I imagine how Melburnians in the 1930s felt when they established new homes in the Dandenong Ranges to take up new work opportunities or to escape the bustle of the city. For the affluent, it meant large properties. That is when the George Tyndale Garden, Kenloch; the Alfred Nicholas Garden, Burnham Beeches; and the old Ansell property, Pirianda were established. But there are still more gardens, most of which remain in private hands, which have been lovingly tended, restored and re-imagined by their current owners. The Secret Gardens of the Dandenong Ranges gives you a chance to see some of these gardens and to explore other well-designed gardens built from that original impulse of creation and driven by wonderful soil and high rainfall.
When we first came to the hills, we lived in Sassafras in The Crescent. Our garden was in a state of chaos and we realised that we needed a new design which we commissioned. A week after arrival, there was a knock on the door and there was Cheryl Grant with a gift of hellebores and other plants from her wonderful garden. That was the beginning of my gardening interest. Cheryl’s garden was truly beautiful and inspirational. This is one of the gardens you will see if you come to the Secret Gardens of the Dandenongs. We worked hard on our garden. We planted bluebells, azaleas, hellebores, wisteria, daphne, white flowering cherries, maples, and so much more. And then we sold our house because we were captivated by Rangeview Gardens. Were we crazy? Given that we both had full-time jobs, perhaps – the work of reclaiming the garden is still far from finished.
Ted Woolrich, the son of the original settlers of a 10 Acre allotment, was amongst the first nurserymen in the hills and established his Range View nursery in Olinda in 1917. The garden when we arrived needed enormous work, despite much having already been done by the previous owners. There were tree works to do. The conifer walk had broken limbs coming out of the trunks all the way to the top and looked unsightly. There were dead trees. Ivy was cladding the trunks of many trees almost to the top. Saplings had sprung up and some trees were interfering with the well-being of others. Our first job was to get an arborist to map out the trees and identify the species, and then to work on a tree works plan.
And there were weeds. We had so many. Onion weed was everywhere, ivy, oxalis – so much oxalis –red cestrum, bracken, creeping buttercup and wandering jew. The garden behind the rundown cottage was totally overgrown. Our first years were spent in clearing weeds and making the trees safe. We then started to build retaining walls. This has continued. Ted Woolrich’s bedding plants of the past had grown to be an azalea maze, an extended wood of rhododendrons, and a whole circuit of camellias where visitors have unique glimpses of former times. Exotic trees over 100 years old are scattered through the garden. At one end is a dell over which rears an enormous weeping beech. It stands next to a green beech and both tower over beds of daffodils and cyclamen. At the other end is an American tulip tree which may be one of the largest in Victoria, but sadly has suffered some damage. A huge ghost elm overhangs the 1920s cottage, built by Ted and his wife Iris – the original proprietor of the Quamby tea rooms, now transformed into The Cuckoo.
Like many of the gardens established at the time, Rangeview shares with the others similar plants and shrubs. I visited Norma Berry’s garden at Mernda Heights a month ago and realised that our established small trees were the same. In our garden we have a crazy filbert which is 100 years old and two garryas which have enormously long catkins in the winter and so has she. Mernda Heights is also one of the gardens which can be visited in the Secret Garden open gardens.
But these are all established gardens. There are also new gardens, such as Phillip Johnson’s billabong garden and fireproof house, Joost Baker’s vertical gardens and an ordinary house which has a rooftop vegetable garden with waterfall which flows into a series of ponds. Please come and explore our heritage with us.