Cruden Farm at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne, was given to the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch in 1928 as a wedding present from her husband, Sir Keith Murdoch.
The exceptional story of this garden, created through the dedication of Dame Elisabeth and gardener Michael Morrison, is told through the pages of Cruden Farm Garden Diaries. This beautiful book charts the evolution of a quiet, creative and incredibly productive relationship between two kindred souls.
It’s 10am on a Tuesday morning and I’m crying at my desk. No big, sad sobs, but quiet tears that spring when a word, a story, touches a place deep within. The words are Lisa Clausen’s; the story is that of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch and her gardener, collaborator and dear friend Michael Morrison.
The story begins 46 years ago in 1971, when Dame Elizabeth decided she needed a gardener. She began asking around, and Michael was recommended by friends. He arrived for morning tea and began work soon after. ‘Perhaps they recognised something of an artist in each other then,’ Lisa writes. ‘But what neither could know was that together, they would go on to create a garden famous for its beauty and warmth, built on a forty-year partnership that would prove central to both their lives.’
Thirteen years after they began working together, Dame Elizabeth suggested to Michael that he begin writing a diary. Ever thrifty, she supplied him with a ring bound book from the local newsagent, and Michael began. ‘He did it, as he does everything, with great dedication,’ Lisa tells me. His first diary was tentative and self-conscious, she suggests. ‘But as the years passed the diaries flourished, becoming thoughtful, frank and frequently poetic in their observations.’
There are 28 annual diaries in total, and Lisa was lucky enough to gain access to them all – no mean feat, given the fact that their author is an incredibly private man who wrote only for an audience of one – ‘The Boss’. ‘He would give her the diary at the end of every year and she would read it,’ Lisa says. ‘It was like a conversation between them.’ The book is peppered with excerpts from the diaries, painting a clear picture of both the pair’s shared love of the garden at Cruden, and the evolution of their friendship.
Dame E hard at work removing pushy violets and nut grass from Iceberg hedge in Picking Garden. My afternoon employed completing the spreading of straw mulch over bulbs with time off to enjoy a picnic afternoon tea with Dame E on the peninsula – so lovely watching the ducks at play – Dame E had a 10-minute catnap in the sun (unusual to see her still for this length of time) before going off in her cart to collect the hose from the garden to water the bulbs. APRIL 11, 1988.
In Michael Dame Elizabeth found more than employee. She found someone who loved her garden as much as she did. ‘What a wonderful thing to be able to share the love of your garden with someone,’ says Lisa. ‘Gardening is often quite a solitary thing – you love your garden so much but you don’t necessarily want to bore someone with the details of it.’
Dame Elizabeth’s passion for her garden (and life!) was formidable. Lisa writes of her injuring her hip whilst climbing the grapefruit tree to prune it aged 82 and raking trailer loads of leaves with Michael well into her 90s. Michael seems to be cut from the same cloth – his diary charts him regularly sneaking into the garden before dawn to water on days he’d been told to rest by The Boss. His dedication to the garden was, and still is, unwavering.
Together the pair worked incredibly hard towards a shared goal of cultivating beauty. They planted trees, pulled out trees, picked black spot off roses, weeded oxalis (Dame Elizabeth’s nemesis!) made posies for Dame Elizabeth’s guests, dug dams, planned borders, lamented the lack of rain, celebrated downpours, and gave the 54 hectares of land their all.
Collect remainder of the leaves – garden so lovely – with all the warmth & tracery of the trees & winter wood – do love this time of year – really shows up the form and bones of the garden – such warmth and strength. Dame E walking in the garden – delaying leaving for the day until the last possible moment – saying how she hates leaving all this beauty – even just for the day. – JULY 5, 1993.
Michael writes of their daily ‘oo&r’ trundles (‘named for their constant exclamations of delight,’ writes Lisa), an opportunity for the pair to both enjoy the present and plan for the future. They’d begun as walks but as the Dame aged, the pair zipped around in her electric buggy – apparently she took great delight in frightening visitors by whizzing a little too quickly down grassy banks and tight corners!
The Dame’s love of her garden never dimmed. ‘At 102, she was deciding where to plant new trees, inspecting new fences and ordering roses with Michael,’ Lisa writes. ‘At 103, the pair were designing a new spring bed and she was still playing bridge, with Michael making a posy for her playing partners, as he had for decades.’
When Dame Elizabeth could no longer leave her bed, Michael bought the garden to her. And this, for me, is where the tears began. ‘Every morning he filled the room with armfuls of whatever was in flower and shared the garden’s news, telling her of jobs done and jobs to do, describing scents and new shoots as vividly as if she were walking among the beds herself,’ Lisa writes. On December 5, 2012, at age 103, she passed away. Three days later, the garden was blooming, without The Boss, and Michael began his diary entries again.
Garden in dream time. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch roses in full bloom. – DECEMBER 8, 2012.
Great gardens don’t just happen. They take an incredible amount of time, passion, patience and creativity. They’re invariably labours of love, and are a tremendous gift of hope and beauty to the world. Cruden Farm is one such garden – the result of an incredible woman and her equally incredible ‘number-two gardener.’ The book, Cruden Farm Garden Diaries, captures the heart of the garden, and provides a soulful window into an incredibly fruitful creative partnership.