It’s hard to believe that little more than one year has passed since landscape architect and urban planner Natasha Morgan made the tree-change to Oak & Monkey Puzzle with her young family. At the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, just south of Daylesford, Natasha has nurtured a rundown, rural property into a hub of growth, abundant creativity and community collaboration – there’s even a cricket pitch!
Our gardens columnist, Georgina Reid of The Planthunter is treated to a tour by this insightful experience maker.
‘My mum cried when I bought this house,’ landscape architect and flower lover Natasha Morgan tells me. It was a derelict old building, complete with bats flying through open windows, an overgrown garden pruned only by horses nibbling on new growth, and lots of old trees.
‘I was elated, though, because I could see that everything I wanted to do with my life could take place here,’ she says.‘The first time I saw it I just stood under the big trees and thought “how can I make this happen?”’ And happen, it did. Natasha bought the five-acre property in 2013, and moved in a year later.
Whilst Natasha hadn’t originally intended to move to the country full-time, the move wasn’t without foundation. She tells me of her previous house in Melbourne – an old scout hall with blackboards lining the walls. She used these walls to write down the things she loved, and wanted to do.
Finding a weekend property was high on that list. ‘I wanted to find a place with high rainfall, good soil, proximity to Melbourne, and a strong artistic and cultural life,’ she says. ‘Soon after, I found it.’ All the things Natasha listed on the blackboards had found a home. She named the property Oak & Monkey Puzzle, in reference to the 150-year-old oak trees and monkey puzzle tree growing in the garden.
The property, located between Daylesford and Ballan, has a long history as a hub within the local community. It started off as the Spargo Creek post office in the 1860s, then when the pub across the road burnt down it became the temporary drinking hole, and at some point it also became the recreation reserve and the general store.
Interspersed with its periods of public life, the property was also a home. The wife of the previous owner was a great gardener, but after she died the garden was untended for many years. Natasha and her family moved in in winter, and the second day they were there it snowed. Then spring happened, and all of a sudden the garden was full of bulbs – Jonquils, bluebells, grape hyacinth, daffodils and more. ‘It was magical,’ Natasha says.
Being a landscape architect, Natasha got stuck into the garden immediately. ‘I always start with the garden because it grows while everything else is being built or fixed,’ she tells me.‘I began with a masterplan. It was very much about aspect – getting an idea of where it’s sunny or not, and pragmatic concerns like making sure I can fit wheelbarrows between beds etcetera.’
The resulting garden is a series of formally arranged long raised beds, overflowing with edibles and flowers, as well as an orchard and berry patch, surrounded by wild grasses Natasha cuts paths through on the mower, leaving whats left to do its thing. It’s beautiful and abundant, overflowing with enough vegetables and fruit to feed her family, workshop participants and lucky neighbours.‘I’m always giving veggies away,’ she says.
The garden is Natasha’s laboratory.‘I’m not precious about it,’ she says.‘I’ve invested a lot of time into building the formal bones of the garden, but it’s always changing,’ she says, as she tells me of the beans and peas growing up a sculptural elm frame built from foraged suckers she found growing on the side of the road.‘I don’t want the garden to be static. I want to be able to walk through it and feel and see the changes in movement, texture, and seasonality. Change keeps me fresh!’
The garden also forms a backdrop to the workshops Natasha runs at the property. Working with passionate local craftspeople and artists, she offers a range of hands-on workshops including edible gardening, dry-stone wall building, garden design, floral design and more. It’s a gorgeous, changeable, flowery feast.
Like a crisp autumn morning after a long hot summer, Natasha and her family are breathing fresh life into Oak and Monkey Puzzle. Fuelled by Natasha’s vision, passion and generosity, the property once again is becoming a community hub – a place to share the enjoyment of the best, and simplest, things – food, flowers, and connection.
We’ll be seeing inside Natasha’s very special home a little later this week! In the meantime, do check out Natasha’s website to learn more about the wonderful line up of workshops and events she hosts at her property.