Tag Archives: Gardening

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. 

Mary Moody – growing like Topsy

MARY'S Mary Moody with some of Glenray Park's geese.
MARY’S WAY Mary Moody with some of Glenray Park’s geese.

Another encounter with a great gardener.

MARY Moody told her friends she’d never dig another perennial garden bed.

After a decade presenting the ABC’s popular Gardening Australia series, the penning of respected gardening titles, and with horticultural credentials ranking amongst the country’s greenest, it seemed as though Mary didn’t have time to garden anymore.

Geography had a lot to do with it.

Mary had fallen in love with the way of life in south-west France, and relocated there for a good portion of every year.

Her family also moved its Australian base from the Blue Mountains to Yetholme (nestled in the ranges east of Bathurst) and took-on the degraded Glenray Park farm.

But, it seems, you can’t keep a good gardener down … this article was published in Blue Mountains Life (Sep-Jan 2012).

The constant gardener

Mary Moody’s been letting her garden grow … again.

“The garden in Leura had become a millstone around my neck,” Mary remembers. “I’d created what I’d call a collector’s garden, and I was absolutely besotted with alpine perennials. It was a constant job just keeping on top of everything, not to mention expensive.”

Glenray Park attracted Mary with its century-old homestead, complete with great bones for a classic Australian home yard, but, on moving in, Mary’s love of gardening had to be left fallow. With her writing expanding into best-selling memoirs; her media appearances focussing more on Mary’s life than her gardening pursuits; and time in France and Nepal leading tour groups, the verdant lawns of Glenray Park got mown, and veggies were grown, but that was about it.

When asked if there was a tipping-point that got her back into her ‘nice’ gardening gloves, Mary laughs: “It was insidious. I created a small garden bed off our verandah, for a few of my favourite plants, and they just started to self-seed. It grew like topsy, and eventually I needed to create wider beds to accommodate everything”.

“I have to admit that nothing I’ve done since in the garden was very difficult – it just can’t be. I mulched the beds very deeply to keep the weeds down while I was away, and when I came home I returned to my weeding duties quite naturally.”

THE GROWING KIND Gardener and writer Mary Moody with some of her grandkids.
THE GROWING KIND Gardener and writer Mary Moody with some of her grandkids.

In the lead-up to Bathurst’s annual Spring Spectacular, a weekend of the district’s finest show gardens, Mary leads me though the gate near her now much-expanded ‘new’ garden.

Covered by the fallen pink petals of a flowering cherry, the plantings occupy a sunny strip between the house replete with euphorbias, cat mint, bulbs and classic country favourites like pansies and Dutch irises, and plenty of dominant roses.

“I did have a moment when I thought ‘you are mad, you’re going to have 1000 people look at your gardening mess’.

“But there’s nothing like a deadline. My son Ethan has been helping me one day a week, and we’re almost ready,” Mary says.

Mary’s ‘new’ garden is a natural extension of the house itself, with a beautiful, uncomplicated structure, and everywhere you look you’re reminded that Glenray Park is a working farm.

Fences and gates give way to fields and enclosures for chickens, goats, geese and alpaca, meaning that Mary’s garden is a home yard indeed – if it extended any further most of it would end up as feed for the animals.

A new project – a classic potager – has been developed with garden designer Nicole Clout and is situated behind a sturdy fence in sight of the chickens. Mary is hosting gardening workshops for kids this weekend, and her garden has already been tested by regular visits from her swag of grandchildren.

This part of her ‘new’ garden is a clue to what got Mary into gardening in the first place – creating organic produce for the family table. It’s been just over three decades since Mary and her filmmaker husband David Hannay took their young family away from the city, enough time for her gardening fame to bury the basic truth that gardening was always a means to a gourmet end for Mary.

GREAT GARDEN BONES Glenray Park, Yetholme, a home yard with garden potential.
GREAT GARDEN BONES Glenray Park, Yetholme, a home yard with garden potential.

But at Glenray Park, Mary has plans reaching way beyond her farm garden.

“I’m starting to plan something we’re calling ‘Sustainable Bathurst’ as a working title,” Mary reveals.

“This region was one of the first food producing districts in modern Australia, but over time crop  and stock production has become predominant. We are hoping to bring the market gardens back.”

And Mary’s decade in France has inspired the creation of a network of ferme auberge (‘farm restaurants’). “The whole idea of eating local food in season, grown here and prepared in the home, is very inspiring. I recently had a go at making sheep milk brie and goat feta.”

With a network of four other local farms already on board, the gourmet potential of Glenray Park seems about to burst. But this new direction has been built on solid organic principles, and not just in the garden.

“When we arrived, the farm was overgrown. After years of stock getting into the waterways, everything was fairly degraded. Ethan’s worked hard on the environmental farm management of Glenray Park, with the creation of a wildlife corridor and contained stock fields. He’s my back-up for the farm.

“Our creek is called Frying Pan Creek, because travellers from Lithgow would stop here for the night where a frying pan was literally nailed to a tree for everyone to use. Over time willows were planted, and they sucked the creek dry, but we have removed it all. There were once platypus here and we hope to have them back one day.

“Ethan reminds me that the ornamental garden must not enroach on the natural environment beyond the fence,” Mary says. “As long as the plants don’t jump the fence, everything will be in balance.”

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Beth Chatto – a natural subject

A GARDENER'S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto (Photo: Alamy).
A GARDENER’S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto.

A Writer’s year with a great gardener.

WHEN I first arrived at the Beth Chatto Gardens in midsummer 1996, a bright, animated woman called Rosie greeted me and showed me into the house, where gardener and writer Beth Chatto hosted me for morning tea.

I was there to investigate the viability of producing a documentary on Beth and her work, and what struck me immediately was her gracious nervousness. Taking nothing whatsoever for granted, this multiple Chelsea award-winning gardener was as vulnerable as an auditioning actor.

She’d loved the program one of my colleagues had made about another respected local gardener – Suffolk’s Peggy Cole – because it had captured the truth about what it takes to nurture an English garden, and she hoped I could do the same for her.

Once outside, and more relaxed within the fluid environs of her garden, Beth related that she’d made a program about her garden before, but to date, she felt, no-one had captured what the Beth Chatto Gardens was really all about.

We walked, we talked, and Beth encouraged me to get right within the garden itself, to tread through beds to see the workings of the water garden or the structure of the gravel garden.

Passing a small group of visitors, she introduced herself, directly but politely, to a woman who was taking cuttings, not by reprimanding the culprit, but by saying, “Please, feel free …”, despite the well stocked nursery on the other side of the hedge.

That mixture of shock at her garden being picked-at, and her inner turmoil at wanting to share it without rancour, showed a complex woman with a very interesting story. All I wanted to know was when could we start?

I read as much as I could about Beth’s work and her place in post-war English gardening. She patiently gave me time to catch-up, but underlined that we’d need to spend time in the garden, perhaps an entire year, to film it in its fullness.

As a producer new to the company he worked for, that meant I needed to test budgetary terms, and face questions about when the product could be ready for the marketplace. Could the execs wait another Christmas? Had this territory already been covered enough by another company?

GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).
GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).

The best thing I could think to do was simply to start. A cameraman, Alan James (another Essex gardener in his own right), and me, just filmed as the seasons cycled, as they do so dramatically in England. Along the way, I felt sure I would find a way to make the project work for all the stakeholders.

Beth Chatto’s ornamental garden is just one part of her work. Situated at the end of a farm lane, not far from the Essex town of Colchester, it occupies a small gully between working farm fields which Beth and her husband Andrew transformed into their world famous garden.

A commercial nursery makes up almost half of the property, and much of that is taken up by large-scale compost production. I recall Beth’s delight when we proved ourselves willing to film tractors at work on steaming piles of leaf litter. Her approach to our company, with its track record for making programs about farm machinery, was paying off.

On one day’s filming in winter, a quiet, well-dressed man (who looked a bit like I’d imagine a Russian philosopher would) was seated on the other side of the fire in the garden office when I arrived. Rosie asked me to take a seat to warm myself, and Andrew Chatto gently introduced himself.

Beth credits her husband Andrew Chatto with the original inspiration behind their garden for one very simple reason. It was Andrew who came up with the idea of finding plants from across the temperate world, and to grow them in England under conditions that were suited to their needs. This was Beth Chatto’s ‘right plant, right place’ concept in a nutshell.

To explain why such a basic philosophy became so revolutionary, you’d need to tackle centuries of horticultural collecting conducted by the great botanists who accompanied Britain’s explorers on dangerous voyages to bring seeds and cuttings back home.

The famous glasshouses of Kew were built to house this booty, and to keep it alive against the cold climate. The movement eventually encouraged generations of ordinary gardeners to buy whatever plants we liked, stick them in our back yards, and hope for the best.

Beth and Andrew were every bit as exploratory, not just because of their plant-inspired travels, but also because the climate and soil in Essex are not what you’d call typically English. Certainly the annual rainfall is not what other counties enjoy. The Chattos were also not afraid to wait many years to see what happened.

And what happened speaks for itself … the scrubby gully is now a stunning series of gardens that descend almost imperceptibly along a natural water-course. Preceding Beth’s well-loved books on water and shade gardening, these immaculate green spaces were her laboratory in an ongoing love affair with plants.

DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden.
DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden (Photo: Alamy)

Our filming coincided with the peak early years of Beth’s latest project at the time – her gravel garden. In an ongoing experiment, quite ahead of its time, she vowed to never irrigate this garden, to test the boundaries of gardening under drought conditions, well aware of the tussle to come between farmers and gardeners over access to water.

Here was something an Australian could really get his head around – the gravel garden at the Beth Chatto Gardens reminded me of home, with its sparse, elemental feel and the heat that emanated from the ground, literally inches thick with small stones and filled with plants familiar to me from roadsides in the Outback.

As the months passed we got to know Beth’s staff quite well. I would often catch a glimpse of her observing our filming processes from a distance, and once she saw her gardeners chatting with us and surrendering to the often annoying process of, “now, could you just do that again, and we’ll film it from this angle …”, she would disappear into the house to get on with other work.

As an interviewee on camera Beth Chatto proved a natural. I realised very quickly that I’d only need to capture her in conversation and get Alan to just turn the camera on. Years of communicating her story had given her an edge that needed no other commentary.

In the last few months of filming, Beth kept gently reminding me that she’d like some group shots of the staff, and on one day in the Summer of 1997 we got everyone to down tools and take part in a photo shoot that we committed to tape. As the centre-piece to those moments, I saw Beth about the happiest I’d ever seen her.

She also understood innately what I was doing when I asked one of our execs to be an extra in a whole day’s filming, our one ‘big budget’ spend, working with a crane to capture high-angle motion shots. Beth guided my boss through the highly repetitious process of take after take, until we had it just right.

I became a gardener as a result of my year with Beth Chatto. What I know about gardens I learned from her, particularly about how to live in a garden and not be too precious about the life that runs through it – pets, visiting wildlife, and people who like to take cuttings.


The Beth Chatto Gardens DVD is available from BecksDVDs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.