Melba’s garden, at last

Caption caption.
DAFFODIL DAME Nellie Melba (1861-1931), world tourer and resident at Coombe Cottage, Lilydale, Victoria.

A Writer hunts for daffodils at a diva’s estate.

I’M following my nose to Nellie Melba’s garden, a journey I have waited twenty-five years to take, now that Coombe, the Melba Estate – once known simply as Coombe Cottage – is open to the public.

“Like daffodils, this story is pushing its way to the surface in its own time.”

Much has been made of what stood behind the tantalisingly thick, high cypress hedge that has enwrapped the property ever since it was purchased by Melba in 1909 and transformed from a dairy farm into a spreading garden by Victoria’s great garden designer William Guilfoyle.

The need for a significant boundary has become obvious over time, since it now shields the house and garden from two highways that meet at one corner of the sizeable estate, situated outside the township of Lilydale to Melbourne’s north-east.

VALLEY VIEW The magnificent outlook from Melba's garden.
VALLEY VIEW The magnificent outlook from Melba’s garden.

From the car park, visitors enter Melba’s world through this green barrier, and throughout the twice-daily garden tours, it’s impossible to escape the concept of seclusion created by the woman who was, in her time, the world’s most famous.

For her entire life, Melba was inspired to deep patriotism by the distant blue hills glimpsed from the Coldstream region at the city’s edge, and despite its height the hedge offsets a panorama which much rank amongst the finest rural views from an Australian garden.

Although I have come in search of something I know I will not see that day.

By late summer, most signs of daffodils have withered and dried into something akin to straw, but in late 1911 or early 1912, 20,000 hybridised ‘G.S. Titheradge’ daffodil bulbs were given to Melba for her burgeoning new garden by a NSW daffodil farmer with a love of opera.

At a private estate – Coorah – some 900 kilometres to the north in the Blue Mountains town of Wentworth Falls, Melba gave an impromptu private performance and was offered this unconventional floral gift in return.

“I realise how much has changed in the grounds of Coombe Cottage over its first century.”

As the local legend goes, what caught the soprano’s eye were the thousands of golden Narcissus blooms growing across the hillside to the north of the house belonging to Robert and Marie Pitt, among the guarantors of Melba’s grand opera tour of Sydney and Melbourne that spring and summer.

It’s not just the Coombe Estate wine tasting I’ve just enjoyed that’s left me feeling a little heady – I have been tracing the veracity of that legend ever since I was told it in 1989, and my dream of standing in the place where Pitt’s bulbs may once have bloomed has finally manifested.

In 1993 I told the story to Melba’s grand-daughter Pamela, Lady Vestey, Coombe Cottage’s resident from the 1970s until her death in 2011. Her reply was polite but assertive – as far as she knew, there were no such daffodils in her garden, and she suggested the whole thing was probably nothing more than a myth.

She was right – it sounded far-fetched, but by the time the Royal Horticultural Society library in London yielded a primary source for the despatch of 20,000 bulbs from Wentworth Falls to Lilydale prior to 1914, this burgeoning journalist didn’t feel up to contradicting her.

But it is Lady Vestey I am thinking of as I pass through the garden’s heavy iron gates, with their ornate ‘M’ initial, when I realise how much has changed in the grounds of Coombe Cottage over its first century, and what a challenge ownership of such an iconic property must have been.

Guilfoyle’s major plantings are still intact, but some of the design elements that linked the house and garden – such as the wisteria-covered rooftop pergola – are long gone.

Tour guide Di Logg outlines what has been gleaned in the process of opening the estate, the establishment of a restaurant and a winemaking operation, and explains that there are renovation plans in the pipeline.

“We are hoping one day to reinstate it,” she says of the rooftop garden, from which the views of the valley must have been even better than they are from ground level.

Despite the open manner in which the garden is now being shared with visitors, its secrets seem subsumed by the understandable focus on the preservation of the house and its contents as opposed to the paradise that lay around it.

Of Melba’s bedroom, positioned to take in the expansive mountain view, Di says: “Pamela left it as though her grannie, as she used to call her, had just walked out the door, her Hermès riding boots still in the wardrobe.”

SACRED OAK The spreading tree which has stood on the estate for a reported 180 years.
SACRED OAK The spreading tree which has stood on the estate for a reported 180 years.

But the garden was not left to its own devices. Di relates the story of one of the property’s icons – the 180-year-old oak which predated Melba’s purchase – which Lady Vestey apparently always said must stand even if it ends up knocking over the house.

Other structural garden elements – Victoria’s first swimming pool, iron gateways and ornamental focal points – are all still there and form the backbone of the generous garden tour.

The rest is in the process of being recovered from contemporary paintings (by the likes of Hans Heysen and Arthur Streeton) under the guidance of estate manager Dan Johnson and a combination of family and local memories, including a rose garden and the restored vegetable growing operation which complements the supply of fresh produce to the restaurant.

Hearing Di’s account of the clay soil around Coombe Cottage sets off my ‘daffodil radar’.

Robert Pitt transformed his scrubby hillside of sandy soils with manure and organic matter in the 1890s at Wentworth Falls. He also regularly ‘lifted’ his bulbs – the process of unearthing them after the flowers and leaves had died back and resting them in well-ventilated conditions until replanting in the autumn.

FLORAL FAVOURITE The daffodil has become one of the world's best loved cut flowers (Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus poeticus, gouache on vellum, in: Gottorfer Codex c.1659).
FLORAL FAVOURITE The daffodil has become one of the world’s best-loved cut flowers (Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus poeticus, gouache on vellum, in: Gottorfer Codex c.1659).

These farming techniques saw his Narcissus bulbs endure in abundance until long after his death in 1935, until they were eventually moved in the mid 1980s.

I ask gardener and writer Mary Moody about her knowledge of bulbs and clay.

“Bulbs – of all sorts – dislike clay soil because during the dormant period, if there are long rainy periods, the bulbs can easily rot,” she says.

“The reason for lifting bulbs is to thin them out when they self propagate. The bulbs overcrowd and flowering is reduced. This is unlikely to happen in clay soil because the bulbs will be struggling just to hold their own.

“That said, daffs are very tough and if there has been organic matter in the soil they will survive somehow.”

STATELY STATUARY Melba’s garden is punctuated by several iconic focal points.

Coombe Cottage garden tours end with a delicious afternoon or morning tea in the Melba Estate’s well patronised restaurant, and before I leave I promise to send Di a link to the story of Melba’s 20,000-bulb gift. She in turn commits to sending it on to Dan.

By the time I get home, Dan has recalled what a major part the Narcissus played at the funeral of Lady Vestey during peak daffodil season in September, 2011.

“We filled the small church and house here at Coombe with hundreds of bunches of daffodils, Lady Vestey’s favourite flower,” he said.

Like daffodils, this story is pushing its way to the surface in its own time.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

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