Led up the garden path

Led up the garden path The Dandenong Ranges are home to some of Melbourne's most stunning gardens, writes Jill Innamorati Varley.

"When the world wearies and society ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden.'' - Minnie Aumonier

You don't need to be a gardener to appreciate the beauty of a garden, whether it's a sanctuary of peace, a wooded glade or a dazzling field of flowers. So when you learn that some of Melbourne's greatest gardens are spread throughout just one region, it's time to grab the secateurs and head east to the Dandenong Ranges.

Here in this mountainous tract is a national park, people-friendly walks and trails, quaint hillside villages, wildlife sanctuaries and manicured public gardens - gardens whose plantings of deciduous trees, rhododendrons, azaleas and bulbs tell of the Dandenongs' European roots.

National Rhododendron Gardens

Perhaps the area's best-known garden is the National Rhododendron Gardens near Olinda, the highest of all the Dandenongs villages with panoramic views of the Yarra Valley and distant ranges. At this giddy height and with its backdrop of the Australian Alps, the gardens turn on a spectacular show, and especially so in spring and autumn when 15,000 rhododendrons, 12,000 azaleas, 3000 camellias and 250,000 daffodils burst into bloom.

Threaded through this blaze of colour and fed by the region's rich, moist soils are glorious 80-year-old European beech, magnolias and what are considered to be two of the finest Japanese weeping maples in the world. Birds such as king parrots and crimson rosellas are regular visitors and can be found in the garden's gullies, especially during the early morning, while the superb lyrebird can be heard and sometimes spotted foraging. It's thanks to an enthusiastic team from the Australian Rhododendron Society that the gardens were first developed in 1960.

Today they are a combination of individual grounds and spaces, where rhododendrons have been chosen for their growth habit and their ability to fit in with other plantings. The garden also features moorlands, rock gardens, fern gullies, sweeping lawns, grassed picnic areas and a plant nursery.

Cloudehill Gardens

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If your taste for rhododendrons has left you with a craving for more, then Cloudehill Gardens on the Olinda-Monbulk Road is the place to head next. Here, together with a rhododendron wood, is a wealth of other garden styles, including 20 jewel-like garden rooms with herbaceous borders, a tree peony collection, a copper beech walk, an azalea walk and a spring bulb meadow.

Lovers of Italian gardens will be drawn to their 'Green Theatre' - a tribute to the renaissance gardens of the Villa D'este and Villa Lante.

Considered one of the most ambitious gardens of its type in Australia, Cloudehill describes the herbaceous perennials that are found on its upper slopes as its raison d'etre.

Also renowned for its historic and important plants such as Japanese maples with their extraordinary twisting branch structure, you only need to mention this garden to a committed member of the green-fingered gentry to be met by an outpouring of adjectives. It is a garden whose diversity has also been inspired by the famous arts and crafts gardens of England such as Sissinghurst, Hidcote and Tintinhull.

While Cloudehill's more formal garden rooms are on its upper slopes, they soften as you move to the lower ones, where a rough grass meadow carpets itself in a glorious display of daffodils and bluebells in spring. The meadow's lower path leads to a metal gate, designed by sculptor Kim Kennedy, which opens into the neighbouring woodland garden of Rangeview - a companion garden to Cloudehill.

This historic 'working garden', pioneered by the Woolrich family in the 1890s, features gloriously mature trees and shrubs, nearly all survivors of bushfires that swept through the area in 1962.

The constant gardener will be delighted to learn that the original Woolrich Cottage, built in the 1920s, still stands, as do the original greenhouse foundations. The cottage has been reinvented in all its art deco glory as Woolrich Retreat. Managed by Peta and Laurie Rolls of Candlelight Cottages Retreat, they also have two other cottages between the villages of Olinda and Mount Dandenong - Candlelight Cottage and Cardmon Cottage.

A bonus for Woolrich guests is they can wander free of charge in Cloudehill.

Adjoining Cloudehill, Woolrich is 1.5 kilometres out of Olinda Village and makes an attractive proposition for a garden getaway for up to two couples. Not only does it have its own magnificent garden set among old trees, winding pathways, rhododendrons and azaleas, it contains two bedrooms with ensuite dressing rooms and bathrooms and a Jacuzzi spa for four. The floors are polished boards, the windows art deco, the kitchen has Miele appliances, the lounge has an open fireplace and the house has central heating and air-conditioning.

Outside there's a huge deck with a barbecue and a delightful view over the garden to the mountain ranges. If you're lucky, you might get a nocturnal visit from a friendly wombat whose generous size ensures his presence is felt when he ambles on to the veranda; failing that, you're bound to find his 'calling card' on a nearby rock.

William Ricketts Sanctuary

Out on the Dandenong Tourist Road, the William Ricketts Sanctuary covers 1.62 hectares of fern gully land with 92 half-hidden sculptures discreetly set among the rocks and fern trees of a mountain ash forest. It is the vision of William Ricketts, a naturalist and artist whose lifetime of caring for the environment is vividly expressed in this sanctuary and in his kiln-fired clay sculptures of Aboriginal people and animals.

Ricketts first settled in the Dandenongs in 1934, where his concern for the environment and his 'supreme quest of true beauty' is reflected in this legacy.

From 1935 until 1962, when the Victorian Government bought the land, Ricketts lived in the timber house at the end of the lower path, now the gallery. He then lived on at the sanctuary in a newly constructed residence until his death in 1993 at the age of 94. An audio-visual display featuring this inspirational man gives an insight into the vision and passion that live on in his art.

Katandra Gardens

When it comes to gardens of the future, Katandra Gardens in Wandin is a fine example of how many are now evolving. Owners Dot and Bob O'Neill believe a garden's water needs should be met by natural rainfall. This is especially relevant since our changing climate has shown that gardeners need to plant more drought-friendly and drought-resistant plants.

Bob, who won the Australian Gardener of the Year Award in 2005 from the ABC's Gardening Australia, takes visitors on a 45-minute tour of this remarkable garden that they first bought in 1976 as a working orchard of cherries and plums. These were bulldozed and a few gum trees added. Today those gums have blossomed into a garden that has a fascinating collection of wildflowers and plants from all over Australia, including acacias, banksias, hibbertias, grevilleas, dryandras, eucalypts, pomaderris and correas.

The garden, which also plays a part in the conservation of rare and endangered plants, holds the OPCAA (Ornamental Plant Conservation Association of Australia) correas collection and 'Land for Wildlife' status.

Katandra also has a wildlife lake, numerous ponds, a wetlands area, birdbaths and a 'bush foods' garden with interesting fruits and edible plants. Around the O'Neill house and Katandra's self-contained cottages is a mixture of exotic, cottage and native plants while numerous fruit trees include avocados, persimmons, mandarin, macadamia nuts, loquat, fig and kiwifruit.

The charming Katandra Gardens B&B selfcontained, one-bedroom cottages have large balconies that allow extensive views over the gardens.

Complete with gas heating, airconditioning and full kitchen facilities, it makes for such an appealing combination that you may never want to leave.

Jill Varley visited courtesy of Melbourne and Surrounds Marketing.

FAST FACTS

Cloudehill Gardens, 89 Olinda Monbulk Road, Olinda, phone 9751 1009.

Open 10am-5pm, seven days a week.

National Rhododendron Gardens, phone 13 19 63, see www.parkweb.vic.gov.au.

Candlelight Cottages Retreat & Woolrich Cottage, phone 9751 2464 or 1300 553 011, see www.candlelightcottages.com.au.

William Ricketts Sanctuary, off Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Mount Dandenong, phone 13 1963.

Open 10am-4.30pm daily (except Christmas Day).

Katandra Gardens, 49 Hunter Road, Wandin, phone 5964 4523, see www.katandragardens.com.au.

Open 10am-4.30pm daily.

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