Cloudehill a New Era


WORDS Jill Fraser PHOTOGRAPHS Adele Van Es

It’s a marriage made in ‘gardening heaven’.  The decision by two iconic gardening gurus to merge their celebrated establishments in a one-off exercise is creating horticultural history: and it’s taking place in the Dandenong Ranges.

Long-time Olinda institution, Cloudehill Nursery & Gardens and renowned, sustainability-focused garden company, The Diggers Club have joined forces on the Cloudehill Olinda site and respective owners Jeremy Francis and Clive Blazey, say the result will be a multifaceted delight for gardening enthusiasts. The grand opening will be in March.

Jeremy is retaining ownership and control of Cloudehill’s superb five-acre garden and The Diggers Club has taken over the nursery. The restaurant, which is about to undergo an expansion, remains in the hands of owner/chef Rhonda Gasson.

Referring to the Diggers/Cloudehill combo as a perfect fit, Clive talks of his and Jeremy’s shared dedication to “garden worthiness”. Jeremy refers to it as an aversion to “dross”.

Diggers’ success is directly attributable to Clive’s uncompromising principles in relation to “garden worthy” plants (cold hardy and heat tolerant plants that produce blooms that withstand hot, dry summers) and food integrity (organic heirloom vegetable seeds). He vehemently, actively and unapologetically, opposes hybrid seeds and genetically modified commercial crops.

“I’m fairly opinionated, as you probably know,” he laughed labelling himself and Diggers’ 75,000 club members, “subversive”.

The Diggers Club’ website states: “.. to preserve our best plants and garden traditions and to help solve climate change, Diggers has to become a club for subversive gardeners. We are anti-G.M. and anti-industrial agriculture and pro-organic, as we campaign to increase the growing of food in our backyards.”

While Jeremy does not share Clive’s passionate stance on contaminated food, and admits that the two often engage in healthy debates, he says he has been wrestling with many issues that Diggers’ champions most of his life.

Cloudehill’s reputation has been built on its breathtakingly beautiful garden in which elegant beech trees imported from Britain in the 1920s, hobnob with a stunning collection of gnarled old weeping maples, many imported from Japan in the late 20s, magnificent Himalayan tree rhododendrons, tree peonies, bamboos, magnolias, a host of colourful perennials, perfectly manicured box hedges, colonnades of conical conifers flanking paths frequently punctuated by sculptural works, artefacts and thoughtfully positioned seats (often works of art in their own right), and flights of stone stairs that lead to some of the garden’s distinctly different faces such as a woodland grove, a rose garden or a green circular ‘theatre’ space.

Formal in design in some areas and free form in others, the five acres is compartmentalised into a number of broad palettes planted to highlight season-specific shapes and colour.

Jeremy’s inspiration was the Arts and Crafts Movement, an influential design movement that dominated artistic ideals and creations in Europe and America between 1860 and 1910 and found its way to Australia in the latter part of that period. It was powerfully reformist and grew out of an adverse response to industrialisation. Its main thrust was to promote a return to hand-craftsmanship, individuality and independence.

The Arts and Crafts Movement had a profound influence on gardens and the stand-out features at Cloudehill that reflect Jeremy’s interest in this movement are the attention to solid structure and clever use of axis that clearly compartmentalise the garden framework.

“Landscape design of the Arts and Crafts period demonstrated that it’s possible to pack a lot into a small area and Victoria opens up a vast a range of planting possibilities, which allows us to plant something special for each month in each section,” he said.

He confesses that the Cloudehill garden project, which began as “making a garden purely for its own existence,” became a delightful “obsession” but that the demands of the nursery came to relegate the garden to second place.

“Now (with Diggers’ involvement) I’m going to be able to put the development of the garden back into first place again,” he said.

Clive refers to Cloudehill a,s “quite possibly the finest garden created in Australia in the last 20 years”.

Appalled at the “vulgarity” of modern plant breeding and the current fad of “potted colour” and “ankle high, early flowering, bedding plants” he expresses regret at the passing of the era of cottage gardens and tall romantic flowers, featured in parts of the Cloudehill garden, and groans when he talks about the increasingly popular early flowering hybrids with enlarged flowers that have replaced them.

Clive described it as, “the impulse for instant gratification at the expense of subtle plants with later blooming and sustained floral harmonies.”

His overarching objection is the seed control being imposed on gardeners by multinational seed companies.

“Today it is not only flower seeds, but also plants propagated by cuttings, that are controlled by multinationals and protected by Plant Breeders Rights (PBR). The GE company, Syngenta, a partner in GE crops with Monsanto, is a major force in hybrid flower seeds and PBR plants, which effectively disenfranchises gardeners like you and me.”

His opposition to genetically modified seeds is in part about corporate ownership of our food supply and the threat to existing plant varieties, plus the unanswered questions pertaining to their potential adverse effect on our health.

Both Clive and Jeremy are self-taught gardeners.

Clive completed an economics and commerce degree. He then did a six-year stint with his father in the family gardening business, discovered he didn’t support the ethics of the company, so in 1978 started his own member-based business and The Diggers Club was born.

“I wanted to offer a range of flowers and vegetables that weren’t being offered by the big supermarkets, which were the dominant garden retailers in those days,” he said.

Jeremy began his working life as a wheat and sheep farmer in WA. A chance meeting with British gardener, the late Christopher Lloyd sparked his interest in gardening, which led to him establishing a business importing ornamental plants. He bought Cloudehill, originally a no-frills nursery, in 1992 and set about transforming it into the acknowledged horticultural/artistic masterpiece it is today. The nursery was an adjunct to make his vision for the garden financially viable.

“But over the last 10 to 15 years running the nursery has been a full-time job. So now we’re very keen for Diggers to take it over. Diggers has a huge network of members so they’ll do a much better job of running the nursery than I could ever do,” he said.

“The garden was established on a shoestring. This will enable us to upgrade and intensify it.”

Both Clive and Jeremy share a passionate desire to promote the advancement of high quality horticulture and are looking forward to the opportunity their joint venture presents, to quote Jeremy, “to elevate horticulture to another level.”

Diggers will be running workshops and garden festivals at Cloudehill in conjunction with the nursery.

Diggers’ founders, Clive and Penny Blazey have set up the Diggers Garden and Environment Trust to ensure that the work they’ve done over the past 34 years in preserving “best garden traditions” through education and practice and correspondingly historic gardens and houses, will continue.

“We wanted to ensure that the things that we’ve championed such as supporting the use of heirloom seeds and sustainable gardening methods and a strong voice against genetically modified and hybridised plants and seeds would continue,”

The Cloudehill project, which will expand The Diggers Club membership and an awareness of Diggers’ mission statement, is Clive’s next step along a well-trodden values and cause paved road.

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