Uncover the secrets and history behind one of Australia’s most beautiful gardens

Ever wondered what it takes to be a truly amazing gardener? Aussie gardener Jeremy Francis, 64, discovered his love of gardening working on his families farm for twenty years. Today he lives on an old flower farm in the Dandenongs, near Melbourne with a gorgeous garden and shares his best tips here.

For 20 years Jeremy Francis worked the family farm, 100km north of Perth, in the wheat belt of Australia, creating a small garden and importing perennials from the UK as a hobby. In 1990 he sold the farm and searched Australia for two years, looking for the perfect location for a new garden, finally settling on the site of an old flower farm on a 2ha, west-facing hillside in the Dandenongs near Melbourne.

Inspired by his love of plants and art, Francis has melded features of the flower farm into Cloudehill, an Arts and Crafts garden with a contemporary flavour.

History of this beautiful garden
In 1917, Ted Woolrich established a 2ha nursery on the family’s 4ha block. It soon became well known for cool temperate plants, selling the first Kurume azaleas introduced by plant collector Ernest Wilson in 1922.

Great -gardeners -colourful -azalea -wyza -com -auA beautiful variety of azaleas in lovely bright colours

A little later, Ted’s brother Jim started growing cut flowers and foliage for florists; they shared the land until a forest fire decimated the whole site and both businesses subsided into decline, closing down in the 1960s.

Jeremy Francis had been interested in the history of garden design for many years. His wife, Valerie, had relatives living next door to Christopher Lloyd and, after a chance meeting in 1988, Lloyd helped Francis select plants that would be suitable for him in Australia.

The list of other English nurseries and gardens Francis has visited over the years reads like a horticultural ‘Who’s Who?’; he was particularly inspired by Sissinghurst, Hidcote and Penelope Hobhouse’s Tintinhull, pondering, ‘Could such a garden could be created in Australia?’

Exploring the fertile soil of the Dandenong Ranges
He found the perfect location in the Dandenong Ranges. Here, the volcanic soil is deep and fertile, rainfall reliable and frosts rare. He bought Jim’s old flower farm in 1992; Jim had died in the previous spring.

‘Amongst 30 years of weeds there were screens and hedges, rare plants, magnificent historic trees, interesting open spaces and naturalised bulb meadows. I have never known of anyone who has had the chance to make a garden from such an ideal site,’ Francis said.

National-Rhododendron-Gardens-wyza-com-auThe National Rhododendron Gardens in Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges (Photo: Visitvictoria.com)

The art of gardening
There are now 25 different rooms and spaces, their geometry, harmony and style reflecting the attention to detail and proportion of the Arts and Crafts movement. Several gardens were planned and constructed along the main terrace in the first few months. Since then, there has been a project every two or three years.

These have been laid out with a great deal of spontaneity as the garden extended into old plantings on the outskirts of the property. ‘Having time to think out solutions, then being prepared to change even while the excavator is operating, is probably the ideal approach to garden making,’ Francis says.

Lessons from Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs (Exisle Publishing) is available here. Get 15% off the RRP.

Water garden and pool
There is now a water garden with a reflecting pool, shade borders and a copper-roofed peony pavilion with moon windows, but the two Jekyll-inspired long double borders, warm and cool, on the main terrace are the most admired feature.

The warm borders appear first, red, orange and predominantly yellow with purple-foliaged plants, a cheerful, uplifting welcome encouraging visitors to explore the garden. Beyond, the ethereal cool border, picked out in pink, blue, cream and silver, recedes into the distance, creating a sense of perspective.

Great -gardeners -deep -purple -blue -Clematis -wyza -com -au (1)
Within both are plant associations, such as deep-purple-blue Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ complementing the mahogany red hips of Rosa sweginzowii and foliar focal points, notably Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’.

Foliage accents
Foliage and texture provide a constant theme throughout. Purple-leaved acers reflect a brick path, dwarf Boston ivy trails languidly over an archway, and there is a ‘crinkle crankle’ box hedge in the peony garden.

Shrubs, topiary and brickwork provide winter structure, embellished with simple plant associations such as Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’, its silvery catkins shining against the bronze winter foliage of a formal beech hedge.

Several of Jim Woolrich’s bulb meadows, planted in the 1930s, have been incorporated into Cloudehill. Paths have been cut through and around them. Spring bulbs are followed by wave after wave of South African bulbs, giving colour through the long grass for eight months or more.

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Cloudehill Gardens display fantastic artworks (Photo: Claire Takacs Photography)

Vive la difference
Francis incorporates other arts into his garden. There are works by 15 local artists, magnificent pots and other ceramics, two dozen pieces of contemporary sculpture and a theatre for staging Shakespeare in summer.

A workshop with the American landscape architect Martha Schwartz in 1990 inspired the construction of a Commedia dell’arte garden. This incorporates strips of Jim’s bulbs and a small troupe of full-size cut-out Commedia characters who stand and gesture a few centimetres above swathes of long grass.

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Claude Monet's Giverny garden during Spring

‘They are to remind visitors of Italian Renaissance gardens and their theatres, precursors of the Arts and Crafts gardens,’ Francis explains.

A garden inspired by poetry
A visit to a second-hand bookshop in Kent unearthed an anthology of poetry compiled by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. ‘I was particularly taken with Nicolson’s translations of Virgil, generally just one or two lines, which gave the impression of haiku.’

Extracts inscribed on terracotta by his sister-in-law, Trish Stewart, are placed here and there to hint at a mood. Francis also collaborates with another local artist, lettercutter Ian Marr, using fragments of texts from Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, George Herbert, even St Augustine: Solvitur Ambulando – ‘It is solved by walking’, written below a tiny carving of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth carved into slate and set in the entrance path.

Great -gardeners -versailles -france -wyza -com -auThe garden landscape of Versailles in Paris, France

Inspired by many of the ‘greats’, and with his own added ingenuity, passion for plants and love of the arts, Francis has absorbed Jim’s old flower farm into the essence of an Arts and Crafts garden. It is a place of beauty – with his own contemporary twist.

Francis has encouraged artists from other disciplines to push their creative ideas to the limit, then incorporate the results into his garden. This adds another layer of interest, complementing the plants and adding another layer of interest to the garden.

TIPS

  • Francis searched patiently until he found the right place to create a garden. Although most people don’t think in this way, the garden you are creating now may not be your final one; circumstances or opportunity may prompt a move. When looking for new properties, if you have freedom of choice, research the area thoroughly, checking the rainfall and climate; take a spade and ask permission to dig some holes to check the soils in the garden. Alternatively, use your ingenuity to adapt to conditions.
  • The gardens at Cloudehill incorporate the structure of the nursery that existed there before. When moving house, live with your new garden and make observations for at least a year before making changes; you will then understand how it behaves through the seasons. Don’t remove everything; existing trees and shrubs add a sense of maturity to a new garden.
  • Bring the other arts into your garden. You may not have room for a theatre but carefully placed statuary or objets trouvés add extra dimensions to your garden. The only limit is your imagination.

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Every plant has to pay its rent; plants that flower briefly or have poor foliage or form don’t make Francis’s list. The garden is filled with plants that would be described as ‘garden-worthy’.

Francis is a voracious reader. He has read works by Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Jekyll and other great gardeners, which have formed and influenced his opinions.

‘One of the great strengths of our time lies in the quality and diversity of gardening books. Find a good bookshop, have a browse and don’t be frightened to reach into your pocket.’ They are your guides, your textbooks, and broaden the mind; an invaluable way to learn.

Do you love gardening? Share your best tips below.