Tim Pickles is a criminal. And his crimes are all in plain sight all over the south-western Sydney suburb of Campbelltown. They come in the form of a splash of red autumn leaves outside the city’s hospital, shade for cars and pedestrians and a forest at his sons’ school.
Pickles, a qualified horticulturist, has planted more than 100 trees on nature strips, in carparks and schools across the south-west— almost all without permission and often without anyone noticing.
“The trick is to make it look like it’s always been there,” he says.
He puts two stakes around the young trees, mimicking what the council does, and waters them weekly until they’re established.
He’s yet to get in trouble for his rogue plantings.
“I don’t really promote that I plant the trees until they’re three metres high,” he says. “By that time, you know, they’re not going to say anything because they can see how beautiful they are.”
To maintain his unauthorised additions, Pickles sticks to areas he visits regularly. “When my son got piano lessons, I noticed the park next door had one tree in it. So I planted six trees there,” he admits.
It began when Pickles’ sons were born a year apart at Campbelltown Hospital and he noticed the carpark was bare.
“It made me feel unwell,” he told ABC Radio Sydney. “So I went in there one Sunday and I planted 12 Manchurian pear trees.”
That was the first and last time he asked for permission before digging.
“[The hospital] said that’d be great, but nothing that grows taller than 3 metres,” he recalls. “I thought that was not a tree at all, and I planted the trees of my choice . . . trees that I knew would look beautiful.”
Pickles’s sons are now 18 and 19 years old and just two of the hospital trees remain — the others grew for 15 years before they made way for a hospital redevelopment.
“The two trees that are left are absolutely magnificent, six metres high, six metres wide. And they bring so much joy to me and I’m sure they bring so much joy to other people,” he says.
While some councils have relaxed the rules to accommodate guerrilla gardeners, planting trees on nature strips remains banned in most places — much to Pickles’s frustration.
"It’s absolutely crazy that people aren’t allowed, legally, to plant a tree on their own nature strip. I mean it’s out the front of your house, you’re going to look after it,” he says.
He suggests councils provide a list of suitable trees and advice to residents about where to plant and how to look after them. Campbelltown City Council instead invites residents to request a tree that its staff can plant. A council spokesperson noted 247 trees had been planted on nature strips at the request of residents since 2020. “Council carefully considers requests for tree planting on nature strips and selects locations to ensure the safety of pedestrians and [that] essential services are not disrupted,” the spokesperson added.
Pickles may have gotten away with his plantings for so long because Sydney’s fringe is desperately short of trees. Some suburbs have as little as six percent canopy cover, according to aerial surveys conducted last year by ArborCarbon.
Campbelltown City Council reports that Bow Bowing — a housing estate of 350 properties that opened in 1990 — had the least number of trees while Englorie Park, Bardia and Rosemeadow had less than 10% canopy cover. The council says it’s developing an urban greening plan to deal with the deficit.
TOP Tim Pickles
ABOVE TOP Tim giving the thumbs up to a new planting
ABOVE BOTTOM Two remaining Manchurian trees at Campbelltown Hospital
PHOTOS Tim Pickles