September 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Elisabeth Murdoch’s gardener

By Lisa Clausen

Elisabeth Murdoch began planting her garden as a young bride and barely stopped for the next eight decades. When she died last December, aged 103, the great philanthropist left behind one of the nation’s most famous private gardens, Cruden Farm, though it’s easy to miss its modest front gate, almost hidden by trees. At the end of an avenue of gums that twist out of the earth like silver-skinned sculptures, the curtains in her white house are open and her dog Bonnie lies on the back porch. But the only person here on this winter’s morning is a snowy-haired, keen-eyed man filling a wheelbarrow with leaves. It is 42 years this month since Michael Morrison came to work for “the boss” – almost a lifetime of gardening in itself, which has, he says, “all gone by in a flash”.

He has seen winter come and go here many times, and it remains his favourite season. In a garden dominated by trees, the delights of bare wood are everywhere: the glowing gold of willow bark, the mottled and muscular trunks of giant oaks, the skin of a towering copper beech wrinkled like elephant hide. “This is when you see the strength of the trees,” says Morrison, a large rake in one hand and secateurs in his back pocket. The dormant flowerbeds smell of cold earth.

He usually arrives around dawn, often before the mist has cleared from the still lake. “I like to watch the garden wake up,” he says. Then it’s into the day. Winter is always a busy time for him and the two other gardeners. Weeding, pruning, composting and culling must all be finished before the garden erupts in leaf and blossom, and before the resumption of Cruden’s open days and charity functions, which attract around 12,000 people each year. Keith Murdoch bought the 54-hectare farm, an hour south-east of Melbourne, as a wedding gift for his 19-year-old bride in 1928 and, when she moved there from the city after his death in 1952, friends worried she’d be isolated. Now it’s an island ringed by hardware stores, freeways and streets of neat brick houses with identical cream letterboxes. Four lanes of traffic hum beyond the paddocks.

Then working at a local nursery, Morrison came to Cruden one spring morning in 1971. He talked with Dame Elisabeth beside the fire and was hired soon after. Even then, her energy was legendary. “She was always in a roaring hurry. It was hard to keep up, even when she was walking.” She nurtured the garden with the same passion. “Number-one gardener”  and “number-two gardener” as they became known, they roamed – in later years on Dame Elisabeth’s electric buggy – around the garden together every day, working hard and savouring the results. Intent on “burying” the large, stark house in foliage, they planted hundreds of trees. The Dame was still picking out spots for saplings a few months before her death.

Morrison remains devoted to Cruden. “My favourite part?” he muses in his quiet way. “Usually wherever I am at that moment.” He is here most days and his immersion  in the garden evokes what British horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll spoke of a century ago as “putting oneself into closest acquaintance and sympathy with the growing things”.

He prefers a wheelbarrow to a trailer, and detests the noisy fuss of “machinery” like leaf-blowers – he wants to listen to the garden as he works. Neither will he wear gardening gloves: “I like to feel things.” The boss was the same, he recalls. “Just disgusting,” she would exclaim to him with delight, examining her dirty hands after a long day spent among roots and soil.

Together they travelled twice through Europe to inspect some of its renowned gardens. Morrison himself has just been again – his first holiday in six years. “I didn’t want to miss any time with the boss,” he explains. Despite the history and grandeur on show abroad, he always returns contentedly to Cruden Farm. “This is so special because Dame Elisabeth was so involved in it. It’s a person’s garden.” There are reminders of her family’s past everywhere, like the spot (now occupied by a sculpture) where her son Rupert’s boyhood sleep-out, designed to toughen him up, once stood. “The boss loved every blade of grass on it. We all do.”

Walking its winding paths he reels off names of species and subspecies. Where are the plant labels kept? He taps his head. The garden’s story is stored there, too – he remembers which rose came from a cutting given to Dame Elisabeth by her dressmaker, that the lilac by the back door arrived years ago in a container from a church fete. Here is the tree where a favourite dog is buried, over there a troublesome plant that Dame Elisabeth often “had a word with”. The lawn under the lime tree is littered with fruit; the boss used to leave bags of it on the steps of local nursing homes. He still writes every day in a diary of the garden he has kept since 1985, charting the relentless balancing of shape, colour and space – a gardener’s art and burden – in a large, graceful script.

In Dame Elisabeth’s last months, when she was often confined to the house but still eager for news of the garden, Morrison would take in armfuls of whatever was in bloom each day. Her granddaughters, themselves keen gardeners, now walk the garden with him. “But she is always here,” he says, standing under one of the vast elms she planted. From a kennel on the back porch, Bonnie starts barking and Morrison heads off to feed her. He’ll spend the rest of his Saturday here, pruning and digging, while the oak trees, treasured throughout history as symbols of endurance, tower over him.

Lisa Clausen

Lisa Clausen is a freelance journalist living in Melbourne. Her book Cruden Farm Garden Diaries was published in 2017.

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