The Garden Of St Erth
STORY BY RICHARD CORNISH.
In the middle of the native forest on the outskirts of Blackwood is a sprawling garden that has erupted into a riotous range of oranges and reds. After a long, hot, dry summer the Garden of St Erth is giving way to the change of season by putting on a colourful cloak of autumnal hues before it gives way to the chill of winter. At 600 metres above sea level, The Garden of St Erth is a cold climate garden that covers 2 hectares of sloping land on the edge of the Simmons Reef gold fields above the headwaters of the Lerderderg River. It surrounds a squat but beautiful former general store that was built from sandstone in 1854. There are pin oaks and English oaks and a copper beech planted in 1973 by then owner Tommy Garnett, the former headmaster of Geelong Grammar. The beech was given to him as a retirement present along with a linden tree and a dawn redwood.
“What you’ll notice about St Erth is that there are no native plants,” says head gardener Julian Blackhirst. The garden is part of the Diggers family of gardens that includes Heronswood in Dromana and Cloudehill in the Dandenong Ranges. “What we want to explore here is the idea that you can grow plants from similar climates from other parts of the world to give your garden form and colour,” explains Julian. “We also really love to show what can be grown in a productive food garden.” While the gardens look lush it has been several lifetimes’ work to repair the earth that was trashed by the goldminers. “There was virtually no topsoil here,” explains Julian. “We make huge amounts of compost from our gardens and kitchen scraps from the café,” he says. “Tonnes and tonnes and all turned by hand.” With that remark, a flock of yellow tailed cockatoos emerge from above the canopy of the forest and letting out playful shrieks.
The cottage is surrounded with a colourful herbaceous garden that still bears the last of the summer salvias and humming bird mint. Above, the deep pink heads of echinacea dance about in the breeze. The corners and backgrounds are planted out in tall grasses their tail like seed heads bobbing along.
Further up the hill, under the shade of an arbutus, its twisted trunks covered with pale green lichen, is the start of the Dry Climate Garden. Great grey leafed Californian tree poppies sit in the middle of the garden, their grey green foliage looking like over sized celery leaves. Again, big grasses and New Zealand flax give the garden its structure and height, plants like euphorbias, with their lime green flower heads punctuating the garden.
We pass the heritage apple trees, delicious fruit with names like Belle de Boskoop and Pomme de Neige, grafted onto dwarf rootstock no higher than your shoulder. We pass through a hedge of pomegranate trees into the food forest. It is a permaculture garden soft herbs grow under black currant canes that are shaded by taller Chinese quince trees. Pumpkin vines trail wildly through the limbs of olive trees under which grow dahlias. Dahlias? “They were originally brought into Europe as food plants,” explains Julian. “People would eat the tubers.”
At the top of the garden comes the trickling sound of water and the ribbing call of pobblebonk frogs. Surrounding a small clear dam planted out with grasses and surrounding shrubs are a series of canvas bell tents. These are part of St Erth’s new glamping programme. Guests have a seriously comfortable bed, heater and fan and a view of the forest. There is a shared kitchen, bathroom and lounge facilities in a cabin a little down the hill. Meals can be provided and beer and wine ready for your arrival. “People love staying here and getting close to the bush,” says Julian. With that a pair of crimson rosellas fly through the trees giving a loud squawk as they fly by.
Garden of St Erth; 189 Simmons Reef Rd, Blackwood; Open daily 9am-5pm, $10 admission (Diggers Club members free), The Fork to Fork Café serves light meals. www.diggers.com.au