April 25th 2007
Davies depart Island Nursery
Following its sale last week, the Island Nursery, a landmark Magnetic Island business opened and run for over 21 years by Zanita and Gary Davies, is changing hands. This week Zanita is clearing the decks but took a break to talk with magnetictimes.com about the nursery and the other roles it has served: as a welcoming oasis for anybody who felt like a little dose of good conversation and as Zanita's informal shopfront and repository for the Magnetic Island History and Craft Centre.
Bags of potting mix, fertilizer and the moist, fecund, smell of healthy growing tropical plants create a sensory pleasure beneath the cool steel shed on Sooning Street. To add to the agreeable ambiance Zanita Davies welcomes all and sundry without imposing herself. 'People can come and purchase, look about or just talk,' she says.
As if to celebrate the Island's past and easy-going sense of familiarity, a sign hangs near the entrance displaying the nursery's phone number from a decade ago - before the "47" prefix arrived - when most Islanders knew each other's numbers by their last three digits. But if you thought this all sounds so laid back it couldn't make for a viable business then you don't know the Davies.
Both off the land from Bordertown South Australia the pair arrived on Magnetic is 1981 with four year old son Richard and two year old daughter Emma who is also about to return with Zanita's grandchildren to live permanently on Magnetic.
Coming off a farm Gary quickly adopted his practical skills to landscape gardening. 'He used to carry plants around on the back of his truck and people would ask if they were for sale,' says Zanita.
It wasn't long before they'd bought some acreage at Horseshoe Bay and by 1986 they had designed and built their shop. 'It was a curiosity. A new shop on the Island. We began with beautiful plants (including a wall of orchids) and plants for decorative purposes. Then we got into and out of fruit trees (cockatoos loved them) but soon adapted to more practical supplies of nursery items like potting mixes and fertilisers,' says Zanita.
Just opened, a busy Gary Davies at work at
The Island Nursery in 1986
Zanita was not always a green thumb, 'Gary used to say, when I visited a nursery, "You can buy a plant but don't take it home - you'll just kill it!'" This was before Zanita had kids and she thinks that the experience helped her horticulturally. 'I learned that plants, like children, also require food and drink!' she laughs.
But for 15 years the Davies (mainly Zanita) ran the nursery seven days per week while Gary operated his busy landscaping business. It wasn't until friend and Island jazz legend Max Brown passed away in 2002, that Zanita began to feel the importance of home life and decided to stay home on Sundays.
A former English teacher, Zanita, possesses a sharp intellect and is a very capable researcher. Her passion for history was something she brought to work and, as foundation President of the Magnetic Island History and Craft Centre, Zanita stored most of the archival files of the Centre, tucked into the rear office space at the Nursery. As a font of local knowledge Zanita has been happily ensconced at the Nursery where, with the archives have been at her fingertips, she has been able to form many historic connections with locals and visitors.
Looking through the shop A restful atmosphere
Though unintended, her interests and accessibility have led to the nursery becoming something of a social oasis too. 'I noticed that people will come and spill their beans here,' says Zanita. 'Strangers will engage in deep and meaningful conversations. You can't talk like that at the supermarket but I am here on my own and so people talk. It's not a role I have played deliberately. It just happened. It may be the restful atmosphere with all the plants,' she says.
As we talk Zanita draws my attention to a sunbird gorging on the nectar of a nearby flowering ginger plant. The breezy shed has welcomed other non-human visitors too. Apart from the inevitable collection of green tree frogs, Zaniata shares her space with butterflies, lizards, and even echidnas and sometimes snakes.
'It would be sad if we were actually leaving but as we will remain at Horseshoe Bay, this is just a step along the way,' she says.
One of the biggest achievements of the History and Craft Centre, which is located at the old school house in Picnic Bay, has been the retention of Butlers Hut from the former Dunoon's developers (read here). The hut is, with some amount of synchronicity, now ready to store the Centre's archives.
As a business the nursery, unlike a bakery for instance, reflects the seasons and tracks the now dramatically changing attitudes Australians have to the plants they wish to live with. 'Dry times see more irrigation equipment sold while people want to get planting when the rain comes,' says Zanita.
But perhaps the biggest shift is a subtle one whereby gardeners are no longer simply asking for Australian "native" plants, which may come from anywhere in the country and be bred as hybrids. 'People now want plants native to Magnetic Island. The native (to Australia) business has almost disappeared.'
Of course not every customer has a broad understanding of the ecology they are gardening in and Zanita was amused by one woman who wanted to encourage butterflies but complained about the (butterfly) caterpillars which were busily devouring the (butterfly caterpillar food) vines she'd planted.
As for the future, Gary will continue his landscaping and Zanita will, likely, manage the books and continue her activities with the History and Craft Centre. 'We're just tired,' says Zanita, adding that 'Gary says, "We've got the tired part of retired."' But for a business that has put both their children through private schooling, Zanita says contentedly, 'It's been good to us.'
The new owners of the Island Nursery, Brian and Dianne from Alice Springs, who purchased both the land and the business, are expected to begin their operations within two weeks.
Story and photos: George Hirst
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