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Landscape gardener and horticulturalist August Wilhelm Pelzer was appointed by the Adelaide City Council as 'City Gardener' in August 1899. By the time of his retirement in 1932 at the age of 70, Pelzer had done much to change the appearance and atmosphere of Adelaide. His landscape designs and plantings of trees transformed many of the city’s streets, squares and parks.

Early career

August Pelzer was born in 1862 in Bremen, Germany. He trained in horticulture and landscape gardening at the Royal Horticultural College in Geisenheim before completing an apprenticeship at IC Schmidt’s nursery in Erfurt, Saxony. Once qualified, Pelzer worked for local authorities in Berlin and Hamburg. Pelzer then moved to England and was employed at the nursery of F Sanders & Co., St Albans where he became familiar with English garden design.

In 1886 August Pelzer joined his extended family in Adelaide. They had arrived with other German migrants to South Australia in the 1840s and 1850s. Pelzer soon obtained employment and developed a productive working relationship with the nursery of Charles Newman & Sons. Through Newman, Pelzer designed and planted large suburban gardens for several prominent Adelaide families. Private clients included Chief Secretary James Vincent O’Loghlin.

Adelaide’s City Gardener

Pelzer’s reputation and contacts assisted him to obtain the position of 'City Gardener' on 14 August 1899. In March 1900 he was appointed head of the City Gardener’s Department, answerable directly to Town Clerk. August Pelzer occupied this position for the next 32 years.

Pelzer brought a very European sensibility to his plans for the ‘greening’ of Adelaide. He was generally against the use and retention of native species, especially eucalypts: 'Gum trees about the plains of Adelaide will, in time to come, be trees of the past. The Eucalypts will not submit to cultivation and civilisation, and it is my candid belief that with the progress of Arboriculture gum trees will have to make room for Oriental, Mediterranean, and South American species' (Adelaide City Council, 1901 p42).

Pelzer favoured the gardenesque style, which emphasised the individual form of plants, displayed without obstruction by others. Plantings tended to be diverse and scattered rather than dense, with winding paths and island flower beds. He also grouped trees ‘so that fine vistas of the different parts of the park-land, of imposing buildings and of the surrounding Hills may be obtained’ (cited in Morton, p168).

An ambitious program

Pelzer developed an ambitious landscaping and planting program for the City of Adelaide. He established two nurseries for the propagation of the many plants and species required. Later, Pelzer would argue that the most reliable trees for Adelaide conditions were modified Oriental Planes (Platanus orientalis) and ‘English’ Ash (Fraxinus excelsior ‘Aura’) produced in the nurseries.

His program commenced with the planting of avenues of shade trees along the main city streets and paths through the eastern parklands. The towering plane trees lining many Adelaide streets are a legacy of these plantings. Pelzer then proposed to upgrade the city squares and create formal gardens at set locations before landscaping the parks more generally. A workforce of seven gardeners, 14 labourers, three fencers and six carters were employed to help Pelzer implement his plans. He would have preferred to have an additional team of workers to devote just to parks. Nevertheless, progress was made: '[W]e have a good twenty years’ work in front of us to bring the 2000 acres of Parks under control up to the standard of sightliness which the most favoured spots possess at the present. It is a long time to look forward to, but good solid work is being accomplished each year' (Adelaide City Council, 1903, p25).

The early formal gardens created by Pelzer and his workers included Osmond Park (Gardens) on South Terrace, Rundle Park between East Terrace and Hackney Road, Creswell and Pennington Gardens near the Adelaide Oval and Brougham Place, North Adelaide. The paths winding between the trees and flower beds, fountains and especially designed seats, proved very popular with the public. The garden reserve and bandstand constructed in Kingston Park (now Wirranendi/Park 23 at the junction of West Terrace and Sir Donald Bradman Drive) greatly improved amenities for residents in the west of the city.

The dusty, badly kept squares of Adelaide received a makeover. Trees were removed or thinned in keeping with Pelzer's gardenesque approach. Palms, shrubs and flower beds were installed. Lawns were repaired and an area in each square set aside for rubbish, which was removed weekly.

By the mid 1920s the city could boast of 32ha of formal gardens (Morton, p170). Streets, parks and squares had been transformed by 40 years of tree planting. The nurseries had proven a great success; providing an additional 500 trees and 100 shrubs each year.

Recognition

August Pelzer gained great respect Australia-wide for his knowledge and experience in arboriculture, floriculture and landscape gardening. He was invited to speak at a major conference on tree planting in Ballarat, Victoria in 1927 and served as a judge for Adelaide and Melbourne gardening competitions. He also advised local councils. Pelzer retired at 70 years of age in March 1932, but continued to serve as an official adviser to the Adelaide City Council. He died suddenly two years later, leaving a wife, a son and a daughter. He was buried in North Road Cemetery, Nailsworth.

North Terrace Plaque

In 2001 the German Descendants Group of the South Australian German Association initiated moves to install a plaque on North Terrace to commemorate Pelzer's life and work. It is located on the edge of the garden west of the War Memorial on the corner of Kintore Avenue.

By Jude Elton, History SA

Uploaded 9 December 2013

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Image: Historic photograph of formal gardens surrounded by houses. The photograph has been taken from a high angle and looks westward from the North Adelaide Congregational Church.
Image: Early coloured photograph of formal gardens with the Post Office tower visible in the background
Image: Black and white photograph of a path winding through gardens towards a cathedral
Image: Black and white photograph of a rustic wooden rotunda situated in public gardens. Indistinct figures wander along the garden paths in the middle-ground while buildings can be seen in the distance.
Image: Black and white photograph of a young man with a moustache
Image: Black and white photograph of a wide, tree lined street with horse drawn carriages in the distance
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