I think I have found it. A garden that scores 100 out of 100. Even in dreary old late autumn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And, my word, did she have exquisite, timeless taste.
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, 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’.
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.
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 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.
But why was it so special?
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.
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’.
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.
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.