The Don

Australia's best loved gardener reveals his hidden talents and his love of the Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains Life, June-July 2008

BUDGERIGAR breeder, respected lecturer, author on genetics, successful horse breeder and train theologian. There’s a lot that many avid Don Burke fans don’t know about him.
His great love of the Hawkesbury, where he owns a stud farm, might be another.
The 60-year-old television personality is a many-faceted character. In person, he’s exactly the same as his on-screen persona. In his words: ``I don’t pretend to be anything in the media that I’m not _ what you see is what you get.
``I have a need to communicate. I do everything ad lib _ I never use an autocue, so that’s fresh for the audience.
``I have had the privilege of interviewing some of the most prominent people in this country, from Sir Mark Olifant to most modern prime ministers and premiers, and sports people.’’
Burke is best known as the long-time host of pioneering lifestyle program Burke’s Backyard. It paved the way for numerous other shows and launched or furthered the on-air careers of several other personalities. The show was also the first to use the fact sheet, now used throughout the industry, government and elsewhere.
Multi-talented, Don describes himself as a journalist, photographer and artist. ``It wasn’t a mid-life crisis, but in my early to mid 30s I became frustrated by the lack of lifestyle and gardening shows on TV.’’
Burke’s Backyard ran for 17 years from 1987 before being axed then resurrected.
It was so popular that he offered Burke’s Backyard to the BBC some years ago but backed out of the deal when they wanted him to be their ``kind of David Attenborough of gardening’’, travelling all over the world. ``It was a great offer, but it’s not who I am and what I’m about because I just love Australia and being an Australian,’’ he says.
But is three-year hiatus from TV is a ``self-imposed exile’’, he says. ``I didn’t want to die in public. Besides, I’ve never been busier,’’ he says, citing commitments with the Australian Environment Foundation, Retina Australia and other charities, as well as working with drought stricken farmers.
Some have criticised Don’s forays into animal fancy with his ``road tests’’ of varying breeds as inadequately researched and outside his area of expertise.
Maybe the ill-informed don’t know he taught himself the ``language’’ of genetics by the age of nine and is now an internationally respected author and lecturer on the subject. He also studies probiotics.
``So I could turn fairly easily to horse breeding. It’s all a bit tragic,’’ he says. ``I like taking imperfect things and fixing them so they live happier, healthier lives.’’
Don is a former Landcare board member and remains active in several other community and environment-related roles.
In July 2005, Burke became chairman of the Australian Environment Foundation, a group established in opposition to the broader environmental movement, with links to the Institute for Public Affairs, a conservative think-tank. He has also been an outspoken critic of environmental advocacy groups.
``It has become a religion in itself, which worries me. It’s driven by fear, and when people stampede they’re just the same as cattle and horses, and we can get them to do what we want,’’ Don says. ``I prefer to lead people with love, with love of the land and plants and animals _ I don’t use fear.’’
Don can be intensely serious, friendly and ready with advice for the new owner of a Wollemi pine. But his family and private life are off limits, although if you’re going to name his wife, make sure you spell it right _ the Irish way, Marea.
``Like a lot of people in this industry, I’m pretty well known and I can’t really go out without people recognising me and asking me for advice about their sick azalea. I’m everybody’s next door neighbour.
``But my private life is not up for grabs and I don’t particularly want to share that with people.’’ However, daughter Chris is an executive producer of Burke’s Backyard and son Sean produces a Sunday football show.
A ``very serious budgerigar breeder’’ since he was a child (most of his friends are too), Don and Marea live in a glass house at Kenthurst designed for wildlife: ``We have lizards and things coming and going, which provides a lot of interest when snakes come in.’’ A Roman Catholic, Don studied theology and was on several committees for the Australian Council of Churches. He also gave lectures.
Don is undoubtedly the life of Burke’s Backyard, but dedicates much of his show to people technically unqualified but who have great ideas and theories. It is ``unprofessional and egocentric’’ to focus on the show host, he says. ``My thing is about giving people a say, especially people with alternative views on things, to show the rich mix of ideas. We never ridicule them.’’
Don is obviously proud of being able to use his clout to help some of those people further their ideas but genuinely excited when they achieve success.
Take the bloke at Riverstone who discovered rare frogs thriving in the putrid waste of the old meatworks. Don delights in telling how the former abbatoir worker went on to rehouse a handful at Homebush where they continue to thrive.
Or the Natural Sequence Farming theory of Upper Hunter Valley grazier and race horse breeder Peter Andrews, who recently received a $6 million federal grant to further explore his ideas on how to restore land to pre-European settlement fertility levels and natural flow patterns, and reconnect streams to their flood plain. Don is excited that his use of the method to create ponds to hold rain water so it soaks into the land is working on his own Freemans Reach horse stud. Slopping around the muddy paddock between rain showers, Don describes the process. ``There wasn’t a blade of grass here four to six weeks ago,’’ he says of one paddock now lush with grass thanks to a new chain of ponds. The paddock includes a 4m deep horse swim, and the 100 tonnes of soil excavated to create the ponds was used to create contours.
Within 10 days of the ponds filling with water, native water birds moved in _ black swans, stone curlews, wading birds.
Weeds are allowed to grow to prevent erosion and hopefully will eventually be overtaken by native species. Rushes help stabilise the soil, and Don also uses fallen branches and tree trunks. Patches and paths of blue gravel have been laid so vehicles and people don’t damage the soil and new grass. As the soil washes down from neighbouring properties it is caught at Don’s place, where it fills the ponds and streams, and any surplus drains into the water table.
Don calls it ``legal stealing’’, but he’s not furtive about it. One of his neighbours noticed Don’s paddock was holding water and asked him about it. Don told him and the neighbour is keen to try it himself.
``This is the privilege of living in an area like this and repairing the land,’’ Don says. ``It’s fun to see it turn around.’’
He’s full of edge-of-the-seat yarns about what goes on behind the scenes, but has never thought to aur them because the show’s about gardening, not him, he says.
Don says he’s never more at home than at the 40-acre stud farm he bought about eight years ago after a long search for the right spot. ``Where else is right on the edge of Sydney and has all the facilities, yet still has the rural lifestyle? The Hawkesbury has it all. I have always loved this area, particularly the Hawkesbury River.
``This is an absolute dream property, an escape. It’s just the perfect sort of country for a horse stud. I spend at least one day a week here normally, and I’m here all the time during holidays and in the filming down time. I’d give up the TV show tomorrow if I could just spend my time breeding budgies, horses and living here.’’
What about those ripper behind-the-scenes yarns? ``When something goes wrong we love it. When something goes disastrously wrong we love it even more,’’ Don says. He’s had guns pointed at him by corrupt guards in China, chronic diahorrea in Mexico, a cameraman arrested at the bull fights in Spain and 15 submachine gun-toting guards charge him at the feet of Michelangelo’s David in Florence.
Then the entire film crew was arrested at Pope John Paul II’s 75th birthday party, and it was only the luck of being recognised by an Aussie Swiss guard that rescued them.
``We always got away with it, and we always got the story,’’ Don says.

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