Food & Culture

Clarence Slockee: ''If you have access to green space and beautiful things you can really connect with nature [...] It's good for your wellbeing''

In her monthly GT column, chef Kylie Kwong celebrates the individuals helping to grow a stronger community. Here, we meet Clarence Slockee, horticulturist, Gardening Australia presenter and proud Bundjalung man.

Clarence Slockee, proud Bundjalung man, horticulturist and Gardening Australia presenter. Photo: Kitti Gould
I met Clarence Slockee over ten years ago through my friend, local elder Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo. At the time, I had just discovered Australian native bush foods and reached out to the local First Nations community to better understand and learn about their culinary traditions and culture. Clarence's innate care for country is palpable. He continues to teach me so much, and now I have the great privilege of collaborating with him every day at South Eveleigh.
-Kylie Kwong

Meet Clarence Slockee

Clarence Slockee personifies what it means to have a "green thumb". His love for the land was fostered from a young age, and has seen him flourish to become one of Australia's most recognisable faces in the world of horticulture and gardening. As a child, when he wasn't fishing or foraging for finger limes and bush tucker, Slockee was lending a hand on his family's farm.
"Most of my immediate family all grew up on the land," says Slockee, who comes from the Bundjalung Nation of New South Wales' north coast. "My uncles and aunties all worked on farms and my dad had a farm. So even during holidays or on the weekends we'd be helping by picking beans, peas, tomatoes or bananas. Whatever the season demanded we were in there doing it," he says.
Ten years presenting on ABC's Gardening Australia made him a household name, yet it's his un-televised work that has been some of his most profound. Slockee's decade-long tenure as Aboriginal Education Officer at Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden is one of the roles he holds most dear.
"It was such an amazing place to work. It's the oldest scientific research institution in the country. But it's a hotbed of horticulture and plant sciences," he says. "Any particular, quite specialised area of plant science is catered for – whether it's plant pathology, soil science, ethnobotany or evolutionary ecology."
In 2020, Slockee founded Jiwah, an organisation that employs young Aboriginal people while working to design, create and promote green spaces among urban landscapes. Photo: Kitti Gould
Testament to his open-minded nature, Slockee's passions extend beyond the gardening world. In his late 20s, Slockee moved
to Sydney to study dance at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA).
"It was just something I really wanted to do," he says. "I was always really interested in music and it was a nice way to reconnect with the broader Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander culture. But when I left NAISDA I kind of segued into teaching and did a full-circle back to environmental education."
Along the way, Slockee also managed to squeeze in a business degree, graduating with a distinction from the University of Technology Sydney in 2017. These studies awakened Slockee's entrepreneurial spirit, driving him to establish his own landscaping and design company, Jiwah, early last year. Jiwah employs young Aboriginal people while working to design, create and promote green spaces among urban landscapes.
"It's a fairly unique workplace and we do pretty diverse work," he says.
The company is currently responsible for the maintenance of three special green spaces within Sydney's South Eveleigh precinct. One of these is the 500-square-metre Australian native rooftop farm, which is home to more than 2000 plants, including more than 60 edible, medicinal and culturally significant native plant species. There's plenty of fauna, too.
"We're trying to increase species numbers so that we can increase biodiversity, which in turn encourages more fauna into the space," says Slockee. "There's lots of bird life and insects. The magpies up there, the rooftop is their pad."
Slockee has a deep understanding and appreciation for his natural surroundings, and believes access to nature within urban environments is critical.
"If you have access to green space and beautiful things you can really connect with nature and enjoy your surrounds. It's good for your wellbeing," he says.
"Designers and architects are all starting to realise the benefit and need to reintroduce biodiversity and green space," adds Slockee. "As land is developed, we lose ecology – it's not just a matter of cutting down trees and clearing land to build houses. You are quite literally destroying ecosystems."
Slockee's mission now with Jiwah is to rejuvenate urban areas with green life, and to educate the public while doing so.
Introduction by Kylie Kwong, words by Georgie Meredith.