By MELISSA WALSH Photos YANNI
Walking around Cruden Farm with manager and gardener, John Christie, the spirit of Dame Elisabeth lives on in every flower and blade of grass, as the loyal and passionate staff continues to pay homage to the work of the late philanthropist.
John has been with Cruden Farm for five years, overseeing the 54-acre property and the handful of staff that put their heart and soul into their work every day.
“It is an absolute privilege to be here on this magnificent farm with wonderful people like Michael Morrison, Dame Elisabeth’s head gardener for more than 40 years. I remember the first day I started here, I was taken around and learnt the language of the garden,” says John.
John, who called himself a horticultural novice, was talking about his tour with number two gardener, Michael; Dame Elisabeth was number one.
“I was keen to learn as much as I could about Cruden Farm and started on a beautiful autumn day. Michael and I were walking through the garden and at one stage he turned to one of the lemon trees that wasn’t doing too well and said ‘We need to have a word’ with this one. Immediately my ears pricked up and he then said to another tree ‘We need to have a serious word’. I was soon to learn that the garden had a language all of its own, and it has fascinated me to this day,” says John who now understands the conversations Dame Elisabeth encouraged within the garden.
In Cruden language, to ‘have a word’ means the plant needed a prune, and to ‘have a serious word’, meant it needed more serious measures. To ‘give a plant a tickle’ means to pull it into line like a rebellious teenager, and ‘living on memory’ means that a plant is struggling and not looking well.
“There are so many other verbal gems I have learnt since. A plant has ‘gone home’ means that it has died, and plants that are not resilient ‘don’t stand by you’. It is a wonderful way that we keep understanding the garden is alive. Dame Elisabeth used to call plants that are gaudy and not subtle as ‘show offs’ and would plant them further away from the main garden edges,” says John, explaining that the language created not only a sense of fun and relationship within the garden, but also affected the act of gardening itself.
“I learnt very quickly that a garden is not simply an assemblage of plants, but a cultural construct that is the result of human decision making and effort. By creating a garden, by immersing oneself in a garden, one forms a relationship with it,” says John.
As we wander around the garden, it is easy to understand how this philosophy has transformed the property into a magical and inspirational piece of landscape, a secret garden in the middle of a suburban area. From the moment you drive into the property, the avenue of ghost gums greets you like they are welcoming an old friend home. The magnificent white homestead that Dame Elisabeth and her husband called home for many years grandly watches over the property in all directions.
“Keith Murdoch bought the property for his new bride, Elisabeth when she was 19 but then it was only a cottage and he went to work refurbishing and renovating to make it more grand. The funny thing is Dame Elisabeth didn’t know he was going to have these enormous columns built at the front of the home and never really liked them so decided to create a garden around them to offset the gaudiness of the building. She had always loved gardens and land and worked on creating more balance between the house and the garden,” explains John with a laugh. “She planted the spotted gums to echo the columns on the façade.”
John explains how Dame Elisabeth always had an enquiring mind, wanting to learn, and passing on knowledge and wisdom which is expressed in her garden.
“I have learnt that gardens atrophy and die if they don’t have people in them, so we have events like open days and opera in the roses to breathe new life into the garden.”
With the benefit of learning from Michael’s experience and passion, John has been able to witness first hand the relationship a person can develop with a garden.
“Michael insists on hand mowing the main lawns. We have a ride-on mower but he wants to go across the lawns himself in order to get the best lines and see what’s going on up close with the grass,” says John of Dame Elisabeth’s gardening partner for over four decades.
Despite its scale, the gardens are intimate and personal, with John guiding us through the individual gardens, full of roses, herbs and vegetables, the stables, farm land, and of course the walled garden.
“The summer time is when the walled garden bursts into colour. The Edna Walling garden was built in the 1920s but Dame Elisabeth altered it somewhat in the late 1940s when she installed two perennial borders with bursts of colour in a changing scene from blues, greens and whites to mauves, pinks and yellows in the summer.”
Amongst this magical outdoor garden room small sculptures are dotted, with a stunning bust of the late Dame Elisabeth herself, as if she is watching over her precious flowers.
After her husband died in 1952, Dame Elisabeth managed the whole garden on her own for the next 19 years, when Michael Morrison started casually helping her out. From that time, John explains, the greatest of gardening partnerships was born.
“Michael tends to be shy and is happiest when he is working in the gardens. He takes his time tending to the lawns and the plants and cares for the garden like it’s an old friend,” says John, who clearly understands how invaluable and irreplaceable Dame Elisabeth’s right hand man is to the spirit of Cruden Farm, where he and ‘the boss’ used to ride around in her electric buggy, designing and planting, looking to the future of this thriving suburban farm.
“Some of the changes that Dame Elisabeth and Michael talked about are still being instigated to this day,” says John, as we wander through the picking garden where the roses are in full bloom and the vegetables are all handpicked in the same tradition as Dame Elisabeth used to do. “Dame Elisabeth would regularly leave the property with her car full of pickings to take to hospitals and venues around the area.”
As we wander past the walled garden and towards the stables, everything remains beautiful in this stunning farm space. There are no horses here now but the moss laden roofing and antique timbers of the stables still hold the memory of the family’s beloved horses, and John says one day Cruden may see horses there again.
“Like anything, it is not out of the question to have horses here again, but for now we just appreciate the beauty of these magnificent stables, in this working farm setting,” says John.
Whether it’s the picking garden, the stables, the magnificent woodland area, the lake or working farmyard, the presence of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch can be felt in every corner of Cruden Farm.
John says you can tell a garden that has an involved owner, and that explains why the strength and character of Cruden Farm is a legacy of Dame Elisabeth and her 83 year intimacy with her beloved farm.
“She had a steady, strong hand capable of hard work and guided by a clear vision that has its reward in a garden that gives back, not only to the owner, but to the casual visitor; a garden that allows you to walk the paths and draw inspiration, respite, strength and calm.”