The constant gardener

In 1928, newspaper magnate Keith Murdoch bought his 19-year-old bride Elisabeth a 54-hectare farm, an hour from Melbourne, as a wedding gift. It became her cherished sanctuary.

When Dame Elisabeth died aged 103, she left behind one of Australia’s most glorious private gardens, the product of an extraordinary 40-year partnership between gardener Michael Morrison and “the Boss”.

“They were very much kindred spirits”, explains Lisa Clausen, co-author of Cruden Farm Garden Diaries, a book chronicling the evolution of the garden and the enduring friendship between Dame Elisabeth and Morrison.

“They gardened as they lived. With great commitment, energy, tenacity, and creativity. Both were very artistic,” Clausen says.

“They just found in each other someone who saw Cruden as the other did and loved it as much. They had the incredible good fortune of finding each other.

Dame Elisabeth and Morrison first met in 1971 when the Dame was casting about for a gardener. Friends recommended the 27-year-old Morrison. She invited him to Cruden and they chatted over tea in the dining room “surrounded by fine paintings, comfortable armchairs, and flowers from her garden arranged in vases around the room”. He was hired soon after.

“It definitely wasn’t your conventional employer-employee relationship,” Clausen acknowledges.

“No, because before long they were meeting up for breakfast and often that would be lunch and often it would be afternoon tea as well.

“Dame Elisabeth was very hands on, resilient, no-nonsense so she’d be down on her hands and knees weeding beside him. They’d be out in the rain. They never wore hats. They never wore gloves. They were consumed by the garden. They loved talking about it with each other.”

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Morrison and Dame Elisabeth shared a unique connection bound up in the beauty of Cruden Farm

In 1984, Dame Elisabeth suggested Morrison begin keeping a diary. He filled 28 ring bound books with poetic observations…

'Rich gold of the Elms with their golden carpet on the Round lawn light in the early morning through the fog as I arrive – I shall miss their warm welcome when all the leaves have fallen.'

and prosaic remarks… 

'Rabbits determined to take House and garden over – have eaten through phone wires under drawing room.'

“They are beautifully handwritten,” Clausen says. “The warmth that leaps off the page is astonishing. You really could not replicate that with any sort of digital record.”

It is, she stresses, a reminder of how personal and powerful handwriting can be.

When Morrison was away, “the Boss” as he called her, would step in and write up what was going on in the garden.

'Couldn’t get home until nearly 6pm – managed some effective pottering including watering lilium and peony bed – joy, oh, joy! A beautiful pink bloom saying good evening.'

The diary became a conversation between them.

“The diaries are an archive of their friendship, recording milestones, daily goings on, some of the family’s successes and happenings,” Clausen says.

“It is a fantastic historical record about how to build and look after one of Australia’s most famous private gardens, but also it charts the history of their very close partnership so it’s very unique.”

Dame Elisabeth’s passion for her garden never waned. Even at 103 when she could no longer leave her bed she was still choosing new roses with Morrison and planning new flowerbeds.

“It’s that very deep connection to a piece of land. It’s a rare thing but it’s a wonderful thing,” Clausen muses.

“It’s a real testament to the power of having a great passion. It keeps you invigorated. She was absolute proof of that.”

Morrison still places flowers in the house where Dame Elisabeth liked them, ponders what would she have wanted in the garden, mindful that the garden must evolve, and adheres to her ethos: gain comfort from the past, live for the moment and look forward to the future.

Do you have a strong connection to your garden? What is your favourite memory of it?

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Photography: Simon Griffiths