In the Garden: Cruden Farm
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s much-loved garden is on the brink of its big show as spring begins.
Head gardener Mitch Burns takes us behind the scenes.
Words: Mitch Burns. Images: Robin Powell and John Christie
The crisp, sharp morning light of spring outlines the camphor laurel at the front of the house, the only tree at Cruden to witness Sir Keith Murdoch give his young bride Elisabeth this property, in 1928. The light glances off the stonework, designed by Edna Walling and crafted by local hands. It warms the avenue of Corymbia citriodora anddances across the lake to stir the cattle. And while the gardeners have had their heads down over their rakes, that welcome spring light has lifted the curtain on another busy day caring for the garden at Cruden Farm.
As spring begins we get a glimpse of the rewards in store from our winter endeavour. The perennial borders have been cut back. The dahlia, anthemis and phlox which have spent the winter in the nursery are ready to go back into the Walled Garden. More than 300-plus roses have been pruned, fed and mulched. Our water catchments are full and Cruden’s many bench seats have been polished, ready for the thousands of visitors who will pour into this beloved garden as the weather warms. Dame Elisabeth’s wedding present has been regifted to the public and we welcome wanderers into our working idea of beautiful.
We’re feeding the lawns
The coring and feeding of the inner lawns at Cruden Farm is a major focus leading into spring. The lawns, along with the meticulously hand raked gravel paths, are the stage for the garden. We have the benefit of learning from former head gardener Michael Morrison’s 48 dedicated years of sowing, watering, clipping, whispering, heartache and pride.
The Kentucky turf mix of bent, fescue and rye is blended with a native dichondra to give a true green contrast to the planting and grasses left to seed further afield. The shapes in the lawn are mown in very intentional patterns, so that the outer edges blend with the curve of the beds and any straight sections are accentuated to lead the wanderer on, like brush strokes. Thanks to Dame Elisabeth’s foresight, there is plenty of water from Cruden’s dams and lagoons to keep the lawns healthy through the year. In late winter, the submerged sprinkler heads are marked out with bamboo stakes before we core the lawns with a hollow tine aerator. As spring gets going, we give the lawns their major annual feed with a mix of fowl manure and sawdust. This is an ‘all hands on deck’ affair; anyone who is willing and able is on a rake, spade or hose.
We’re admiring the roses
The roses are due for their annual assessment. A critical eye is cast over the wonderful assortment of hybrid tea roses, many of them planted by Dame Elisabeth and Michael, in the picking garden. Space and air is key. Each rose was tailor-pruned in June, according to its age, shape and willingness to put on strong new growth, and fertilised in August with an organic NPK fertiliser and then mulched with a combination of compost and fowl manure. The Rosa banksiae on the woodshed is cleaned of any dead wood and then taken back by a third, as it will flower from old wood.
The mixed Rosa rugosa hedge along the post and rail fence is not taken back by two thirds, as is traditionally the case. Rather, we keep it to a more uniform height and then deadhead regularly throughout the season until early-mid autumn to allow the hips to develop. The Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis’ is kept in check as its new plum red growth tries to get away.At the top of the picking garden stands a row of ‘Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’ roses. Exceptionally healthy year round, they boast medium-sized flowers in a spectrum of cream, golden yellow flushed with vermillion and various shades of pink, best described by Dame Elisabeth herself - ‘They’re as tough as old boots, like me.’ - they will flower from spring through to late autumn, as generous as their namesake.
We’re checking the structure
Throughout early spring the hedges around the Picking Garden keep us grounded. We use a number of different plants as hedges in this part of the garden, with Eleagnus pungens as the bass tone. A ‘friend of Cruden,’ it serves several purposes: hiding the Picking Garden from plain sight, so that it might be discovered; protecting the jewels that lie within from dastardly north winds, and providing a matt grey/green backdrop for the colour to come. Below, the main paths are lined with Rosmarinus officianalis ‘roseus’, which we clip regularly to a low, rounded height of 300mm.
There are teardrops of Buxus sempervirens and Buxus microphylla var. japonica to add form and the garden is bordered on its frontage to the lake by low lines of Lonicera nitida, clipped with tapering sides toward the top. After assessing how extensive the last cut was, each hedge is clipped using a combination of power hedge trimmers and hand shears. Overcast or drizzly weather is perfect clipping weather. Any late winter frosts are hosed off before the sun can get to them.
We’re assessing the bulbs
By late winter, streaks of white and yellow can be seen reflected in the edges of the swollen lake. The bulbs are Cruden’s support act, warming up the crowd before the drama of spring colour. Narcissus varieties seem to appear daily. When all have unfurled their trumpets en masse, they carve shapes in the landscape, moving around the bare oaks. Backed by the yellow haze of Acacia prominens they nod in the light breeze to some silent beat. At this time, as a gardener, it is important to stop and observe.
To sketch out the shapes the bulbs are occupying and consider : Is it more or less than last season? Can the drifts be extended? And beyond that, can the season of bulbs be extended? The daffodils will give way to bluebells but then what? Should we look at including some South African bulbs like Ixia or Sparaxis? Time always seems in short supply, especially at the onset of spring, with all its energy and growth. As Dame Elisabeth frequently said, the garden is there to be savoured, and perhaps even extended.
It’s time to…
Collect leaves from under the vast ‘Laughing Tree’, Quercus Firthii , also called the Macedon Oak. They are still dropping by the barrowful, and must be collected and composted.
Check the structure of deciduous trees and remove lower limbs or ‘trunk up’ young trees. Those on our current list are Quercus suber, Quercus robur and Quercus rubra in the outer lake area. Regular practice will improve long term shape.
Clip Buxus sempervirens and Buxus microphylla var. japonica before temperatures start to head north.
'Dame Elizabeth Murdock' rose.
Deadhead camellias as soon as they finish flowering. Prune their tops to let light through to the base of the plant.
Inspect wheeled risers, hoses and irrigation systems. Lay hoses out in soft sun after being stored during winter. Run all irrigation programs, troubleshooting any damaged pop ups, pipe or pumps.
Tickle up the soil, weeding and forking the beds to let air in to sweeten the soil before mulching around the perennial clumps.
Plants I love
Epimedium x versicolour ‘Sulphureum’
The fresh copper-tinted, light green leaves complement stonework like no other. Grows in part shade to 35cm with sprays of primrose-yellow flowers. Clip old foliage back to ground when flowering.
A friend of Dame Elisabeth gave her seed of this and it is a favourite companion for our old fashioned roses, with late-spring 60cm tall white flower spikes that catch the light.
Heralding spring at Cruden, slender stems hold perfectly round balloons, which open at the base to reveal dainty lobed flowers. Self seeds but is easily managed.