The House was designed so that the governor had a view of the adjacent Botanic Gardens from his office. These gardens were established in 1855 and played a key role in the development of Queensland’s primary industries. Walter Hill, a botanist trained at the prestigious Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was appointed first Superintendent and allocated 9 acres (3.6 ha) and a sum of £500 to purchase rare plants.
Hill experimented with different plants to see which would thrive in or adapt to local conditions. He can be credited with the genesis of Queensland’s sugar cane industry after trialling the crop in the Botanic Gardens. Along with a planter from Barbados, John Buchot, Hill made the first sugar ever produced in the colony in 1862. The pair conducted a top-secret experiment in the dead of night, crushing sugar cane with a lever and boiling the juice in a saucepan, thereby settling the uncertainty over whether Queensland sugar cane juice would granulate. Hill also planted the first commercially grown Macadamias in the world, originally sourcing the native trees from the Queensland bush.
It was also Hill’s responsibility to lay out the original garden for Old Government House, with some elements, including the driveway and kidney-shaped lawn outside the Governor’s Library, still visible today. The lone Bunya Pine in front of the House is the sole surviving tree from the original four types of pine planted by Hill in 1861. Lady Bowen, a keen gardener, was the first mistress of the House and helped to further establish the garden.
Gardening was a popular female pursuit in the mid-19th century, and her husband, Governor Bowen, was proud to inform visitors to the House that “every shrub and flower has been planted by Lady Bowen’s hands or has thriven under her loving care”. In its heyday the garden surrounding the House would have been a magnificent display of native and exotic plants – flowerbeds flush with roses, carnations, heliotropes, tecomas, dracaenas, ‘bird of paradise’ flowers (strelitzias) alongside the iconic wattle trees with their yellow clustered flowers.
A sizeable Kitchen Garden was also kept on the grounds, to the northeast of the area where Brisbane Riverstage now lies. It provided for much of the House’s produce needs, including vegetables, fruit and grains. Self-sufficiency was common during colonial years and the Head Gardener took pride in the quality and variety of his harvest. Vegetables from the Government House Kitchen Garden were regularly entered into Horticultural Society competitions – in 1870 the vice-regal entries of cabbage, carrots, horseradish, parsnips, leeks, beans, tomatoes and herbs won ‘best in show’.