Aug 29, 2021, 14:00 PM
It was not the greatest way to see your work up in lights, but when Nathan Gray saw anti-lockdown protestors picking up pot plants and throwing them at police in downtown Sydney, it was hard not to smile.
“It was a different way to get your work on the telly, that’s for sure,” says Nathan with a lopsided grin.
Nathan and Citywide’s ‘In Bloom’ team had to spend most of that chilly July night clearing up the mess that the vandals had made. But the five-strong team are used to hard work – and they’re certainly used to long nights.
Nathan, who celebrates 15 years with Citywide on September 25th, is team leader of our In Bloom floral displays, where they work through nearly every night of the week to brighten the streets of Sydney’s CBD.
Their displays may look like simple planter boxes, but in fact they’re part of a carefully coordinated horticultural science, which sees nearly 1,000 crates – each holding 25 meticulously pruned and arranged plants – strategically sited around Sydney at different times of the year.
A riot of colour
Early spring is the beginning of what Nathan calls In Bloom’s “hectic time”.
It starts in the first week of September – “the busiest week of the year” – with the installation of some 20,000 celosias, marigolds, pansies and other seasonal blooms, for the Big Spring Show, which splash the city’s streets with colour for eight weeks.
When that’s packed away, the team immediately sets up the Summer Show – featuring another 20,000 plants picked for the warm summer months.
Then it’ll be time to do it all over again with the Christmas Show, followed by a refresh of the floral displays at the University of Technology.
And in between, there’ll be 350 flower baskets to hang in Sydney and Burwood, tiered planter boxes to arrange in Mosman, and 150 planters to place along the route of the light rail.
“It can be a pretty hectic job,” admits Nathan. “But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it!”
An old school arrival
Nathan came to Citywide through an “old school route” of being in the right place at the right time.
In the early 2000s, he had his own business laying cobblestones and paving around the trees that line Sydney’s streets, and he shared a work-yard with the In Bloom team.
Then he spent some time as the head gardener at Hyde Park, during which he was regularly involved in the installations of ‘Living Colour’ – as Sydney Council calls its floral displays.
“I was pretty much part of the In Bloom team when the council was contracting me to lay its porous paving,” explains the genial 46-year-old.
“So when (Citywide teammate) Adam Veal was looking to hire someone with a horticultural background, I suppose it was natural that he came to me.”
Nathan has seen significant changes over the past 15 years in the way the floral displays are installed.
“In the early days, the team would set up 1,000 boxes over a weekend and they had to employ about 30 labour hire guys to do it. The plants came from Melbourne in a fleet of semi-trailers, and it was quite a massive operation.
“Now we do it over a week, with four or five of us putting about 150 crates out each night over seven nights. It’s still pretty hectic, but we have a lot of fun. The In Bloom team are a great bunch of guys and girls, and I really enjoy working with them all.”
Nathan has never been married – a fact he attributes to the rigours of the job.
“Probably three-quarters of the year is spent on night shifts, which would be tough on any couple,” he says.
“But I’ve got no complaints. Citywide have been great to me down the years. They’ve paid for my apartment, I’m debt-free, and I usually go on holiday for at least a month each year. I’m really looking forward to getting away again after COVID – in fact, I’ve got 20 weeks of leave saved up for it!”