Cruden Farm: My favourite garden in the world

Bright, autumn colours at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Bright, autumn colours combined in a surprisingly delightful way with bold succulents at Cruden Farm

I think I have found it. A garden that scores 100 out of 100. Even in dreary old late autumn.

Colourful crab apples at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Crab apples laden with fruit at Cruden Farm

The closest to perfection I have previously found are Sissinghurst and Great Dixter in the UK. All three gardens have me entirely spellbound. They give me a feeling of ‘I can’t quite believe I am here’.  I connect with them in a way that you would think only possible between human beings.

Autumn at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Soft, muted shades of autumn colour at Cruden Farm

All three have been created with immense skill, immense taste and immense love. All three owned by huge, confident, strong characters and all three with head gardeners who loved them equally as much and who devoted much of their lives to their creation. The parallels are extraordinary.

Pond at Cruden Farm with Dame Elisabeth Bust. Janna Schreier

Pond at Cruden Farm with Dame Elisabeth bust, sculpted by one of the farm workers, above and behind the water feature

And whilst I considered if Cruden Farm, just outside of Melbourne, is my favourite of all simply because it is most recent in my mind (I was there just yesterday), I’m almost certain that’s not the case. Ironically, it is perhaps the least perfect of the three, but the imperfections are almost certainly all part of its appeal.

Subtle bridge over the lake at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Subtle but beautiful bridge over the lake, which Dame Elisabeth resisted excavating for decades, feeling it was extravagant to do so

In December 2012, a good friend of mine leant me a book she thought I’d enjoy: ‘Garden of a Lifetime: Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm‘ by Anne Latreille. It was my first introduction to this garden and I was completely mesmerised. The writing, the photographs, the content, were music to my ears. I devoured it each evening, reading it word for word, cover to cover, until there was sadly, no more left. It took me about four days. On day three, I woke up to hear that Dame Elisabeth had died, aged 103.

Dahlia and roses at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Dahlia and roses in the picking garden at Cruden Farm

Perhaps the timing of this particularly touched me in some way.  Or perhaps the book would have left some mark on me regardless. It is a wonderful aspect of human nature that we focus on the positives of the deceased. But this book was written when Dame Elisabeth was alive and kicking and her values that Anne Latreille so beautifully describes are close to perfection in my eyes. She was kind and generous, she was passionate and hard working, she was strong and at times ruthless, she disliked pretension and grandeur.

Lemon scented gum lined driveway at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

The most famous bit of the whole garden…the avenue of lemon-scented gums (Eucalyptus citriodora) lining the driveway

And, my word, did she have exquisite, timeless taste.

Cruden Farm swimming pool. Janna Schreier

This swimming pool is perfect for the site, a timeless addition which looks pleasingly unmanufactured against its natural backdrop, but in no way ‘fake’ natural. Dame Elisabeth had an outstanding eye for design

Dame Elisabeth created the garden at Cruden Farm over a period of 83 years. Eighty. Three. Years. She was 19 when she arrived, newly wed to Keith Murdoch, and Cruden Farm was where she finally passed away. With the exception of one camphor laurel, every single tree you see in this garden was planted by Dame Elisabeth. It is an amazing labour of love.

John Christie talking at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

John Christie, General Manager of Cruden Farm, presenting the gardens to keen garden go-ers (like me!). It was quite amazing to stand in front of that house on arrival; one I had looked at in so many photos

John Christie, General Manager at Cruden Farm, gave a guided tour of the property yesterday and stories from Anne Latreille’s beautiful book were brought to life for me all over again. Of how Dame Elisabeth didn’t want plants that were ‘show offs’ or too ‘self-conscious’, ‘glamorous’ or ‘pushy’. Plants that needed ‘taking down a peg or two’.

Entrance to Edna Walling designed walled garden at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

The walled orchard, designed by Edna Walling, which Dame Elisabeth repurposed as a perennial garden. Note the matching archways at either end

Of her endless philanthropy and resistance to spend too much on herself or her property. Of her horror when she returned from abroad to find the imposing, two storey extension to the house, and her subsequent action to plant vast trees to shrink it into inferiority. Of how she wasn’t afraid to change things that she didn’t like, even if they were designed by arguably Australia’s most famous landscape designer, Miss Edna Walling.

Scale of the trees at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Trees make the garden at Cruden Farm. Look at the scale of them next to the not insignificant house. Amazingly to think that only one of these was present when Dame Elisabeth arrived

We saw the garden ornamentation, made on site by her farm workers who were skilled in sculpture or welding. Pieces that provided meaning, rather than a mark of her wealth. We saw the vast numbers of white, timber benches around the property: her signature piece. Simple, practical and tying in beautifully with the white, weatherboard house, giving unity to the garden.

In house designed and built sculpture at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

In-house sculpture – designed by Dame Elisabeth using stakes and produced by one of the farm welders – in the dam beyond the main garden. A more rustic bench is chosen for this area

In keeping with her values, the garden is relaxed and informal. And yet it has wonderful structure and a real mix of varied and interesting spaces. A perfect balance, so rarely seen.

Original Edna Walling orchard at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Herbaceous borders, well over their peak in late autumn, but showing some of the beautiful character of this garden

But why was it so special?

Classic white, timber bench at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Yellow Mahonia adding life to the garden, along with bold Acanthus foliage and another signature white bench

The most special gardens, for me, all have a story, a history. And they are all deeply loved and created by their owners themselves. But this one particularly stands out.

Sun setting at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Sun setting over the paddocks at Cruden Farm, illuminating the stunning form of gum trees

It’s probably because, with the limited information I have (primarily Anne Latreille’s writings), Dame Elisabeth’s values appeal to me so much. I adore her lack of pretension, I adore her desire to not waste money, I love her openness to engage with her staff’s ideas and I admire her (rare in gardeners) strength to rip plants out when they were ‘living on memory’.

Cutting garden at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

The picking garden, full of autumn Dahlia and roses

You can see and feel these values in the garden. It isn’t a perfect garden, but it is all the better for it. It isn’t a highly commercialised garden, it isn’t an overly labour intensive garden. It’s just a beautiful, homely, much-loved, real garden.

Looking out to the paddocks from the stables at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

View out from the stables, built to provide employment for local men during hard times

When Paul, a decidedly non-gardener, said to me that he wished he’d had another couple of hours to spend there, it really said it all. I can’t wait to go back.

Sunken tennis court at Cruden Farm. Janna Schreier

Even the tennis court is beautiful – sunken, discreet and nestled amongst the trees – how often can you say that about a tennis court?

Lines of Eucalyptus mark the Cruden Farm boundary. Janna Schreier

Lines of Eucalyptus mark the Cruden Farm boundary. Much work in ongoing to regenerate areas beyond the farm with indigenous species such as wattles and orchids. Scarily, there are also many tiger snakes to contend with!

18 thoughts on “Cruden Farm: My favourite garden in the world

  1. Adriana says:

    I loved this gorgeous garden too Janna and for exactly the same reasons; it is a garden that any good gardener could have – with effort (but perhaps on a smaller scale). I will go back in Spring if it is hopefully open then. I hoped against all odds that when Dame Elisabeth died this wouldn’t end up chopped up for development. I’m sure that she would’ve pre-empted that though and protected it. I love your enthusiasm for this garden Janna too. It certainly deserves it – you may have been lucky too because when I visited a few years ago it was a glorious spring day and wall to wall people. Great post!

    • jannaschreier says:

      It was wall to wall with people, even on a wet, autumn day, but I outstayed my welcome until most had left! They ran out of information sheets they had so many there. They plan to continue with general openings several times a year and are using the website more proactively now, so keep your eyes peeled and you will get there in spring! It’s also worth checking out John Christie’s excellent blog – very inspiring.

  2. catherine says:

    When I asked Anne Latreille (some years ago now) if she could ‘get me and a few hort media friends in to Cruden Farm’, we were astounded to find ourselves invited to lunch by the unfailingly curious and generous Dame Elisabeth, then aged 99. We were hopelessly star struck! She wanted to know all about us and was delighted at our interest in her garden. We gave her some fresh cherries we’d picked up at a local farm, unceremoniously wrapped in newspaper and saw her as we left with her housekeeper, equally unceremoniously eating them straight out of the newspaper. I like the way the house is very central to the garden but, as you say, also dominated by it. That Dame sure had style!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Gosh, I thought I was outrageously lucky to have visited (we spontaneously booked air mile flights on Friday night) until I read this! What an experience. Can’t wait to hear more about your day there – I’ll be star struck of you now!

  3. Louise Dutton says:

    Thank you for another inspiring post Janna! Yes if only we all aspired to the values of Dame Elisabeth……a beautiful woman! Her garden is one I hope to visit one day. I was wondering if it would be possible for you to create a section on your site listing all the gardens you have visited or written about with their location and a short synopsis? It would give people like me who are not expert gardeners a list we could to refer to when we have time to visit some of these wonderful gardens. Only an idea if you have the time!

    • jannaschreier says:

      That is a fabulous idea, Louise, thanks ever so much for suggesting it. For a moment there, I had visions of interactive maps you could click on, which opened up photo libraries…..and then I remembered my technical capabilities!! But I can surely do something. I am more than flat out at the moment, but hopefully at some point over the winter… I’ll keep thinking about it; as I’m very excited by the idea I will find a way. It will be a nice record for me too. Thanks again for suggesting it.

  4. Fiona says:

    Lovely Janna. I have yet to visit but would love to take my easel and settle in some quiet corner to paint. But perhaps not as it gets colder!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Glad you liked the pictures, Fiona. You must get there, although at 13 degrees on Sunday afternoon I would definitely recommend waiting until spring. I’m excited to see your painting of it now! Can’t imagine anything more exquisite.

  5. Garden Walk Garden Talk says:

    This is a very beautiful sprawling property. I love the gardens and that stable view. I usually am not fond of pools, but that is a great design. The dahlia and rose garden is very inviting too. Thanks for the tour.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! The pool is so clever, isn’t it? Somehow I think it would look awful on paper and yet it is just perfect in reality. I agree with you that it is not often you see pools properly integrated into their surroundings.

  6. Sharon says:

    Just been there today , & i felt exactly the same , what a lovely balanced garden. Not to fussy not to wild , just perfect .And the trees are awesome.Im
    really itching to look inside that beautiful house ., but alas they dont do house tours , as the family use it .

    • jannaschreier says:

      Lucky you! It’s such a magical place, isn’t it? I visited on a cold May day when things were largely over, but I bet it was even more stunning at this time of year. I’ll need to try and get back there some time. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for leaving a message!

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