Some things are just meant to be. Like blue cheese and figs, for example. Or Jeremy Francis’s green thumb and a very special two-hectare plot of land in the Dandenong Ranges, called Cloudehill.
It all began back in the early 1990s. Jeremy had moved from a wheat farm in Western Australia to the Dandenongs, just outside Melbourne, and was on the hunt for land to make a garden. ‘We spent the best part of two years looking around for a property’, he tells me. ‘I had a firm idea of what I wanted. There were very few properties in the hills that could have served my purpose, but I stumbled upon one.’
The land he found was a former flower farm and nursery. When the previous owner Jim Woolrich passed away in 1991, his family got in touch with Jeremy. ‘They had heard I was looking for land and wanted to know whether I was interested in buying the property,’ he says. ‘I’d actually bought another property in the meantime but quickly sold it and bought Cloudehill.’
The property had great bones – with avenues of old beech trees, weeping Japanese maples, hedges, and a bunch of rare plants imported from Japan and America in the 1920s. It was an amazing canvas for a passionate plantsman to make his once-in-a-lifetime garden.
It was, however, very overgrown. ‘We spent around six months cleaning it up,’ says Jeremy, who tells me of clearing a huge amount of weed trees, and scrambling around under blackberry bushes with a measuring tape, plotting and planning his garden.
Soon Jeremy had designed the main structure of the space – a strong axis running along the centre of the garden. In fact, this was the only part of the design Jeremy drew up on paper. As the garden grew, the design process became more spontaneous. ‘I had a fairly clear idea of what I was aiming at, but quite often we’d get a big machine in and see what we could do,’ Jeremy tells me. ‘In retrospect I think that was a good compromise. I strongly believe in a bit of spontaneity.’
The garden consists of a series of rooms. In his book, Cloudehill: A Year in the Garden, Jeremy speaks of the importance of this design approach. ‘The creation of compartments – garden rooms – allows a gardener to play tricks with perspective from one part of the garden to the next… A generous assortment of themes can be squeezed into a much smaller space than any other style of garden might require.’
The garden and its rooms are a treasure trove of interesting and rare plants. There are cool borders, warm borders, lots of ornamental grasses imported by Jeremy, ancient azaleas from America sourced by the famous plant collector Ernest (Chinese) Wilson, and more. The loose border plantings are framed by the structure imposed by the garden rooms, which contains and amplifies their beauty.
To the untrained eye, the garden at Cloudehill is full to the brim. Jeremy, however, feels differently. He tells me he’d like it fuller! More layers, more plants, more seasonal interest. He speaks of Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd’s famous garden, and how there are at least five layers of planting in their borders, whilst Cloudehill only has around three!
I guess that’s the thing about gardeners – they never finish gardening! There’s always more to do – holes to dig, trees to plant, shrubs to prune, plants to hunt. Because, as Ian Hamilton Finlay suggests, a garden is not an object but a process. Great gardeners, like Jeremy, know and appreciate this truth.
Cloudehill is open every day of the week from 9am to 5pm. Admission is $10, or free for The Diggers Club members. Diggers have run the garden shop at Cloudehill since 2014 and work with Jeremy to grow Cloudehill into a hub for ideas, plants and education.