Two Gardeners The Cruden Farm Garden Diaries
Most mornings, for several decades, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and her gardener Michael Morrison shared a breakfast of tea and toast and discussed the day’s plans for the garden.
On many days, after the work was done, Michael filled in a garden diary, as requested by Dame Elisabeth early in their working relationship.
The diaries record big changes and seasonal moods in the garden, the gardeners’ plans and successes, and their walks, and later drives, around the garden ‘oo-ing-&-r-ing’ (Michael’s shorthand for satisfied exclamations of ooh and ahh as he and Dame E, or The Boss as he calls her, toured the garden).
'Cruden Farm Garden Diaries' by Penguin/Lantern. Cover photo - Simon Griffiths
The diaries have now been published as Cruden Farm Garden Diaries by Penguin/Lantern, with explanatory text by journalist Lisa Clausen and contemporary photographs by Simon Griffiths.
This brief extract shows how the diaries chart not just the garden, but also the attitude of its gardeners to each other. It reveals the warm-hearted, no-nonsense character of Dame Elisabeth, the wonderful friendship she shared with Michael, and their deep love of the garden they created together over more than 40 years. The extract begins with Michael making a typically succinct comment about Dame Elisabeth’s can-do pragmatism and fierce independence.
Dame E spent the early morning before leaving for town cleaning her car – also some running repairs on the roof having climbed out of an upstairs window. April 12, 1988
The golf buggy was a birthday present for Dame Elisabeth from the family and Michael writes that she loved to put her foot down when out of sight of family members. He would stand on the back holding the buckets ‘while The Boss lead-footed it’. Photo - Simon Griffiths
An excursion when the ninety-year-old Dame asked Michael to drop her at a formal event in the city, before he collected some plants at a nursery, summed up her straightforward approach to life:
Wish I had thought to bring the camera – as we draw up at 81 Collins St, with several very smartly dressed ladies being dropped off in smart cars at the Alexandra Club – Dame E leaping out of the ute with her evening clothes over her arm. July 13, 1999
Michael is the same, for while Cruden has attracted many well-known guests over the years, he’s never starstruck – in his diaries, famous visitors (whether art patrons, political leaders or distinguished actors) are mentioned without fanfare, and he himself always assiduously avoided the spotlight.
Garden looking a dream – weather very promising – among Dame E’s lunch guests today the Rex Harrisons and Claudette Colbert - all reported to be garden lovers. November 2, 1986
What counts when he meets someone is not how acclaimed they are or how many botanic names they can recite but simply how much they enjoy being in the garden – in Michael’s opinion, plants know when they are in the presence of an admirer. ‘If you really want to grow a plant you love in your garden you should try three times,’ he advises. ‘Plants make up their own mind if they know they’re loved.’ He and Dame Elisabeth both admitted defeat, however, when it came to gardenias. ‘Gardenias never liked me and when Dame E was given two as a gift I said, “I’m not touching them – they’ll die for sure,” says Michael. ‘The Boss said, “They don’t like me either.” One did indeed die, and as for the other, ‘I just look the other way when I walk past it.’
Michael Morrison works under the rare oak, ‘Quercus Firthii’ that Elisabeth Murdoch planted early in the life of Cruden Farm. Photo - Simon Griffiths
A distrust of gardenias was just one of many gardening traits they had in common – from possessing the same eye for space and light in the garden to measuring rainfall with almost religious fervour and having the same thoughts about the garden at the same time.
At 8am breakfast DE suggests perhaps Ken & I might clear out holding bed below apple tree & prune pear & apple - have begun – so often the case when either DE or I suggest a job at breakfast the other has had it in mind to do so. – June 23, 2005
The dairies chart the milestones of their friendship, the Dame’s comings and goings, and the family successes and celebrations, just as attentively as they do the garden’s happenings. Above all, they reveal how much the pair enjoyed each other’s company, in and out of the garden.
Michael did all the necessary jobs before his departure on his Gardens tour – I shall miss him sorely – what little I can do in the garden is so much more enjoyable when shared with him – but I shall comfort myself in his absence by thinking and hoping that he will be having a richly deserved and very enjoyable trip. – Dame Elisabeth, April 29, 1988
9.20am Help Dame E to pack picnic basket into car – setting off rather like a day on our UK jaunts with Dame E navigating – stopping a little way from Lambley Nursery to picnic under the shade of a cypress tree – weather and countryside perfect – after delicious chicken & salad, fresh fruit picnic lunch prepared by Dame E ready to go on…Set off home at 5.15pm – whiskey and soda with Dame E in drawing room – end to a most pleasant day. – February 21, 1999.
The two gardeners planted thousands of winter-flowering bulbs around the lake to complement the crisp light of winter and the skeletal forms and subtle tones of the bare trees. Michael describes drives of ‘much oo-&-r-ing’, his shorthand for repeated gasps of ooh and ah. Photo - Simon Griffiths
In one of her turns as diarist Dame Elisabeth describes Michael as ‘a tower of strength as usual’, and at the heart of their great friendship was this certainty that she could depend on him for anything, but especially to care for Cruden just as she did. As she said to him on more than one occasion as they walked among its flowers and trees, ’Michael, I trust you to look after our garden.’
Come with us
We’ll return to Cruden Farm in spring this year on our Gardens of Victoria tour, led by Robin Powell. For details call Ros or Royce on 1300 233 200 or go to www.rosstours.com