Cloudehill (Olinda, Australia)

Owner and garden creator Jeremy Francis takes us through the four seasons at Cloudehill

Autumn colour at Cloudehill

I have lived most of my life in a part of Australia where gardening is almost impossible.

My family farmed two hours drive north of Perth in Western Australia. Winters there were glorious, cool and moist and mild but summers ferocious, very hot, very dry, very windy. On top of that, there was little water. And what water there was had salt in it. There were almost no gardens for a long way around. On the other hand, that farmland west of New Norcia, the Darling Escarpment hills of Mogumber and Gillingarra was, by the standards of WA farmland, very handsome country. And with the rain every winter it was magnificent.

So, I know about Mediterranean style gardening: summe aridity, heat and wind. And extreme Mediterranean gardening at that: Mogumber summers bear more resemblance to Algeria and Morocco than the oaken woodlands of the south of France. There are few gardens in that part of WA – my own was a local phenomenon.

Still, after 15 years making the most of it I was becoming ever more ambitious in the plants I was attempting to grow and eager to try gardening somewhere more congenial - hence the move to Olinda. And now, 20 years on, chatting with gardeners from famous English gardens complaining of their stiff clay soil, unseasonable killing frosts, entire gardens raddled with honey fungus (Sissinghurst) I have come to appreciate the Dandenongs is just about the best place for gardening anywhere.

One of the glories of the hills hereabouts is the seasons. Summers can be so mild and moist they resemble a West Australian winter. Autumns are drier, generally cool and invigorating, certainly never bitter. Neither is winter. Mist sometimes lies through the tree tops for days yet the temperature rarely slips below five degrees. Mind you, it hardly rises above 12 either and we look forward to spring. And spring is (most of the time) glorious.

Cloudehill is made up of some 25 gardens. Each has its theme, character, planting, and its period of interest. The advantage of a garden of compartments is we can have things happening 12 months or the year. Visitors should find two or three of our garden rooms at their peak.

Spring

Beginning with spring we have bulb meadows. The bulbs in these rough grass areas were planted by Jim Woolrich as part of his flower farm business in the 30s. The bulbs have had generations to naturalise. Our meadows commence flowering in July and August with early narcissus and grape hyacinths, bluebells and mid-spring bulbs bloom in September and October, South African bulbs and flowering grasses carry the show through to early summer. We slash the grass in February and nerines pop up in autumn. The great advantage of growing bulbs this way is the grass hides the bulbs dying foliage.

Spring is busy, as it should be in any temperate garden. Lilacs in the shrub walk are flowering, rhododendrons everywhere (they were planted out in hedges by the Woolrichs 50 years back and these have been incorporated into the garden) and the glory of this season
in Cloudehill are the bluebells.

When people ask “when is the best time to visit in spring?” I reply “early October, with the beeches leafing out and the Spanish bluebells flowering”. Beech foliage is translucent as it unfurls and we have a collection of photos by Claire Takacs of copper beech in fresh foliage with entire hillsides of bluebells spilling underneath. Several have won international awards.

Towards the end of spring we have peonies flowering. The Japanese are the first, then the American hybrids, the herbaceous, and finally the (recently available) intersectional hybrids. These last are crosses between herbaceous and tree peonies and have particularly sumptuous flowers. They also bloom for an extended period, have no chilling requirements to flower and perform happily in beach side gardens. The shrub borders are full of colour by this time and what with Japanese maples in fresh leaf the overall effect is overpowering: perhaps just a bit busy. Or am I being purist? I do find this is a good time to prepare our summer borders and often ignore the rest of the garden.

Summer

Our summer borders are the highlight of Cloudehill. Their terrace cuts right across the width of the garden, vistas run out to more gardens above and below. Herbaceous perennials are largely why we are in the Dandenongs. Perennial borders are practical in much of Australia, the southern half at least, if plants are chosen carefully, but there are few herbaceous perennials that won't thrive in the Dandenongs.

Altogether, there are five gardens along this terrace, two devoted to perennials. Our first pair of borders are devoted to warm colours: yellows, reds, oranges, the second the cooler colours. Visitors, so long as they explore the way I want them to, discover the warm borders first and are teased by a glimpse of misty mauves and pastels through two central brick archways.

The principal here is that the soft colours emphasize the length of the terrace, exaggerate the size of the garden. We use several hundred different plants with as many late season flowering varieties as possible to give a long season of interest. The borders commence flowering late November and build through to Christmas and hold their themes pretty-well through to mid-march. They are still worth seeing is autumn mind you, for their bleaching colours and tawny seed heads. And by that time there is autumn colour elsewhere.

Autumn

The great joy of working on a property which has been famous for three generations now is the historic trees and shrubs. European beech are everywhere, some 90 years old; also rhododendrons, several huge Himalayan tree rhododendrons around our restaurant for instance but two Japanese weeping maples are the most important plants in the garden. They are simply awe inspiring, world class specimens.

They came from Japan in 1928, sent from the famous Yokohama Trading Nursery to Ted Woolrich as he was establishing his Rangeview Nursery. We dug them with extreme care and planted them on the main terrace and made the entire garden around them. Their leaves emerge aubergine-crimson in spring, gradually soften in the warmer months and flare to silken orange-red for two or three weeks in April.

Winter

Always my favourite season on the farm in WA. And I still rather enjoy a bit of wild windy June weather in the Dandenongs, perhaps keeping an eye of the thermometer for snow. June is the test of a garden: no colour at all, does the architecture hold it together?

Early on we decided beech should be the symbol of Cloudehill. We already had rows of them, big trees 50 and 70 years old. It was very tempting to plant formal beech hedges. They make the best possible hedge. Just a couple of years back I needed a screen around our new Commedia dell'Arte Lawn and, crikey, there was nothing for it. So we planted yet another beech hedge, just a plain green one this time. Visit some June morning with sun coming through the mountain mist and hedges everywhere rustling with coppery dry leaves and you will see why.

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Jeremy Francis

Jeremy is the owner, creator and driving force behind the spectacular gardens at Cloudehill in Olinda.

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Autumn Garden 2013

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