In autumn, the warm borders at Cloudehill are dominated by the brilliant tones of the maples. Jeremy's ai in the borders is to have at least one plant at its best every week. Photo - Jeremy Francis
Jeremy Francis tells the story of his magnificent garden in ‘Cloudehill: A year in the garden’.
In this extract he describes how a garden inspired by the golden days of Edwardian Arts and Crafts Design began to take shape in the rich moist soils of the Dandenong Ranges.
April 1992 was a perfect example of autumn in the Dandenongs. Still, dry days, an occasional overnight shower, but drier than any other season: the best time to begin a garden.
By the Tuesday after Easter we had the weed trees removed, special trees excavated to a safe place, and the slope cleared and measured, with string lines in place all in time for the arrival of a drot, or trackless bulldozer. After years of farming on exquisitely shallow soils, it was breathtaking to see the drot’s blade bite into the deep loam. Topsoil across the excavation was a good 30cm deep, dark chocolate in colour and with an open fluffy texture. The drot seemed to be slicing some sort of Bavarian confectionery. No pebbles could be seen; less than a wheelbarrow full of rocks was unearthed among the equivalent of truckloads of soil.
Photo - Robin Powell
The main terrace took several days to excavate. It was crucial that it be wide enough for our double borders, however the wider the terrace the higher (and more difficult and expensive) the retaining walls required, both above and below. The excavation was gradually carved out 11.5 metres wide, allowing for 1.5 metres for a hedge on the low side, 2 metres for a generous central path (including brick edging), and two borders of four metres each. I consulted my copy of Gertrude Jekyll’s ‘Colour in the English Garden’. She made her Munstead Wood border 14 feet deep. Four metres is almost 14 feet so I was satisfied; each border should have sufficient depth for several layers of plants from the front to the rear. Then the question became: how long could we make the various gardens?
My plan allowed for a terrace of 11 or 12 metres wide for some 90 metres across the block, then for a further 36 metres it could narrow to just three metres. We had to thread the narrow section of our terrace between big historic trees. On the lower side grew two magnificent beech trees: a tri-coloured beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseomarginata’, and a fern-leaf beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Heterphylla’, part of a shipment of trees brought to Australia in 1928. On the top side of the excavation site was a magnificent Magnolia kobus. Kobus has floppy little uninteresting flowers and is rare in gardens for this reason. However, its blooming also happens to be extraordinarily generous. At the end of its season petals (more accurately tepals in the case of this dinosaur plant) fall inches deep. Viewed from a distance it is arguably the finest of all magnolias.
Late autumn has Salvia leucantha flowering strongly against the dried stems of grasses and sedum. Photo - Jeremy Francis
Glancing through a book on Hidcote I noticed the length of its main terrace similar to our excavation. It seemed an omen except of course, we could never have the ethereal view from Hidcote’s final gate – the Vale of Evesham and the mountains of Wales. On reflection, this was mildly exasperating. The Silvan Valley, 400 metres below, rising tier on tier to the Gembrook Ranges on the skyline, had long since vanished behind our neighbour’s forest of mountain ash. With this nuisance in mind, I planned Cloudehill to be self-contained, with little structures at the ends of the main terrace facing each other; these could define the axis while masking the lack of any deep view of the immediate valley that one might hope for in a mountain garden.
Stone selected for building the dry stone retaining walls was volcanic, collected from farmland west of Melbourne, largely around the appropriately named district of Stony Rises. This extraordinary part of Victoria was formed by a lava flow dating back a mere 10,000 years; more-or-less last weekend in geological terms. The honeycomb stone we collected was a uniform dove-grey in colour, often enriched by the silver and green of colonising lichens and mosses. The rock’s sharp edges easily locked into a wall and its colour was a good neutral backdrop to flowers.
Autumn nights start to turn the leaves of the trees and hedges. Photo - Claire Takacs
By spring we were making progress. Major walls were now complete, and with the occasional mild sunny day in September, we noticed a warm look to our weeping maples: leaf buds were expanding, crimson sprays of foliage unfurling and the old trees stretching themselves into chocolate soil around their roots. In October the drot was back planting the many big rhododendrons that had been lifted from the ground in autumn and left in their root balls on the surface all winter. Later that same day we were all busily planting perennials from my collection of the previous 15 years.
Four weeks later, on Melbourne Cup long weekend, the gates of our carpark opened. The glorious Rhododendron nuttallii were heavy with white trumpet blossoms trailing honeysuckle-like perfume in the thick spring air, a superb Rhododendron ‘Ightham Yellow’ was vibrant with cool lemon bells, beech trees were in fresh leaf and hundreds of the late-flowering poet’s daffodil, Narcissus poeticus recurvus, were tossing their heads across the meadow. Perennials in the borders had filled in a little, penstemons were showing an occasional precocious flower and Delphinium ‘Volkerfrieden’ had unfurled tatters of azure. With some nervousness, we suggested to nursery visitors that, if they didn’t mind ramps of mud and gravel where there should be steps, they were welcome to wander into the beginnings of our garden.