The use of computers in botanic gardens maintenance programs

Stephen Forbes

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne
Victoria, Australia 3141

(Present address: Kings Park & Botanic Garden
West Perth WA6005, Australia)


The difficulty of maintaining collections of plants over extended periods, involving regular maintenance and repropagation, is apparent to any curator of living collections. The use of a maintenance scheduling program provides one approach to prioritising the maintenance of rare and threatened plants in ex situ collections.

A computerised maintenance scheduling program is being trialled at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne to assist in maintenance of the Gardens, and in the curation of collections of rare and threatened plants. The program allows real-time monitoring of assets, including plants, in the nursery and in the Gardens. The program also assists in compiling a history of propagation and curation. The program utilised at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne is Pressgo, produced locally by Pressgo Management Pty Ltd.

The objectives for maintenance scheduling at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne are to assist maintenance and management of the Gardens, and the curation of ex situ collections of rare and threatened plants. The wider objectives for maintenance scheduling are:

The experience of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne in maintenance scheduling will be discussed and the results evaluated, with special reference to the curation of ex situ collections of rare and threatened species.

Introduction to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne (RBGM) was founded in 1846. Of the early directors, the achievements of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller and William Guilfoyle are most closely identified with development of the Gardens (Lewis et al. 1992).

Baron Ferdinand von Mueller established the first major herbarium in Australia on his appointment as Government Botanist for Victoria in 1853. Through exploration throughout Australia, and an astonishing record of publications and correspondence, Mueller established himself as a pioneer of Australian botany. In 1857 Mueller was appointed as Director of the Gardens and established significant roles for the Gardens in the domestication of the native Australian flora, and the acclimatization of valuable exotic species (Mueller 1872).

William Guilfoyle followed Mueller as Director of the Gardens in 1873, and was responsible for the Picturesque Landscape Garden developed with a sub-tropical planting style, now renowned as the foremost landscape garden in Australia. Guilfoyle also published widely on the amenity values of the Australian flora.

Today the RBGM manages the Botanic Gardens (38 ha) and the Cranbourne Botanic Garden (352 ha), an annexe about 50 km south-east of Melbourne, as well as the historic gardens of Government House (11 ha).

Introduction to conservation policies and programs

A formal ex situ conservation policy at the RBGM dates from David Churchill's directorship (Churchill 1973). The integration of all State Government departments responsible for public land management, including the Royal Botanic Gardens, into the Department of Conservation, Forests & Lands (now the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources), and the subsequent development of the Flora & Fauna Guarantee Act (1988) resulted in a clearer role for the RBGM in integrated species-conservation programs.

Legislative & policy framework

The State Governments of Australia are responsible for land management, and accordingly take a lead role in habitat management and species conservation. Two key Acts proclaimed by the Parliament of the State of Victoria determine the RBGM's conservation policy.

The Flora & Fauna Guarantee Act was proclaimed in September 1988, and provides a landmark in conservation legislation. The Act's objectives are to guarantee that all taxa of Victoria's flora and fauna can survive, flourish and retain their potential for evolutionary development in the wild, to conserve Victoria's communities of flora and fauna and to manage potentially threatening processes. The Act has far-reaching powers, and is binding on the Crown.

Whilst the Flora & Fauna Guarantee Act is the principal Act for conservation management, the RBGM is established under the Royal Botanic Gardens Act which was proclaimed in July 1992. The functions of the Board of the RBGM include a responsibility to conserve threatened plants and increase public awareness of the threat to them.

Accordingly, the RBGM has an ex situ conservation policy, and programs are determined through consultation with a Working Group including representatives from government, universities and community groups.


Ex situ conservation programs at the RBGM fall into three categories. Firstly, programs resulting from Action Statements prepared under the Flora & Fauna Guarantee Act. These Action Statements are the State equivalent of the Federal Government's Species Recovery Plans. Secondly, programs responding to requests including those initiated by the community or the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources through regionally- based Flora & Fauna Guarantee Officers. Thirdly, as a result of the RBGM's research programs.

At present work is being undertaken on a number of Victorian rare and threatened plants with the RBGM's research emphasis focussing on Caladenia (Orchidaceae) species and Chenopodiaceae.

Maintenance scheduling

The maintenance of collections of rare and threatened plants in cultivation is a major undertaking, and survival depends on the facilities and technical expertise available, and on local climatic and edaphic factors, as well as on the life form, reproductive strategy and amenability to propagation of the individual species. Whilst the aim of an ex situ conservation program is usually to return species to the wild, the cultivation of endangered species for extended periods is often critical to an integrated conservation program. Indeed, in some cases the survival of endangered species in cultivation is the only insurance (and often assurance) of a species' survival. In botanic gardens rare and threatened species commonly receive a distinctive tag and are accorded favoured treatment - an approach which achieves success directly proportional to the skills of the curators responsible for the collections. The weakness of such an ad hoc approach is often apparent as a result of staff mobility through leave, promotion or reassignment, resignation or retirement. The loss of endangered species may be buffered by wider distribution of collections; however the fundamental problem of maintaining collections over extended periods, and of capturing information on cultivation and propagation is being addressed at the RBGM through the use of a maintenance scheduling program.

Maintenance scheduling provides a system allowing the co-ordination of tasks and resources through real-time monitoring.

A maintenance scheduling system characterises any job by location, task, frequency and resources required. As an example, repropagation or division of rare or threatened species may be characterised by location of a plant in the nursery or gardens, the method of repropagation, the expected frequency of the task and resources such as fog, rooting hormone etc. Traditionally repropagation programs are in the hands of curators, and often quite satisfactory results are achieved. The advantages of a maintenance scheduling system are in providing support for a curator, and as an archive in the event of a curator moving to another position. In gardens where curators are hard-pressed (perhaps in most botanic gardens), the advantage of a maintenance scheduling system is in allowing priorities to be assessed on the basis of accurate information.

Maintenance scheduling should be distinguished from work studies resulting in standard minute values and productivity bonuses (Wright 1982). The emphasis in botanic gardens is on quality of maintenance rather than on quantity. The complexity of the collections argues against a simplistic approach to maintenance as found in specifications for competitive tendering (British Standards Institute 1991). Even in Britain where competitive tendering of contracts for landscape maintenance is now universal for local authorities, botanic gardens have been exempted.

In summary, the primary objectives of a maintenance scheduling program in botanic gardens are to:

Structuring data

Maintenance scheduling at the RBGM is being introduced in stages:

  1. The initial stage includes basic maintenance such as mulching, fertilising, pest and disease control etc, and curatorial tasks applicable to structural plantings;

  2. The second stage of the program is to incorporate costings to assist in budgeting and to pilot curation of individual species through the inclusion of rare and threatened species. At present the budget bears little relation to the cost of managing the gardens, and an indication of actual costings will provide a powerful tool in prioritising existing resources and in arguing for additional resources. The publication of a staff manual on the maintenance and management of the RBGM should also be possible within five years;

  3. The third stage of the program is to link the RBGM census with the maintenance scheduling system to provide an interactive database of information on the maintenance of individual species.

Stages 1 and 2 have been started.

All jobs are defined by location, task, frequency and resources. The first step in setting up a maintenance scheduling system is to define these attributes.

Location is defined using a hierarchical system beginning dividing the gardens into subdivisions according to supervisor, lawn, bed and sub-divisions and features (including individual plants) within beds.

Tasks are classified according to the nature of the task - see Table 1 for a summary of the major groups of tasks. Within a group tasks are further sub-divided . For example, tasks AP:H-GLY-1 and AP:H-GLY-2 refer to the application of glyphosate at 12 ml per litre and 6 ml per litre respectively, and are attached to areas, lawns, beds and features within beds.

Table 1. Major groups of scheduled tasks as utilised at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. Scheduled tasks are further sub-divided and are attached to areas, lawns, beds and features within beds.

Task codeTask description
AP:H:-Apply herbicide
CB:-/GR:Cut back to ground
CE:-Census (including identifications, maps, labels etc.
CS:-Collect seed
CT:D:-Control disease
CT:P:-Control pest
ED:-Redefine edge
GR:-Turf maintenance
GR:ED:-Edge lawn
LN:-Landscape & drainage
NT:-Notice to staff

As worksheets are issued through the program on a fortnightly basis, frequency is based on number of repetitions within a fortnightly cycle, or in multiples of a fortnight. Problems arise with seasonal tasks, which are at present are handled by a rather longhand procedure. The handling of seasonal tasks requires further software development.

Resources are defined in terms of hours of labour and equipment, and appropriate units of materials.

The challenge in establishing a maintenance scheduling system is in defining jobs. Whilst business and strategy plans are now expected in major botanic gardens, the cost-effectiveness of maintenance is rarely satisfactorily analysed, although commonly accounting for the majority of the budget. Setting goals and assessing outcomes in maintenance is rarely effectively tackled in botanic gardens. Whilst less complex, other areas of amenity and production horticulture, for example turf management, are a long way ahead of botanic gardens in terms of defining maintenance requirements and assessing the achievement of maintenance goals.

Pressgo and other systems

The program currently utilised at the RBGM is Pressgo (Pressgo Pty Ltd 1989). Although written by a horticulturist, Pressgo is now utilised more widely in systems management outside horticulture. At the RBGM the program is set up to run on a fortnightly cycle. At the beginning of a cycle a list of jobs due within the next fortnight is filtered out by supervisor, and printed out. A sample format for a filtered listing is illustrated in Figure 1. The supervisor and, where appropriate, staff review the list of jobs due and append or delete jobs as required. A final worksheet listing selected tasks is then printed out. A sample format for a selected job worksheet is illustrated in Figure 2. The process of printing a filtered list of jobs due, and of editing the list. is an essential step in consulting staff and in maintaining the relevance of the final worksheet.




Path Selected.: RBGMEL. / / / /

T-ID# Parent Type/UserID Description     Job Type/User    ID/Description             

551    F/A/PATHBDGP    Area of Path      S AP:H:GLY-1     Spray Roundup    
                       Border Group                       12ml              
554    F/A/YUCCAGRP    Area of Yucca     S PL:            Plant New         
                       Group                              Material          
555    F/A/YUCCAGRP    Area of Yucca     S CE:NEWPL       Record New        
                       Group                              Planting          
556    F/A/YUCCAGRP    Area of Yucca     S CE:RECENSUS    Recensus Bed      
                       Group                              (Check)           
557    F/A/YUCCAGRP    Area of Yucca     S AP:H:GLY-1     Spray Roundup     
                       Group                              12ml              
560    F/A/BLABAMGP    Area of Black     S PL:            Plant New         
                       Bamboo Group                       Material          
561    F/A/BLABAMGP    Area of Black     S CE:NEWPL       Record New        
                       Bamboo Group                       Planting          
562    F/A/BLABAMGP    Area of Black     S CE:RECENSUS    Recensus Bed      
                       Bamboo Group                       (Check)           
563    F/A/BLABAMGP    Area of Black     S AP:H:GLY-1     Spray Roundup     
                       Bamboo Group                       12ml              
566    F/A/FOUNTGP     Area of Fountain  S PL:            Plant New         
                       Group                              Material          
567    F/A/FOUNTGP     Area of Fountain  S CE:NEWPL       Record New        
                       Group                              Planting          
568    F/A/FOUNTGP      Area of          S CE:RECENSUS    Recensus Bed      
                       Fountain Group                     (Check)           
569    F/A/FOUNTGP      Area ofFountain  S AP:H:GLY-1     Spray Roundup     
                       Group                              12ml              
5155   F/VINCA         Vinca minor       S WD:            Hand Weed Area    
572    F/A/ANTENGP     Area of           S CE:REC_NSUS    Recensus Bed      
                       Antenoron Group                    (Check)           
1503.  F/A/ANTENGP      Area of          S MU:CT/COMP     Mulch with        
                       Antenoron Group                    Compost           
862    F/CHLOROPHYT    Chlorophytum sp.   S DH:DEADHEAD   Dead Head Spent   
715    F/AZALEAS       Azaleas           S FE:CAME/RHOD   Fertilize         
573    F/AZALEAS       Azaleas            S CT:P:AZALBUG  Spray Azalea      
                                                          Lace Bugs         
579    F/A/CENTLAGP    Area of Central    S PR:LATE-WI    Prune Late        
                       Lake Group                         Winter            
162    F/A/CENTRALP    Area of Central   S AP:H:GLY-1     Spray Roundup     
                       Lawn Path                          12ml              
973    L/TENNYSON      Tennyson Lawn      S LN:PITS:CLN   Gutter Pits       
717    F/AZALEAS       Azaleas           S FE:.CAME/RHOD  Fertilize         

Fig 1 Sample format from a filtered listing. Assessment of priorities determines tasks selected for output to worksheets

Jobs are then allocated by supervisors, and details of resources required are edited on completion, including time taken where appropriate. At the end of the fortnightly cycle, jobs are fed back to maintain an inventory of resources utilised for any job or area, and to compile a maintenance history for further analysis. Any jobs not completed may be rescheduled for the next fortnight, or for the next scheduled date.

The sophistication of the system provides the opportunity to incorporate any task on the system. However, careful analysis of the jobs included is essential in order to maintain a coherent and manageable database. Problems with maintenance scheduling at the RBGM relate mainly to the evolution of a poorly structured database prior to clearly defining jobs, as well as to staff misconceptions of the system as being the first step in the preparation of a maintenance contract for competitive tendering. Close consultation with staff is essential in developing an interactive system.

View a sample job sheet

Alternative maintenance-scheduling programs

Pressgo has been utilised at the RBGM because the program is locally written and supported, and provides most of the features required for the maintenance and management of a botanic garden. As the program has been written by a horticulturist, support has the advantage of horticultural literacy. Other programs are available for maintenance scheduling, although sophistication is quite varied. A distinction should be made between programs which assist contract management and programs which allow real-time monitoring of maintenance. The only other programs utilised in horticulture and assessed by the RBGM are Turfing and Parkman (Greensturf Consultants Australia 1989), and GroundsMAN (Aramis Computing Services & The Groundwork Trust 1989). Other maintenance scheduling programs utilised in other fields are currently being evaluated.


The adoption of a maintenance scheduling system has clear benefits for the curation of collections of rare and threatened species, as well as wider application in the maintenance and management of botanic gardens. The cost-effectiveness of maintenance scheduling in botanic gardens will vary widely according to the applications required; however effective management of comprehensive collections of rare and threatened plants over extended periods may necessitate the adoption of a maintenance scheduling program in many situations.


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