the 41-year bond between Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and her gardener

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The overriding lesson to take from the latest book on Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s Cruden Farm is that the making of an outstanding garden takes unflagging devotion. And, in the case of this Langwarrin spread, it took the unwavering loyalty of two.

Cruden Farm: Garden Diaries is the tale of a great horticultural collaboration that spanned 41 years. Co-written by Dame Elisabeth’s gardener, Michael Morrison, it details the relationship that ended with her death in December 2012, but which continues to influence his work at the property. Together the pair struck cuttings, collected seeds, deliberated over new beds, pored through nursery catalogues, planted trees by the hundreds, kept an eagle eye on rainfall, watered, pruned and generally mucked in with all the jobs it takes to extend and maintain a garden.

They thought nothing of getting up to water at 5am – even 4.30am – in a dry summer. They cleaned ponds, dead-headed borders and staked new trees. Before a public opening, Morrison might mow the lawns three times in one week. He raked gravel paths in the dark and would spend a whole day on his hands and knees removing diseased leaves from more than 300 roses.

In her 80s, Dame Elisabeth was still climbing trees for a spot of pruning (she injured her hip atop a grapefruit tree at 82). On her way to engagements in town, she would stop off at nurseries or clamber through garden beds, “brushing herself down” en route. And when, in his late-50s, Morrison was diagnosed with cancer, he scheduled his radiation treatments around top-dressing the lawns and other gardening commitments.

When the pair visited Beth Chatto’s famous garden in Britain in 1997, Chatto wrote to gardening writer Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter that the pair had “studied the garden in such depth, I thought we would never get around the half of it”.

Their tireless passion for Cruden Farm sounds all-consuming and fun. It is part of the history of owners taking their gardens into their own hands. The eight-hectare garden at Cruden Farm was not without input from a formal designer – in 1929 Edna Walling designed the front garden, including the stone walls and the famed avenue of lemon-scented gums – but Dame Elisabeth increasingly made her own calls. 

Like other gardens steered by those with enduring ties to them, Cruden Farm benefited from the emotional and practical input of Dame Elisabeth and Morrison over the long term. Such attention can change everything. 

Speaking ahead of last year’s Garden DesignFest, local garden designer Stephen Read said he liked to see owners making alterations to his gardens.  “I don’t like gardens that don’t change, they don’t make sense for me.” 

Similarly, the late, great American garden designers Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden once wrote that one of their primary considerations in designing a garden was “whether or not the client is a gardener”. 

“When clients claim to like gardening, it is often a fantasy,” they wrote. “How much study and hard work will they really do? Weeding and watering are important and satisfying interactions with the garden, but these activities do not a gardener make. The gardener is creatively involved and knows what to do or not to do with the garden at all times.” 

But where does that leave the garden when its owner dies or sells? The Australian Garden History Society has documented many examples of once-great gardens that have fallen into disrepair.

As for Cruden Farm, Morrison – now in his 70s – continues to work there and keeps Dame Elisabeth’s vision strongly in mind. 

Ian Evans, the chairman of the trustees for the Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Trust, says the trustees have applied to rezone almost 30 per cent of the 54-hectare estate for residential development. He says the capital raised would allow the garden to be maintained and opened to the public five days a week.

But the question for all gardens – even carefully maintained ones – is whether they can ever be the same without the zealous involvement of those who made them over decades.

Cruden Farm: Garden Diaries by Michael Morrison and Lisa Clausen, Lantern, $49.99.

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