17th century, 18th century, Antarctic, Antonia Fraser, Arts & Crafts Movement, Australia, autumn, Batman, Brassica, British invasion, cabbage moth, Cloudehill, Cloudehill Nursery & Gardens, confiers, daffodils, Empress Josephine, European, ferns, France, French Revolution, Garden at St Erth, garden history, gardening, gardens, gold rush, Gothic, Heidelberg School, heritage, Heronswood, Jeremy Francis, Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, Melbourne, Mountain Ash, Olinda, orange, orange trees, Percy Bysshe Shelley, pests, Petite Trianon, pines, plants, propagation, Rangeview Gardens, revolution, seedlings, seeds, spring, St Erth, summer, The Cloud, The Dandenong Ranges National Park, The Dandenongs, The Diggers, The Diggers Club, vegetable gardening, Versailles, winter, Woiwurrung, World War 1, Wurundjeri
I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From The Cloud by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Melbourne was unseasonably warm for a few days, and then an almighty Antarctic blast came upon us. There’s snow in them there hills, for sure (and lots of other places besides). Yet despite today’s cold, our winters, generally, seem to have shrunk to a bare few weeks. The shortening of the gap between autumn and spring has been particularly noticeable this year – the recent early burst of spring-like weather was remarked upon by urban and country folk alike. Just a couple of days ago we inspected each and every Brassica for the eggs and progeny of cabbage moths, having spotted some fat green teenagers after a spate of mild days. (I refuse to sacrifice my favourite vegetables to my least favourite pest.) The warmer weather also spurred me to start the summer vegetable propagation process, so I spent most of Tuesday sowing seeds for the hothouse and getting a bit excited about the sheer variety of tomatoes I’m attempting this year. Not surprisingly, the seeds that weren’t those saved from last summer’s crop hail from The Diggers Club, a number of them purchased last Sunday during our visit to Cloudehill Nursery & Gardens in The Dandenongs. We turned up with a prepared wishlist, following close perusal of The Diggers Seed Annual. We returned, as is always the way, with a fair few additional packets of seeds, thoughts full of fresh air, and lots of plans …
Cloudehill is a dramatically different garden to the other Diggers’ gardens – Heronswood and St Erth – reflecting its location in the damp and crisply seasonal climate of Olinda, its origins as a ‘working garden’ in the 1890s, its transformation into a nursery following World War 1, and the aesthetic and passion of its most recent owner and curator, Jeremy Francis. How Jeremy – formerly a West Australian wheat and sheep farmer – came to purchase Cloudehill in 1992 is described in his book, Cloudehill: A Year in the Garden and outlined on the garden’s website. It’s one of those stories with an element of destiny, and in some ways the alliance with The Diggers Club continues along the same lines, extending a mutual passion for preserving both plant and cultural heritage.
Of late, I’ve been reading a bit about the lives of Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette and Empress Josephine, each of whom loved exotic plants and created historically significant gardens during their respective reigns. Louis XIV, for example, had a passion for orange trees and sourced varieties from all over the place, planting thousands at Versailles, in silver pots that were eventually melted down to fund his wars. Only a couple of these original trees remain, although others have been planted since, in the reconstruction of Versailles. But I find myself wincing as, with every successive wave of revolution in France, beautiful garden after beautiful garden was destroyed, not through anything other than that strange human association of destruction of the past with the birth of something new. While a few of these 17th and 18th century gardens have been re-created, many, like Marie Antoinette’s model farm, constructed at Petite Trianon, were so decimated that they literally ceased to exist, only to be imagined through drawings and contemporary descriptions.
It’s appropriate that my thoughts have turned to European gardens and history, as Cloudehill is a both a layering of classical garden styles and a story of European incursions into the pre-colonial landscape. The Dandenong Ranges were once covered in a lush temperate rainforest of Mountain Ash and ferns, and occupied a special place in the lives of the Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) people for thousands of years. Following the British invasion and Batman’s infamously illegal ‘treaty’, the proximity of the hills to the new locale of Melbourne meant they soon became a source of timber for the colony, with much of the indigenous forest felled and cleared. By the 1870s, however, the gold rush-inspired birth of a large middle-class and the cool climate and accessibility of the hills made them a popular destination for day-trippers; a historical conflagration that, in hindsight, probably saved The Dandenongs from complete devastation. By 1882 much of the region had been protected as parklands and, in 1987, these were drawn together to form the Dandenong Ranges National Park. In the present, the hills are a juxtaposition of towering Mountain Ash – wreathed in mist or smoke from a wood fire, it’s easy to imagine yourself in a canvas from the Heidelberg School – against deciduous trees such as birch and poplar, along with a host of conifers and pines. And, of course, there’s the renowned springtime display of flowering bulbs – we were lucky to catch some early daffodils turning their happy faces to the late winter sun.
It’s difficult to pin Cloudehill to one or another garden tradition; a pastiche in many ways, there is an intentional nod to a range of aesthetic influences. We labelled the tree to the right ‘Cloudehill Gothic’, although in spring or summer it most likely appears in a completely different light. Yet there are lots of Gothic elements throughout the gardens, particularly evident in the Rangeview Gardens, which were the site of the original nursery and have been allowed, over time, to return to a state of ‘wildness’, with steep muddy paths, lichen spotted trees and damp grottoes.
Gothic is only one of the historical allusions that springs to mind at Cloudehill. Without a doubt the garden owes a lot to the Arts & Craft Movement, as do many of Australia’s finest post-colonial gardens and gardeners. To my mind, a bit of waging of ‘Holy warfare against the age’ never went astray. In fact, a bit more of it in the current climate would be a good thing, and creating, preserving and continually building upon a garden like Cloudehill is a subtle rebuke to a society dominated by an overwhelming death wish. Gardens transcend time – up on Cloudehill, you can practice your thousand-yard stare and remember your place as a finite element in an infinite system. Just yesterday, a neighbour remarked that gardening is a reminder of the cyclical nature of things – plants come around, and then they go again; there’s always another season to look forward to, as much as you might be enjoying the fruits of the present. And each time I visit a Diggers’ garden, on the drive home I’m heard to say, in between reading the instructions on the seed packets and dreaming of homegrown bounty, ‘We have to come back in autumn, or spring, or [insert a season, any season] … ‘
So, as the Antarctic day turns into an Antarctic night, I’m looking forward to going to bed with the Sun King and his women. (You have no idea how much I’ve been wanting to use that line, ever since I began reading Antonia Fraser‘s book on the subject – the human equivalent of about 90 book years. Mind you, at this stage, Louis is on his death bed and most of his women have gone the same way. Such is life, and such is love.)