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A week or so ago, during what might become known as Melbourne’s ‘windy period’, when it seemed like we’d never get a moment of respite, the family trooped off down the Peninsula, to visit The Diggers Club at the historic Heronswood garden.
The history of this garden is readily available on The Diggers Club website, so I’m not going to go into great detail here. It was, however, first established in 1866, which in post-invasion Australian terms, makes it quite old. And its significance as a horticultural landmark is recognised in that it is one of only four Victorian gardens included in the Oxford Companion to the Garden. In fact just yesterday, Heronswood was mentioned in an article in The Telegraph UK, in a description of a tour of Australia’s botanical attractions.
Generally, kids aren’t all that thrilled at being dragged around historic gardens but from the moment we got to Heronswood, even as the wind buffeted and the sun burst out fitfully, they were off, infected with the magic of the place. Views of the sea are afforded by Heronswood’s position at the top of a hill, from where the garden meanders down into a wild and secluded valley.
The proximity of Heronswood to the sea means that the part of the garden on the western edge is dedicated to hardy, drought and salt tolerant plants, such as succulents, flax and lavender. On a hot still day, with a deep blue sea in the background, you’d feel like you were somewhere in the Mediterranean. And this similarity to Mediterranean growing conditions across much of Australia (the tropics excluded) is why we have access to most of the fruits and vegetables that have become essential elements of the Australian cuisine.
As home to The Diggers Club, which has been dedicated to the preservation of heritage fruits and vegetables since 1978, Heronswood is a productive and heady mix of edible and companion plants. As I’ve mentioned before, in Companion Planting, if you combine flowers, herbs and vegetables, there’s no need for pesticides. And you’ll not only get a good crop, your garden will look stunning as well. Heronswood has only three gardeners but the use of companion planting principles keeps the workload to a minimum. The photo above shows a part of the garden that is set out in a fairly traditional Victorian style, but the hedge is rosemary, to the left are artichokes, and the rest is a combination of herbs and bee-attracting flowers.
This is one of Heronswood’s seasonal vegetable, herb and flower gardens, and it’s a perfect demonstration of the harmony of companion planting and rotational cropping. The newly espaliered fruit trees are pure genius, angled because the wind off the bay would force them to grow in that direction anyway. So Diggers have taken advantage of the position and the elements to create what will become both a productive and aesthetically interesting wind break.
In the car on the way home, having signed up as Diggers members, I read the Spring Garden catalogue and the 2013-2014 Garden Annual cover to cover, and then again. In the process I learnt that mustard is a great green manure, detoxing the soil and preventing the growth of soil-borne fungal diseases, such as tomato wilt. So now, rather than leave my tomato bed fallow over winter, I plan to grow a crop of mustard, eating some (I’ve had a passion for mustard and cress sandwiches since childhood) and letting the remainder break down into the soil.
So, here’s the Diggers Nursery, or part of it, where you’ll find most of the plants that are growing at Heronswood, plus an astounding array of heritage fruit trees and vegetable seeds and seedlings. You won’t be able to leave empty handed. We set out to purchase the hottest chilli on earth – the Bhut Jolokia – and came home with much, much more.
Heronswood is a unique combination of structured gardens and of plants and trees run wild; of nooks and crannies, secret places and hidden treasures. It’s a garden that taps in to memories of a time when the world seemed less troubled, which is not surprising I guess, given Diggers dedication to local and seasonal food production and to preserving heritage varieties that have been threatened by industrialised agriculture. So, next on the list of things to do, a visit to Diggers’ Garden at St Erth.
To become a member of The Diggers Club visit the website or take a trip to Heronswood or St Erth and sign up on the spot. There are many, many advantages in doing so, not least that you’ll be supporting an organisation that has been protecting global food heritage for 35 years. You can also find Diggers on Facebook.