What happens when a renowned landscape designer sets out to create the garden of his own dreams? He wants to challenge people’s perceptions about garden making, naturally.
When Rick Eckersley discovered a 10 acre property for sale on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, he immediately knew it was the right place. Rolling rural country with wooded divisions and a tree lined entrance; not suburban, not grandiose. ‘Musk Cottage’ had the perfect bones to stamp his philosophy of garden making – a quintessentially Australian garden.
So where to start when there are no rules, no client brief to respond to? We talk with Rick and his business partners Myles Broad & Scott Leung to find out…
The garden was to be recognisably Australian in flavour but seamlessly knitted with plants from around the world. A melting pot if you like.
How did you set the course for your own garden design?
A perfectly designed garden should always be a reflection of a client’s lifestyle and personality. It’s our job though as designers to push the envelope so that a client might think outside the box and become open to new possibilities. But it’s an exciting and strangely daunting process to create something for you alone. This time there were no clients to please and no rules to follow. We all have a soft spot for native Australian plants but we tend to design with mainly Exotic vegetation due to public prejudices. Discussions with the three of us over a few boozy evenings set the direction for the garden – multicultural, strong, tough and sustainable.
You’ve mentioned you wanted to create a garden that challenged people’s preconceptions about garden making. How has that played out at Musk Cottage?
We tried to challenge people’s preconceptions about gardens, to go beyond a square of lawn and the latest fashionable plantings. We used plants in ways that hadn’t been seen before, broad swathes of grasses sweeping across the landscape in almost painterly strokes. Ironbark Gums set in a formalised 5m grid with cloud pruned Privet beneath. Paddocks left to seed naturally while cut paths meander through. It was almost like using plants instead of paints on a 10 acre canvas.
You’ve beautifully combined natives with exotics, why did you feel it was important to inject natives into the garden?
The first idea for the project was to create a wholly native garden without any exotics. The property was purchased at the height of the Australian drought 13 years ago and there was very little water around. Lots of Exotic plants were removed from the existing garden = Wisteria, David Austin Roses, weeping cherry, Pussy Willow, Clipped Buxus balls – the usual suspects. But there were a few Exotics that were too beautiful to lose in particular a Tilia cordata that we ended up planting under with a giant bed of Lomandra little pal and a driveway Avenue of Evergreen Alders that we eventually chopped out to make way for a mass of Angophora costata. Those remnant exotics set the stage for a mixed garden palette that is predominantly native (70%) and partially exotic (30%).
Interestingly, when the drought broke about six years later, about 20% of the natives were wiped out. The prettiest flora being Western Australian, a lot couldn’t handle any water and died. That’s when the planting choices became about what worked best in the given environment rather than which country they come from. The adaptable ones survive, the niche condition plants can’t cope. It’s a good insight into garden design for a changing climate.
It was almost like using plants instead of paints on a 10 acre canvas…
Was there a particular place in the garden you were drawn to and why?
There’s a pathway up to the top of the property that in plan is styled on the famed ‘Mr Curly’ swirl of Michael Luenig cartoons. It’s a bit of a road to nowhere with a table on top, lined with mass planted lemon scented gums. It’s a good place to contemplate and look down over the property – particularly if there’s a garden opening and there are loads of people around.
What advice you would share for people embarking on their own dream garden project?
Gardening is full of trial and error as weather patterns change and a garden evolves. Some ideas work, some ideas don’t. Plants of course are the main medium in making a country garden. How you knit the choice of planting patterns and how you achieve a seamless flow over a large area is a tell-tale sign of success. I try to approach all plants as equals without bowing to fashion or marketing. It’s the way that they’re put together that gives them impact. Think about plants that react en masse to stimuli – branches that bend and toss, grasses that ripple and sway, flowers that pop in sunlight and leaves that catch pearls of dew. Colours in bark and leaves as well as flowers are what make this garden meld together. And identify your colour palette – greys, olive greens, browns and brindles are all the colours of Australia and are the base palette for the garden at Musk Cottage.
I try to approach all plants as equals without bowing to fashion or marketing. It’s the way that they’re put together that gives them impact…