Other people's gardens

Retford Park

Spring is so quick in Sydney, it barely lasts longer than the bunch of jasmine, crispy but still fragrant, on my desk. To get your fill of spring you need to plan, and to travel. So don’t forget Glenmore House Spring Fair this weekend, and make plans to head south at the end of the month for the domestic-scaled country charms of the Bundanoon Garden Ramble, and the wonderfully grand Retford House. This is the story I wrote about Retford for the Sydney Morning Herald.

In April this year James Fairfax made a gift of his property Retford Park to the National Trust. It’s been his Southern Highlands home since 1964 and under the terms of the gift will continue to be his private home until his death, but for three days this month the garden is open to the public. It’s a great opportunity to see an important, beautiful and surprising garden.

Samuel Hordern, founder of the emporium Anthony Hordern & Sons, originally developed the property in 1887 and commissioned his architect Albert Bond to build a Victorian Italianate style house. The coral-pink, white-trimmed, two-storey building, with its turreted portico, is now framed by mature trees and settled comfortably into an expansive garden.

Retford Park

When James Fairfax bought the property after the death of Sam Hordern III, he inherited a fine garden with a well-planted park (a grand old bunya pine near the house and two Algerian oaks in the park which in the summer form a cave of green are special treasures) and added his own style, so that Retford Park reveals layers of garden design, while maintaining a wonderful coherence.

English garden designer John Codrington, whose services were a gift to James Fairfax from his mother, designed the fountain path, which leads into the garden from the house. Grey-leafed plants are clipped into dense mounds along a red gravel path, with just a splash of white agapanthus exploding around the fountain in the summer.


More recently, Melbourne-based architect David Wilkinson, who has been involved in the garden’s on-going design over several decades, suggested a different sort of water feature. The Millenium Canal is a rectangle of reflective water with a surface area of 2000 square metres, commemorating the year 2000. It runs parallel to the driveway, edged on its far side with a row of maples whose glowing red leaves are mirrored in its surface in autumn.


Wilkinson was also responsible for the Green Room, designed to display one of James Fairfax’s many artworks, a bronze sculpture by Inge King called Euphoric Angels. The success of this restrained and meditative space is in its grand scale, with an enormous grassed expanse between Thuja hedges focussing attention on the work as it takes flight from a clipped teucrium plinth.


On the other side of the hedge the former tennis court is now the Laurel Lawn, with a perennial border of mostly red-flowering plants, and beyond it the surprise of the Pool Pavilion, designed by architect Guilford Bell in 1968. The low-slung modernist building features glass walls that slide away to open the space completely to a swimming pool on one side and an ornamental pond on the other. Donald Friend’s sculpture Man Jumping Over Goat gambols here among the waterlilies.

Retford Park

There’s much more to discover: the Knot Garden, designed to highlight two 17th century marble benches; the Emu Walk, where a mob of emus explores an avenue of pollarded lindens; and a Peony Walk, orchard and kitchen garden. Linger to take in Retford Park’s layers of history and the pleasures of its art and gardens.

Retford Park


Retford Park is open October 21-23, 10am-4pm, $10, 1325 Old South Road, Bowral.

It’s time to

See Galston gardens
There are eight large gardens open in Galston this weekend (October 14,15,16). Entry is $5 per garden, or a $20 ticket allows access to all gardens all weekend. For garden details and addresses go to www.gasltonggarden.club.com.au

See more gardens
While you’re in the Southern Highlands for Retford park, head down the road to Bundanoon, where eight gardens are open for the annual Ramble. www.bundanoongardenramble.org.au.

See art
Eden Unearthed is an exhibition of 30 installations by invited artists who have engaged with the various nooks and crannies of Eden Gardens to create site-specific works. Until March 1, 2017, free entry, 307 Lane Cove Road, Macquarie Park.

Buy art
Artisans in the Gardens opens this weekend at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, until October 23. All works celebrate the natural world in some way, and are for sale. Also for sale just next door are bits of the actual natural world – plants from the Growing Friends.

Buy more art
Also while whiling away the weekend in the Southern Highlands, see florist/sculptor Tracey Deep’s beautiful and intricately formed explorations of shape and shadow, at Sturt Gallery until November 13.

In season

October 11

In now: Purple asparagus is a small proportion of the Australian harvest so only briefly available. Use raw to maintain that great colour.

At its best: As the weather warms bananas are back to their gleaming golden best after a grey-skinned winter.

Best buy: The pale green and white, oval-shaped chicory that is sold as Belgian endive has a mild bitter flavour that’s at its best in spring. Use in salads, or slice and sauté as a side.

In the vegie patch: Pick organically grown flowers from the garden to add to salads. Try thyme, rosemary, viola and pot marigold.

What else:

  • Lots of seedless watermelon from the Northern Territory. The original seedy version has been popular in Egypt for at least 5000 years, if evidence of seeds and leaves in ancient tombs is anything to go by.
  • Local growers are harvesting the spring flush of bok choy.
  • Add sliced zucchini flowers to a salad of soft leaves and goats cheese.
  • Given that pears were all picked in autumn, how good they are now depends on how well they’ve been stored. Sure signs of a problem – brown spots of rot developing before the fruit ripens. Beat the rot by eating them greener and firmer than you did earlier in the season.
Other people's gardens

Garden Fair at Glenmore House

Mickey Robertson opens Glenmore House garden for her Spring Garden Fair next weekend, October 15 and 16. I’m a big fan of the garden, which is elegant and domestic at the same time, and which communicates a wonderful sense of well being. Honestly, you feel that all is right with your world while you walk around the gardens or lounge in a chair in the shade of one of the repurposed outbuildings.

I’m also a fan of Mickey’s strategy for making the garden pay its way. Rather than just charging to come have a look, Mickey has made Glenmore the location for a range of interesting events. We came to dinner, for instance, for Kinfolk’s first Australian event, and sat here one gorgeous summer evening:

Glenmore House

There are also workshops – I did one with India Flint and learned how to make a bag out of a scarf and use native plants as dyes (more on that some other time). And each season, vegetable garden guru Linda Ross holds a Kitchen Garden day, sharing her experience on growing your own, matched with lunch from Mickey’s very impressive kitchen garden.

Glenmore House

Pear arch in the kitchen garden

Mickey has always opened the garden in spring and the open day has now morphed into a full-on Fair. So next weekend there will be plants and stylish garden things to buy, Martin Boetz is making lunch, and there’ll be cake and tea and various entertainments. Mickey’s just-released book, The House and Garden at Glenmore (here’s a review of the book by gardener, writer, artist, Silas Clifford-Smith, who blogs as The Reflective Gardener) will be for sale in the Barn, where Mickey also sells the linen dress that is her uniform, and other hard-to-resist bits and pieces. It will be a beautiful day out in the country, whatever the weather.


I wrote about the garden for the Sydney Morning Herald,  but today as a flashback I thought I’d include a bit from a story I wrote a few years ago for Your Garden magazine, Australia’s longest-running garden magazine, launched in 1947, and killed off just this year by Pacific Publishing.


Mickey Roberston traces her dream of a country house life filled with flower gardens, orchards and a vegetable patch to childhood bedtime stories. “Blame it on Beatrix Potter and those nursery rhymes,” she says, “…Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” In 1989 when Mickey and husband Larry found Glenmore House, in the rural hills south-west of Sydney, there were no pretty maids all in a row. On the contrary, the house was derelict, the garden overrun, yet Mickey’s childhood dream began to take shape.

The house, a rough-hewn sandstone cottage, Georgian in style and dating from the 1830s, had been alternately rented and vacant for some 35 years, so “when we would come from the city on a Saturday morning and put the key in the lock we would hear the scuttling behind the door,” remembers Mickey. The couple worked weekends for 18 months before they could spend a vermin-free night in the cottage and wake to the view over hills and a winding creek towards the Razorback Ranges.

Glenmore House

Blackberry and lantana had swallowed the garden and its outbuildings, though persimmons and peppercorns were visible through the mess. “I started planning and making little drawings on pieces of paper,” explains Mickey, whose career as an interior designer is apparent in the garden as well as the house. She rejected the curved organic shapes of a typical country garden, for something more room-like. “I like straight lines, compartments, a certain amount of orderliness.”

She also likes structures and one of the charms of the gardens is the use of the original outbuildings – a hayshed, barn, dairy and stables. These formerly rundown constructions have been restored and given fresh purpose. They also offer points with which to frame the axes of the garden.


Mickey’s early planting ideas were heavily influenced by English country gardens, but, ensconced at Glenmore House, she gradually developed a sense of history about the garden. “I was hugely influenced by what Leo Schofield did at Bronte House,” she explains. “That garden is just such a thrill! And about the same time I was working at Brownlow Hill, an early-19th century property close by and saw the agaves, aloes, yuccas, and the Chinese elms and bamboo forests there. That was when the wisteria and the roses I’d planted out the front came out and I became really interested in garden history.”

The front of the symmetrical stone cottage, grey dormer windows like eyebrows, a bullnose verandah shading the lower rooms, now has a garden that suits its no-nonsense lines: a forecourt of pale grey gravel, a round pond and two great clumps of silver-blue Agave Americana.

Now, says Mickey nothing is planted purely for its good looks. “There has to be some historical or romantic reason for planting it.” As an example she points out the olive and almond trees, both early sentimental plantings that link her to memories of times spent in the south of Spain with her late parents-in-law.


The almond and olives form part of an orchard planting that includes citrus, black and white figs, apples and crabapples. The adjacent garden of perennial borders gives Mickey opportunity to practice her talent for developing horticultural pictures. The two facing borders are wide enough and long enough for the development and repetition of tone and texture. The structure is supported by plantings of bronze flax, Phormium tenax, and through the seasons different plants take starring roles. In autumn apricot cannas, burgundy heads of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, bright red hips of the rugosa rose ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’ and bleached blonde, fairy-floss heads of ‘Miscanthus sinensis’ draw the eye.

The borders are let go all through winter, the dried heads of the flowers and grasses hanging on against the frost. And then, in mid-August, everything but the flax is cut down, the whole lot covered with compost and manure, so that it springs into lush new growth.

Glenmore House is about an hour south of Sydney on Moore’s Way at Glenmore, and is open 10-4.30pm next Saturday and Sunday, October 15 and 16. Entry $10. Mickey will take tours of her Kitchen Garden at 11am and 2pm.


It’s time to

Repot the orchids
Cymbidium orchids like to live close but not overcrowded. If pots have become packed, lift and divide them now and repot into fresh orchid mix.

Consider azaleas
Petal blight destroys azalea blooms, turning them sludgy first, then crispy. A systemic fungicide, such as Zaleton, sprayed from first colour in the buds until flowering is finished, is one solution. The other is to swap high-maintenance azaleas for something less troubled by pests and disease.

Rehydrate the pots
The ghastly westerly winds of the last week sucked the moisture out of everything. Potting mix is particularly susceptible to becoming hydrophobic once it dries out. Use a soil wetter, such as Eco-hydrate, to allow you to really soak the mix in preparation for a hot day on Monday.

Feed freesias
The evil westerlies dried up the last of the freesias. Trim back the dead flower spikes and feed the foliage to boost flower production for next year.



In season

October 4

In now: Blueberries hit a sweet peak through October when the best varieties are ripening in the north of NSW. Look for berries still showing the white bloom that indicates just-picked freshness.

At its best: If it’s footy final time it must be morel season. These honeycomb-domed fungus are one of the few springtime mushrooms, and last only until warm weather brings the flies.

Best buy: Papaya has a big flush in autumn and in spring, and the fruit arriving now from Mossman in tropical north Queensland is fragrant and sweet.

In the vegie patch: Ensure potted lemons get regular water while they are in flower.

What else:

  • With weather warming it’s possible now to find real French tarragon, rather than the coarse-flavoured but tough Russian tarragon that fools the unwary through winter.
  • Bean sprouts take about six days to grow from mung bean seeds that are spread in shallow vats. For freshest sprouts shop in Asian grocers which buy in daily.
  • Add broad beans to everything.
  • Ditto for asparagus, which is delicious raw, roasted, barbecued, steamed or stir fried.
Plants I love

Wisteria lane

If I could bottle the scent of my driveway I could– a sprinkling of jasmine over wisteria, with a top note of lemon blossom underscored with just a touch of freesia. I don’t think I could call it Driveway though: doesn’t suggest quite the right images for the ad campaign.

Wisteria sinensis

The wisteria is in stereo. On the fence we share with our neighbours is the traditional mauve Chinese wisteria, Wisteria sinensis. It has been here longer than either of us and was never trained on the fence so much as allowed to engulf it. For years it was the only thing holding the fence up and when it no longer could we chainsawed it to the ground and replaced the fence.

Wisteria sinensis

My intention with this tabula rasa was to train the wisteria so that it made an appealing line on the fence rather than a tangled scribble. I had in mind a wall I’d seen in the Botanic Gardens in Brussels with gnarly swoops of wisteria stem like fat brush calligraphy. Fat chance! The wisteria took off like a dropped bag of marbles. In weeks it had clothed the fence in brilliant lime green leaf and had never looked better.

It didn’t flower that year, which some might consider a downside, but I loved the green floaty growth covering the whole surface of fence with riffling movement. Now we are back to a tangle of bare sticks against the fence with a ruff of flowers on top. Can I convince the neighbours to let me at it again with the chainsaw?

Wisteria floribunda

The other wisteria is a Japanese form, Wisteria floribunda ‘Macrobotrys’. In this wisteria the space between each flower in the panicle is bigger, giving the cones an elegant, elongated look. They are wispier and more inclined to shiver in the slightest breeze. It grows in a pot at the side of the house. The pot restrains its growth so I don’t have to worry about it lifting off the roof, though it does need to be watered every day in the summer. From indoors the long flowers are framed through French windows and from one particular chair, with my head turned just so, the view is of drooping wisteria and blue sky and nothing else.

There are many more wisteria to choose from – some with chunky dense panicles, some with double flowers, and in colours from burgundy through pale pink to white. It’s always best to buy them in bloom so you can see exactly what you’re getting, unless of course you’re just after that gorgeous fresh floaty leaf. They’ll all grow in big pots or in the ground.


The best place to see wisteria in pots is at Nooroo, the Mount Wilson garden owned by Anthony and Lorraine Barrett. The garden is famous for its wisteria collection, established by botanist, plant collector and inimitable garden story teller, Peter Valder, whose family owned the property from 1917 until 1992. The wisteria court, formerly the tennis court, features 28 standard wisterias ranging in colour from white to deep purple. It’s at its frothy floral peak in late October.

Peter Valder, whose fabulous monograph on wisteria you can get from Floreligium for just $30, advises pruning wisteria in late spring, taking back all the new shoots to two or three leaves. Six weeks later, he says, go over the plant again and continue tidying up those long shoots that get in the way through summer. The main thing to remember is not to prune in winter as you’re likely to cut off the flowering stubs.

The only bit of that advice of that I got around to following last year was snipping off the long summer shoots that whipped me in the face when I walked in the  gate. And yet, here it is, like a Japanese dream outside my window, and smelling good enough to bottle all up the driveway.


It’s time to

Bring in the bees
Urban beekeeper Doug Purdie’s new book, The Bee Friendly Garden, Murdoch $45, tells why and how to transform our outdoor spaces from insect deserts to stops on a nationwide bee highway.

See waratahs
The Wild About Waratahs Festival at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah offers the usual opportunities to admire waratahs, as well as a chance to buy cut flowers and plants, including a new variety, ‘Corroboree’, launched as part of the RBG’s 200th birthday celebrations. The festival runs September 24 until October 3.

Make a plan
Thirteen cool climate gardens are on show for the Leura Gardens Festival this year, from October 1-9, all with different approaches to mountains gardening.

Feed the garden with an organically-based fertiliser as it bursts into growth. Bush Tucker is developed for natives and can be used on phosphorus-sensitive banksias and grevilleas.



Acquilegias, Old Wesleydale, Tasmania
Other people's gardens

Old Wesleydale

One from the vault again this week, a piece I wrote for Garden Clinic earlier this year about Scott and Deb Wilson’s wonderful Tasmanian garden, Old Wesleydale.

When people talk about Scott and Deb Wilson’s lovely garden what they mention first is the elephant hedge. The elephant in the room might be an unmentionable, but the elephant in the garden is a talking point. It came about by accident. Scott was wrestling, yet again, with a floppy old Lonicera nitida hedge in front of the house while Deb stood back, advising on the long view. Suddenly she saw a line of elephants begin to form, like cloud animals, out of the chaos. She alerted Scott, who accentuated the curves and lines and the elephant hedge was born.

Elephant hedge, Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

The hedge, which continues to grow and subtly change, is both light-hearted and seriously skilful and that combination of levity and a deep commitment to excellence runs right through Old Wesleydale. The property itself has a serious history. Set in the gorgeous countryside of the Meander Valley of northern Tasmania, backed by the deep blue ridges of the Great Western Tiers, this was frontier territory in the early 19th century. The property was half-fortress, half-farm, and the great drive leads not to the house, but to a massive barn, protected by a 2m high perimeter wall, and featuring window slits in the upper storey from which besieged pioneers could aim their muskets.

Acquilegias, Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

The heritage buildings were all dilapidated when the Wilsons arrived and they were given permission to restore the original lines of the barn, removing a later addition, as long as none of the materials were removed from the property. That left plenty of mellow old red bricks with which to build a walled garden on the northwest side of their new house. Scott’s hedge work is on show here too with sharply defined box hedges containing a froth and bubble of planting that changes with the seasons. In late summer there are lime heads of euphorbia and pink cones of echinacea, while in spring it’s all pretty nodding granny’s bonnets. Clematis and roses, including creamy ‘Lamarque’ and pretty ‘Pinkie’, clothe the walls, and hydrangeas bubble up in front of them. Heritage apple varieties from 1830s are grown as ‘step-‘over’ espaliers, tied on to hurdles of woven willow.

Hydrangeas, Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

Through the gate is another smaller walled garden where the walls contain enough warmth to extend the vegetable growing season. As well, towering delphiniums and fabulous dahlias are grown here to pick for the house. Raspberry canes are covered with fruit in summer.

 Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

At the rear of the house what was once a horse paddock is now the Terrace Garden. The tall silver trunks of birch dominate a play of light and shadow, the shade under the shining birches echoed in the light-dark coloration of a black-stemmed, white-flowered cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, and in variegated hostas and lamium. Adding more light are philadelphus and viburnum, deutzia and windflowers. The whole garden is overlooked by 40 ‘Ranelagh’ crabapples.

Again hedges play an important part in the design here, guiding sight lines and adding structure to the plantings. Hedges of rugosa roses, hornbeam, elderberry and viburnum define different areas of the garden.

Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

Scott travelled to England to study the ancient craft of laying hawthorn hedges so that he could faithfully restore the kilometres of hawthorn hedges first laid by Irish and Scottish settlers to the area in the 1840s. Hedge laying involves making a partial cut in semi-mature wood then laying down and securing that cut stem. Suckers grow from the cuts and a dense hedge forms. That’s the 25-words-or-less explanation; the real thing is a bit more complicated, but Scott is now taking classes to spread the skill of maintaining our important landscape hedges.

One of the other historical landscape features of the garden that adds a special quality is the ha-ha at the front of property. The ha ha is an invisible but impenetrable barrier between the stock paddock and the garden, drawing the bucolic rural landscape into the garden without the visual interference of a fence. First developed in 17th century France, a ha ha consists of a steep sharp slope running into a rock or masonry retaining wall. Scott and Deb spent four years building their ha ha, using basalt and dolerite rock collected around the farm. The ha ha is typical of the approach of these two inspiring gardeners whose appreciation of history and old skills is matched by playful personal expression.

**You can stay in the old stone cottage on the property and pretend this gorgeous garden is yours for a bit. Details here. 

It’s time to:

Get to Bronte House
This inspiring garden is open tomorrow, Sunday 18 September, from 10am – 2pm. 470 Bronte Road, Bronte. Entry $2.

Cut back shrubby tibouchinas ready for a burst of spring growth.

Now that the weather is warming the whole garden can be fed with all-purpose fertiliser.

Make a list
Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong on the Central Coast on September 24 and 25 promises to fill your garden with new treasures. More than 40 specialist growers will bring their wares, and there’s a free speakers program.. Go to Plant Lovers Fair for details.