Sam Vincent explores some of Australia's finest gardens on a leisurely circuit of the Mornington Peninsula.
If Italy's Apennine Peninsula resembles an elegant knee-length boot, the Mornington Peninsula is more like a tatty Blundstone: misshapen, rough around the edges and with a toe that looks to have been chewed by a puppy. And while Italy may be synonymous with fashion, Mornington Peninsula's appeal transcends mere fashion by being a green thumb's paradise.
This sliver of undulating land to Melbourne's south-east is blessed with rich soils, frost-free winters and abundant rainfall. These conditions, fertilised with the hard work of passionate local horticulturalists, have produced some of Australia's finest gardens. Many people visit the vineyards but I'm keen to explore the Mornington Peninsula's botanical best.
It's 2pm when my mother and I arrive at Cruden Farm but we're told the property's matriarch is too tired to join us in her garden. "The boss had her birthday three weeks ago and she's only just stopped celebrating," says Cruden Farm's head gardener, Michael Morrison. "The boss" is Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, aged 103.
Arguably Australia's finest private garden, Cruden Farm was a weed-ridden rural block when her husband, the newspaperman Keith Murdoch, bought it as a weekend retreat in 1928. Fast-forward 84 years and this part of the Langwarrin region is surrounded by suburbia.
Since moving to Cruden Farm permanently in 1952, Dame Elisabeth has transformed the property to incorporate and reflect a lifetime of horticultural trends: rolling lawns, roses, deciduous trees and willow-fringed ponds are a nod to Britain; climate-suitable native shrubs and eucalypts blend with those more formal plantings; expansive views and more intimate areas are available, including the farm's walled garden, designed by the pioneering landscaper Edna Walling.
We meet Morrison in front of Dame Elisabeth's white weatherboard homestead, itself a fusion of styles: part-columned Athenian-style temple, part deep south plantation mansion - with an Australian flag rippling atop its roof. Dwarfing the mansion's entrance is the weeping oak Quercus "firthii", a variety so rare Cruden Farm's one is registered as a significant tree by the National Trust.
However, it is Cruden Farm's picking garden that my mum enjoys most.
Seasonal highlights include dazzling dahlias, blue delphiniums and the yellow-flushed pink "Dame Elisabeth Murdoch" rose, bred by Germany's renowned Kordes Roses.
The Mornington Peninsula and Dame Elisabeth's philanthropy have a strong connection, so our next stop combines gardens and art. Occupying 16 hectares of manicured bushland, lakes and lawns at Langwarrin, McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park is the former home of artist and patron Harry McClelland.
On his death, the property passed to his sister, Nan, who in turn bequeathed it to the state. In 1971, the gallery opened. The Elisabeth Murdoch Sculpture Foundation began at McClelland in 1989 and the gallery is the home of the biennial McClelland Sculpture Survey and Award for contemporary outdoor sculpture, Australia's richest sculpture prize.
As drizzle starts to fall, McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park deputy director Lyn Johnson takes us along a garden path where we encounter key exhibits among the property's 90 permanent works. Lisa Roet's White Ape, a water tank-size bust of a chimpanzee, is here, as is Dean Colls's Alexander the Great, a charging steel beetle aimed at alerting us to the oft-unnoticed world at our feet. Johnson and her team have succeeded in merging art and nature: pieces such as Alexander the Great and Anton McMurray's seashell-like wooden carving, Monument to the First International, seem as organic as the leaf-litter they occupy.
The next day it's gently raining and when we arrive at Heronswood, near Dromana, the Diggers Club nursery is doing a roaring trade.
Diggers was established in 1978 by Penny and Clive Blazey, champions of mixed planting to prevent pests and promote water-wise gardening and heritage seeds. Their aim - create a repository of unusual fruit, flower and vegetable varieties - is so successful, Diggers is Australia's largest garden club. Heronswood includes buildings listed on the Register of the National Estate and the gardens are a must-see.
Water efficiency is a key theme, reflected in the dry-garden section, a mix of cacti, succulents, shrubs, bulbs and grasses that never need watering. "We live in Australia, not England," Heronswood spokeswoman Talei Kenyon says.
"We should mainly look to garden traditions that mirror our climate - the Mediterranean, parts of South America, southern Africa and west coast USA."
Many of these regions are represented at Heronswood, including the aloes of South Africa and a striking Mexican silver torch cactus with a trunk that looks like that of Sesame Street's Mr Snuffleupagus. From the aridity of the dry garden, we move to a lush, subtropical garden shaded by a 140-year-old Moreton Bay fig, then to a French-style parterre made of vegetables: Shrek-green "Lettuce Leaf" basil, "Five Colour" silverbeet and "Speckled Trout" lettuces. This is an example of what Kenyon calls "the edible landscape" - the idea being that where water is at a premium, a same-species garden should serve the multiple purposes of providing shade, perfume and food.
Much of what grows in Heronswood ends up in the kitchen of the property's restaurant, Fork to Fork, including heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties. The kitchen garden has heirloom tomato varieties with names like lethal cocktails: "Jaune Flamme", "Green Zebra", "Black Russian" and "Manx Marvel".
At nearby Shoreham, we don rain jackets as a thunderstorm lashes the Ashcombe Maze and Lavender Gardens, one of Australia's oldest mazes. The cypress hedges date from the late 1970s and are backed by massive stands of cypress and Lombardy poplars. Stone mazes, water gardens and an unusual perfumed rose maze containing 217 varieties also mean visitors can literally follow their nose to the end.
The lavender gardens look a little tatty when we visit (they are gradually being replanted). However, the cypress hedges - three metres high and two metres thick in places - coupled with regular trimmings, make them a formidable puzzle to negotiate - something kids love as they search for a series of hidden gnomes and fairies.
We end our journey at Mount Eliza's Morning Star Estate, where we meet owner Judy Barrett as she's pulling on gumboots in preparation for a weeding session. On a wet Saturday morning, when many people would still be in bed, Barrett's enthusiasm is an insight into her garden.
"There was nothing here when I arrived in 1993," says Barrett of the slope fronting the 1860s-built former Catholic boys' home she lives in. "Since then I've made it a monster and loved every minute of it."
Barrett has near single-handedly planted more than 75,000 roses of more than 600 varieties in what were once paddocks rolling into Port Phillip Bay. Although Morning Star has a 20-room hotel and restaurant, the rose garden draws the majority of visitors. We wander past beds of "Icebergs", "Diamond Jubilees" and an array of "David Austins", as well as hybrid "Rugosas".
Not everything here was planted by Barrett but, as with Cruden Farm, an ambitious, energetic woman is at the heart of the creativity on display. Barrett has been here 18 years; if she is here until she's 103, "the boss" at nearby Langwarrin may well have a competitor for the Mornington Peninsula's best garden.
Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Mornington Peninsula Tourism.
The Mornington Peninsula is about a 90-minute drive south-east of Melbourne via EastLink and the Nepean Highway.
Lindenderry, on Arthurs Seat Road, Red Hill, is set amid landscaped grounds that mix Mediterranean, French and Scandinavian horticultural elements under the shade of stringybarks. Double rooms are from $290 a night, including breakfast. Phone (03) 5989 2933, see lancemore.com.au/lindenderry.
Cruden Farm, Cranhaven Road, Langwarrin, opens its gardens to the public on set days each year. See crudenfarm.com.au.
McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park, McClelland Drive, Langwarrin, is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-4.30pm. Phone (03) 9789 1671, see mcclellandgallery.com.
Heronswood, 105 Latrobe Parade, Dromana, is open daily 9am-5pm, entry free for Diggers Club members, $10 for non-members. Phone (03) 5984 7321, see diggers.com.au.
Morning Star Estate, 1 Sunnyside Road, Mount Eliza, has accommodation and gardens. Phone (03) 9787 7760, see morningstarestate.com.au.
Ashcombe Maze and Lavender Garden, Shoreham, is open daily 10am-5pm, $17.50 adult, $9.50 child. Phone (03) 5989 8387, see ashcombemaze.com.au.
Children will also love the Enchanted Maze and Garden, where themes and topiary include Christmas, and the African savannah. 55 Purves Road, Arthurs Seat, open daily 10am-6pm, $29 adult, $19 child. Phone (03) 5981 8449, see enchantedmaze.com.au.