action-story | 5th May, 2007

Marilyn Sprague: Water is her lifeline

In tough times, even the most logical minds can be tempted to try a little superstitious magic. So it was that Marilyn Sprague, one of many Bendigo locals hit hard by the drought, decided to buy eight new umbrellas.

ActionStory_Marilyn-Sprague-portraitA week later-rain, at last! Holding one of those umbrellas overhead as water pelts down for the first time in ages, Marilyn can’t suppress a grin. “It’s very exciting to wake up and hear rain. It takes a huge amount of pressure off me.”

Like many in the region, Marilyn treats water as a lifeline. Without it, her Mandurang business – Goldfields Revegetation, a native plant nursery and wildflower farm – would literally die.

“It’s been very stressful not knowing if the business will survive,” admits Marilyn. This year a 30 per cent water allocation has meant cutting production and “shandying” down their water supply (mixing the good stuff with brackish dam water. Run off from plant watering collects in a dam for reuse, but evaporation gradually raises the salt level).

“But we have no water allocation for next year, so if it doesn’t rain significantly, we will have to close. Like many, we’re just praying for rain. We’re all in it together.”

As well as selling native plants, seeds and flowers, Marilyn does regeneration projects, designs gardens, and visits schools, TAFEs and even golf clubs, giving botanical advice. Local kids drop in for tips on school assignments, and consultancy work takes her as far afield as Swan Hill.

The Campaspe River runs through her service area. “I’ve spent lots of time on the Campaspe, collecting seed and propagating plants,” says Marilyn. “It’s extremely picturesque. But it is very sad to see virtually no water in the river. I think people took it for granted that there would always be water in our rivers.”

However, she says, it’s not too late to act: “In many parts of the world rivers have been irreversibly destroyed.

But here, working together, we have the chance to get rid of weeds, revegetate whole stretches and bring it back to some semblance of how it originally was.”

It helps that many local farming families are conservation-minded, observes Marilyn, who grew up on a farm on the Goulburn River. “Years ago a teacher, Mr Cox, at Sutton Grange primary school made nature a big part of everything the kids did. Those young kids are now property owners in the area. That culture has been passed on.”

There was no birdlife when they first bought the nursery property, she recalls, but now it‘s alive with birds drawn to the flowers and plants. A row of prickly native bushes – perfect for keeping predators away – houses 70 nests.

”Planting local native plants creates habitat for native animals and birds – which then helps the biodiversity of the whole region, including the river,” says Marilyn. Nesting boxes, birdbaths and a bell on the cat can also make gardens more attractive to birds. “Collectively we can do a huge amount.”

The best part of Marilyn’s job? The long-term results, now scattered all over the region. “After 23 years in this business, I can see big tall trees and know, ‘I planted those.’”

Story by Meg Mundell, 2007