Weekly Times Australia Article

Paul Chambers runs the largest Australian native tree farm in the US

SARAH HUDSON, The Weekly Times
September 20, 2017 12:00am
Original Article

WHEN Paul Chambers looks out the window from his home across his farm in Phoenix, Arizona, all he sees are eucalypts.

And, when he drives along the highways of Phoenix and into the city, he sees ghost gums, white ironbarks and emu bush.

“I’ve helped change the landscape of Phoenix forever,” Paul says.

“I put my house in the middle of the farm plantation because I miss Australia very much.”

The Melbourne-born horticulturist, who started his business in the southwest of the US in 1981, has built the largest Australian native nursery in the US with one of the world’s most extensive eucalyptus plantations for zoo animals.

Paul has 80 greenhouses on his 100ha property, and each year visits Australia to source seeds and cuttings of more than 200 natives, which he takes through quarantine and then grows out and propagates on his farm.

With 12 staff and last year’s turnover nearing $1 million, the
63-year-old’s Australian Outback Plantation business supplies 120 Lowe’s Home Improvement stores around the US (their equivalent of Bunnings), supplying home gardeners as well as landscapers and city planners.

“Eucalypts have been in California for years, but in Arizona — and other parts of the US — there are water problems and these species are not only drought-tolerant but very attractive. They don’t fall over, don’t drop their leaves, are salt-tolerant and evergreen, and the jack rabbits don’t like them. So, they’re very popular for gardens,” he says.

But perhaps the most astonishing side to the business is the fact Paul supplies more than a dozen zoos with foliage and trees, about two tonnes of leaves a month.

He started supplying zoos in 1996 after the Australian Tourism Commission asked him to appear at an expo, where the San Diego zoo asked him to help with their new koala exhibit.

“Now I feed a whole range of animals including elephants, giraffes and rhinos, even a stick insect at the Long Island Aquarium in New York.

“I got the idea to feed giraffes wattle when I was at a zoo in Batemans Bay and saw them doing it.

“Now I go to zoo conventions with a nutritionist and speak to keepers of rare animals and suggest they try out the Australian natives and they soon see the animals love the plants.”

As successful as Australian Outback Plantation has been, it was not trees but rather motor racing — Paul’s other passion — that first bought him to the US, in the ’80s.

Paul grew up in Melbourne and still visits his parents, who have lived on Phillip Island for 30 years.

“Growing up my parents always had a beautiful garden. Dad was in the garden club and mum did floral art and when I was about 13 I grew conifers from cuttings and put them in a little landscape on the main road in Glen Waverley,” he recalls.

It was not far from that little landscape that Paul befriended a car enthusiast involved in competitive driving. And from then on he was hooked on racing, initially working in the pits at Sandown, then racing
go-karts, and in more recent years he has been a hobby competitive driver.

In the late ’60s he began his horticulture apprenticeship with pioneering garden TV presenter Kevin Heinze in the city of Melbourne, later moving to Canberra to work for parks and gardens.

“I even worked in Government House for Sir John Kerr and prepared the rose garden for the Queen.”

It was while running his own indoor plant hire business in Albury-Wodonga — racing cars on the Hume Weir racetrack at weekends — that he decided he wanted to visit the US to see the Indianapolis 500.

Arriving in 1979, Paul was in his element, immediately working in the pits for a race team.

Months went by and the problem of being an illegal immigrant raised its head and it was only thanks to a visa sponsorship by a farmer — who was involved in race cars — that Paul wasn’t kicked out of the US.

The sponsorship meant Paul worked in horticulture, joining forces with the farmer to establish an Australian plant nursery.

“When I first came to Arizona I was driving down the freeway near the Grand Canyon and passed by a couple of big Murray River redgums. Someone — in the 50s, I think — had brought them out from California.

“It was later on I realised it was a business opportunity. These plants worked in this area, I just needed to expand the palette. The farmer could see my passion and see the business opportunity.”

In 1981 Paul travelled to Perth to source his first native seeds — from TV’s famous Harry Butler.

Of the 200-plus species he now grows, Paul says the most popular are ghost gum, book-leaf mallee, white ironbark and emu bush, while he’s always adding to his collection.

At 63, and always suffering pangs of homesickness, Paul says he’s now looking to move back home and run the Arizona farm plantation from afar, with the help of his staff.

“I want to get a house in Beechworth — an old home with established trees and rhododendrons — with a shed for my race cars and every weekend go down to Winton to race.”