Project: Musk Cottage, Flinders

SOME THOUGHTS BY RICK ECKERSLEY

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I’ve spent the best part of my life making gardens for friends, family and clients, and almost 20 years talking about gardening on Saturday morning radio. When it came time to retire from 3AW, I finally had my weekends back and the freedom to pursue my own interests. As it happens, my chief love is garden making! So I set aside the microphone and picked up the shovel so to speak. I wanted to create a garden that challenged people’s preconceptions about garden making, one that went beyond a square of lawn and the latest fashionable plantings.

After searching the Mornington Peninsula for the right property, a friend told me about Musk Cottage, a picturesque 10 acres with a modest house and cottage. The English owners who used the property as a summer retreat were giving it up to spend more time in Europe. Immediately I knew it was the right place. Rolling rural country with wooded divisions and a tree lined entrance. Not suburban, not grandiose. Musk cottage had the perfect bones for me to stamp my philosophy of garden making – a quintessentially Australian garden.

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As a garden designer, you act as both a creative force and as a catalyst for change. It is rare that a client gives a designer carte blanche in a project and nor should they. A perfectly designed garden should always be a reflection of a client’s lifestyle and personality. It’s our job though as designers to push the envelope so that a client might think outside the box and become open to new possibilities. This time however, there were no clients to please and no rules to follow.

With my business partners Myles Broad & Scott Leung, I set about making a garden for Musk Cottage. It’s an exciting and strangely daunting process to create something for you alone. Where to start when there are no rules? We all have a soft spot for native Australian plants but we tend to design with mainly Exotic vegetation due to public prejudices. Discussions over a few boozy evenings set the direction for the garden – Multicultural, strong, tough and sustainable. The garden was to be recognisably Australian in flavour but seamlessly knitted with plants from around the world. A melting pot if you like.

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As with any ambitious project, there were a few steps backwards before we started forwards. It was the middle of the drought six years ago when the garden was started. Water was scarce and the dam was drying fast so much time and effort went into drainage to harness whatever water was about. You can keep a garden on little water but it always needs some to get started. The removal of the remnant English cottage garden was the next step, with only the Linden tree and the driveway avenue of Evergreen Alders surviving. The David Austin roses, Pussy Willow and circumcised Box hedges were not so lucky. Then there were the boring bits that no one appreciates like excavations and taps and power points and concrete footings. All keys to a successful garden and all hidden under the ground. After a couple of years worth of weekend working, our five year plan started slipping away and we were arriving to the office exhausted by Monday. Only half of the built landscape was completed and enthusiasm was running low. It became apparent that we needed to enlist the help of some of our skilled landscapers to push through the tougher tasks, allowing us to get stuck into the soft landscape and detailed work. Most of the planting has taken place over the last three years with the most recent plantings late last Spring.

A break in the drought two years ago made for a change of tack in planting choices. There were a few drowning’s of drought loving plants that were replaced with more versatile species that cope with both wet and dry. Gardening is full of trial and error as weather patterns change and a garden evolves. Some ideas work, some ideas don’t. The rain did as allowed me to put a much-wanted wetland to provide extra habitat for the birds and frogs.  Plants of course are the main medium in making a country garden. How you knit the choice of planting patterns and how you achieve a seamless flow over a large area is a tell tale sign of success. I try to approach all plants as equals without bowing to fashion or marketing. It’s the way that they’re put together that gives them impact. Plants that react enmasse to stimuli are favourites of mine. Branches that bend and toss, graces that ripple and sway, flowers that pop in sunlight and leaves that catch pearls of dew. Colours in bark and leaves as well as flower are what make this garden meld together. Greys, olive greens, browns and brindles are all the colours of Australia and are the base palette for the garden at Musk Cottage.

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The results, I hope speak for themselves. It’s unfinished but what garden ever is finished? And what true gardener is ever satisfied? To me, the measure of success is when a garden’s beauty touches your soul and begs you to linger.

Musk Cottage will be open to the public on the 15th and 16th of November 2014 as part of this year’s Garden Design Fest.  Make sure to come along and experience the garden for yourself!  Keep an eye on the Garden DesignFest website for further information as we get closer to November.

BEFORE images of Flinders can be viewed below.

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