The Sugar Gum Setting

The old Sugar Gum, Eucalyptus cladocalyx, at Burnley Campus, in its hey-day, probably in the 1970’s. Photo from Burnley Archives.

By Michele Adler*

The tree

The old Sugar Gum was located at the north end of the property, next to the Ellis Stones rockery, outside the Nursery.   It was planted between 1861-1871, and was one of the Garden’s Heritage Listed trees.

During the early 2000s, the tree began to drop limbs.  Burnley College arborists attended to it periodically but on two occasions it dropped substantial limbs: one narrowly missing Dr. David Aldous, and another falling on the car of Dr. Cassandra McLean.  In 2007, it was decided that the tree was too great a hazard and must be removed.

Arborist Joe Kellett was contracted to remove the Sugar Gum.  Mark Strubing and Craig, from Add The Beauty Of Timber (specialists in recycled and salvaged timber) took away the 4.2 m long main trunk.  Craig took it to their yard, slabbed the timber into a number of pieces, and racked them to dry.

At the end of 2008, Craig was relocating his business, so Andrew Smith, Burnley Gardens Manager, purchased the best slab for $2500 on behalf of the Friends of Burnley Gardens, and brought it back to Burnley to finish curing in (Ian Winstone’s) Landscape Shed in the Field Station. It continued to cure until late 2011. Craig retained the remaining slabs and re-housed them in a garage in Kinglake.

In February 2009, disaster struck Kinglake, in the form of a devastating bushfire.  Craig was caught in the fire: he and his dog rolled in wet mud and hid in a culvert whilst the fire raged outside.  The fire destroyed Craig’s house and sheds, and 2000 tonnes of timber in storage.  Fortunately, Craig and his dog survived.

The Table setting design

Ben Sibley, furniture designer of Brunswick was commissioned to create the design of the table. It was decided (in consultation with the famous/contraversial photographer Bill Henson) to retain the slab “as was” and to work it up as the table top. The bench seats and backs were made from plantation Sugar Gum timber but they are mounted on our Sugar Gum plinths, from other timber saved from the old tree.

The Table

Sugar Gum timber is very dense. The table has no bolts.  The top is slightly convex in shape so that water will run off it.   Several layers of oil have been applied.  Rails are fixed on the underside of the table top to support it and also to allow contraction and expansion of the slab without splitting. The table talks to you and tells its story as it continues to stretch and relax.

The table top reveals the shape and grain of the Sugar Gum’s trunk. Photo Andrew Smith.

Garden Site Selection

As the table is big enough to cater for 22 people, a fairly substantial site had to be found.  It was decided that the site should be shaded, yet open enough so that leaf and possum droppings would not accumulate on it.

Andrew suggested a number of sites and finally the area near the Herb Garden was chosen.

Sugar Gum setting2
The table in it’s chosen Gardens setting. Photo Sue Murphy.



The chosen site had a thick ground cover of Hedera helix (Ivy). This had to be carefully removed so as not to disturb the roots of the nearby Cupressus sempervirens (Italian Cypress).  Strip footings were installed to take the substantial weight of the table (1.2 tonnes) and the potentially substantial weight of 22 people sitting around it (up to 1 tonne).


The Brass Plaques

There are two brass plates, one attached at each end on the back of the seats.  The first plate is for the designer Ben Sibley, furniture maker extra-ordinaire.  The second plate commemorates the contribution of Geoff Olive to the Burnley Gardens.  He was a student, teacher and Gardens Manager/designer at Burnley from 1967 – 1999.

The Cost of the setting

The Sugar Gum setting – timber, table and chair design and installation of the complete unit was donated entirely by the Friends of Burnley Gardens.  The cost was $24,000.

*Article compiled from personal communication with Gardens Manager Andrew Smith, and the FOBG Treasurer’s Report.

The burnished table top reflects the morning sunshine. Photo Andrew Smith.