Dame Elisabeth always used the side entrance to her house, which is hidden here behind a garden bed filled with burgundy, purple and silver highlights. Photo - Robin Powell
Sandra Ross fulfilled a long-held dream when she and a group of our travellers were given a private tour of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s serenely beautiful garden.
I fell in love with the lemon-scented gum (Eucalyptus citriodora) when I first saw photographs of Cruden Farm’s avenue as a student of horticulture in the 1970s. Photographs show something other-worldly in the verticals of the white trunks and the way the light seems to pool in a misty way at the base of the trees. It was a great thrill for me to visit Cruden Farm and finally walk this avenue myself on a beautiful spring afternoon last year.
The farm, with its cottage and garden was a wedding present from Keith Murdoch to his 19-year-old bride and Dame Elisabeth lived most of her long life here. It’s a wonderful treat to see a garden that was 80 years in the making, under the guiding hand of one indomitable woman. Dame Elisabeth was unable to greet us as she’d wanted to, as a broken leg had kept her housebound and Michael Morrison was waiting at the gatehouse to greet our Ross tour group. Michael began working in the garden in 1971 and he and Dame Elisabeth made a formidable team. A few weeks after our visit, we were saddened to hear of the peaceful death of Dame Elisabeth, who was a truly inspiring Australian.
Lovely long lawn flanked with flower borders. Photo - Robin Powell
Taking the long view
Edna Walling contributed a design for the garden in 1929, and the magnificent 300m long avenue of lemon-scented gums is one of the remaining vestiges of her design. The avenue leads to the round lawn and the front facade of the house with its soaring columns echoed by great old trees. Many of the now mature trees were planted and nurtured by Elisabeth as a young woman, and you have to admire her foresight. There are not many 20 year-olds able to take the long view that planting slow-growing trees requires. Waking at dawn, she would pump water and move hoses to nurture the young saplings. The extraordinary reward has been to watch these trees mature. They now form a wonderfully detailed backdrop in which the white-painted house is partly hidden and the garden can shine.One such tree is a rare oak, planted in 1931 and now registered by the National Trust on the significant tree register. It’s called Quercus x ‘Firthii’, after the Mount Macedon forester who grew it.
Sandra walks the famous, and much copied, avenue of lemon-scented gums. Photo - Robin Powell
Michael tells us the story of this wonderful tree then leads us on a walk around the garden. We start at the front garden, which is actually at the side of the house. Dame Elisabeth always used the side entrance to the garden rather than the grand entrance through the columned portico. The rose ‘Paul’s Scarlet Climber’, planted by Dame Elisabeth in the late 1920s, still drapes this side entrance. The garden beds here were extended when a new gatehouse was built for Dame Elisabeth’s 90th birthday. Dramatic dark foliages are the feature of these borders, including Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’, Berberis atropurpurea and smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Purpurea’). They contrast with the soft purple heads of eupatorium and the great blue spires of echium. A splendid Betchel crabapple (Malus ioensis ‘Plena’) is the spring highlight of these borders.
A mirror to the sky
As we turn behind this garden we are surprised by a magnificent vista across a lake fringed with yellow iris and backed by a tapestry of trees. The lake is part of a drought-proofing plan that saw Dame Elisabeth convert, and significantly deepen, the farm dam. Two additional dams were built in the following decade and they provide a reliable source of water for the garden, as well as mirroring the surrounding trees, the sky and its scudding clouds.
The lake is fringed with yellow flag iris and backed by a tapestry of deciduous trees. Photo - Robin Powell
A row of American pin oaks lines the far shore of the lake. These have been grown from acorns from the large pin oak near the house, and were planted by Dame Elisabeth’s grandchildren. Nyssa (American tupelo), scarlet oaks and liquidambars add their autumn colour to this green belt. In the lake field beyond, thousands of daffodils, jonquils and bluebells are a mass of flower in early spring. Recently the boundary fence in this lake field has been pushed back and a new post and rail fence that beautifully follows the contours of the hills has been built at the suggestion of Dame Elisabeth’s granddaughters. Each grandchild has planted trees here on the perimeter of the property, which is still a working beef cattle farm. The trees will provide screening from a proposed new freeway (what was countryside when Keith Murdoch bought the farm is now part of the commuter corridor of the Mornington Peninsula) and a wildlife corridor.
A turfed stone bridge crosses the lake. Photo - Robin Powell
For the picking
Of course, a flower-filled house needs a cutting garden, so Dame Elisabeth planted the vegetable garden with roses, honeysuckle, delphiniums and foxgloves. A magnificent hedge of eleagnus serves as a backdrop for this flower garden. Coloured foliages are also picked for arrangements, including the copper and tricolour beeches that are such a feature of the garden in spring.
Dame Elisabeth converted the vegetable garden to a picking garden with roses, honeysuckle, delphiniums and foxgloves. Photo - Robin Powell
Another remnant of Edna Walling’s original design is the walled garden. This garden was originally planted with roses, which proved to be unsuitable because of the heat trapped within the walls. It is now planted with summer flowering perennials; asters, thalictrum, hostas and delphiniums. A mature crabapple at one end of the garden is thought to have been planted by Edna. Walling’s signature curved steps are still in place too, at the rear of the house near the new rose garden. As with most Walling gardens, these steps are softened with erigeron daisy.
As the afternoon faded and we had to say goodbye, I took the opportunity to take one last walk down that wonderful avenue of lemon-scented gums.
What a trifecta - echium, flax and Blue mist flower, Eupatorium. Photo - Robin Powell
Text: Sandra Ross