As the coach left the Melbourne Arts Centre the clouds darkened and raindrops spattered on the windscreen, increasing to a deluge as we progressed towards north east Victoria. But we are intrepid gardeners and obsessive garden visitors so we refused to be daunted!
Our first stop was The Falls in Longwood where we tramped about with raincoats buttoned and brollies up enjoying the expansive garden. The Falls is a working farm and country homestead set at the foot of a spectacular granite ridgeline which forms part of the Strathbogie Ranges. Andrew and Elly Cameron, who purchased the property in 1967, planted many of the trees that were resplendent with autumn colour including Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree), Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese elm), macadamia and avocado groves. There was a stunning avenue of Quercus suber (Cork oaks), some Betula nigra (Birches) and several magnificent eucalypts. The more recent garden spaces designed by Robert Boyle and shaped by the current owners, the Ball family, feature extensive stone work, a beautiful lake and various contemporary plantings of roses and perennials.
A bit damp but bolstered by coffee and cake we ventured on to Benalla Botanic Garden (listed on the Register of the National Estate in 1995). Unfortunately there was a torrent of rain as we arrived and we had to be content with eating our lunch in the gallery basement and listening to a most interesting description of the history of the garden and the various projects spearheaded by an energetic and dedicated friends group. Before we departed, John Hawker led a small group of stalwarts on a quick tour of the most interesting trees in the garden which contain a number of rare and mature plants including, three Ulmus viminalis (Elm), a large Flindersia australis (Crow’s Ash) and two magnificent specimens of Eucalyptus leucoxylon (Yellow Gum). John has had a long association with this garden and was involved in the planting plan for ‘The New Zealand Bed’ which naturally features plants endemic to New Zealand. This bed was planted in 2002 and was designed to complement the modernist architecture of the gallery.
Our next stop was ‘Plane Trees‘ in the picturesque hamlet of Stanley, just 10 mins drive from our final destination of the day historic Beechworth. The centre piece of Plane Trees is a superbly renovated eco-house (accommodation available) set within 5 acres of magnificent garden. It is the vision of architect/designer, Genevieve Milham. There was so much to look at and enjoy in this garden the colours of the vines, berries, crab apples, Cydonia sinensis, previous known as Pseudocydonia (Chinese quince) and Crataegus (Hawthorn) fruits (called haws) glowed jewel-like through the raindrops. A stunning natural swimming pool and formal billabong completed the picture.
We were accommodated for the two nights at the Art Deco era Linaker Hotel. The Linaker is set in the grounds of Mayday Hills which boasts over 200 National Trust listed trees. Most meals were provided by the George Kerford Hotel only a short walk away amongst the trees. On our first evening we were privileged to enjoyed pre dinner drinks at Wallasey-Beaumaris a delightful historic cottage with one of the first gardens to have opened in the Open Garden Scheme (1988-89). It has not been open for 25 years so we felt very fortunate.
The following morning John Hawker took us on a guided walk around the grounds of Mayday Hills and introduced us to some of the treasures growing there. The gardens cover an area of 27 acres. They were planted in the late 19th century as a botanical setting of exotic trees and shrubs donated by the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.
Across the road from Mayday Hills we visited a delightful private contemporary garden where the roses were blooming their hearts out amongst the now familiar berries, fruits and stunning autumnal foliage of the region. One tree that caught my eye was the Sapium sebiferum the Chinese tallow tree with its unusual heart shape leaves and green berries (can be weedy in some areas).
Yackandandah, one of those Australian country towns where time seems to have stood still, full of charming cottages, shop fronts and several garages converted to retail outlets it was fun to visit and to stretch our legs after yet another meal (lunch).
The oldest homestead and garden we visited was settled in the 1840s. Built in the Victorian Georgian style with bricks made on site Gundowring Homestead continues to be a much loved family home. Though much has changed since then some of the elms, poplars and an enormous mulberry tree from the original plantings still remain. The quince trees (Cydonia oblonga) were heavily laden and the persimmon had the biggest fruit I have ever seen. It was so interesting to see the old photographs and hear how the current owners are managing the property and their ongoing plans for maintaining the garden.
Offhand Manor featured gravel walkways and courtyards, spectacular granite steps and walls, clipped hedging of both ornamental and Australian plants and groundcovers all from a planting palette selected to thrive on the exposed and windy site.
We started off our last day with a guided tour of the Beechworth cemetery. It contains an important collection of mature trees and shrubs, John Hawker described this as one of ‘the most beautifully landscaped and treed cemeteries in Victoria’. In operation since 1856 it is now registered with Heritage Council Victoria. The town’s colourful history was there for us to interpret as we walked through reading the headstones of the towns original occupants. It is a burial site for 2000 Chinese and settlers and features rare Chinese Burning Towers and Alter.
A winding track through the bush took us to Jacks Creek the home of Ali Garnett (daughter of Tom and Penny Garnett) and family. Set into the hillside the house afforded lovely views of the garden and the bush beyond. Clever sculpting around the existing boulders had created a most interesting landscape. Stone steps guided us through the terraced garden beds with which were full of drought tolerant shrubs, trees and perennials. I was fascinated to see how Penny, who had grown up at St Erth in the goldmining town of Blackwood had followed in her parents footsteps and created her own unique garden in goldfields country on the other side of the state.
And so we headed back towards Melbourne stopping for a scrumptious lunch at Brown Brothers Winery in Milawa before arriving at our final garden – award-winning Sunnymeade at Kithbrook (accommodation available). After our rather wet start on day one the weather had been lovely but as we arrived the clouds let forth once again. Undeterred we explored this extensive formal garden which comprises a series of inter-connecting rooms, each with its individual atmosphere or planting style.
Created over the past 20 years there is something for everyone here with deep perennial borders, lovely stone structures, a lawn area enclosed by Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), a Persian style garden with a central raised pond and pavilion and a Yellow Garden. An archway through a sandstone wall reveals a garden of old roses enclosed on one side with a hedge of purple and green beech (Fagus sylvatica) with a focal point of a Victoria era wrought iron and lace gazebo overlooking a box parterre of swirls and curlicues. And there is more! But lack of time and the weather meant we had to head home with wonderful memories of our three day garden adventure into the north east of the state. We so enjoyed this trip that many of us spent the journey home making plans for a return visit.
[Learn more about the Australian Garden History Society’s Victorian activities HERE]