garden (as expected after years of working with heirloom plants) is huge. “It’s the size of a suburban backyard,” he tells me. “If it was any bigger, I’d end up killing myself – I garden very intensively.” Of course he does.
Simon Rickard is a fascinating character, and clearly someone who doesn’t do anything by halves. Any man who starts an orchid society age 12 is destined for big things.
Featured image of Simon at top of post is by Elizabeth Pogson