Megan Backhouse May 26, 2012
Native plants and rock work pack a punch at the Fords' Eltham garden.
AFTER her husband Gordon died in 1999, Gwen Ford gardened furiously for a year or two to catch up on neglected areas of the Eltham property he designed. ''That was a mistake,'' she wrote some years later. ''I should have lived with tangles, weeds, a few dead trees and an overgrown utility area.''
Now it's up to her children to live with the place as she left it. Following Gwen's death in March at the age of 71, Caitlin and Dailan Ogdon have become owners of the influential Eltham garden - a cultivated Australian bush landscape where once was cleared land.
Just as Gwen said she took heart from English gardening writer Mirabel Osler (of A Gentle Plea for Chaos fame), who insisted gardens can never remain exactly as the original creators made them, Caitlin says she and her brother will try to maintain the garden ''as best we can''. But what they won't do is continue to open it to the public. When the garden opened as part of Australia's Open Gardens two weeks ago, it was the 24th time it (together with the Adams garden next door, also designed by Gordon) had participated in the 24-year-old event. Caitlin, who has been involved in every open weekend bar two, says it is the end of an era.
On May 12 and (a very wet) May 13, about 1000 people walked the Ford garden in an open weekend planned well before Gwen died but which inevitably became a tribute to Gwen and Gordon.
Visitors traversed the massive boulder-cum-stepping stones rising out of the dark pond that leads to Castlemaine slate paving and the mudbrick house that Gordon built. While exotics (including choisya, abutilon and abelia) have been planted around the house, packing the biggest punch are the native plants, rock work and water. Here tall, sometimes wondrously bent, eucalypts with understoreys of melaleucas, hakeas, correas and much more sit amid waterfalls, simulated natural basalt rock outcrops and dry-stone walls.
Mary Klestadt, who first became involved in the garden scheme 18 years ago, says the property has played a key role in showcasing Australian plants.
''Since 1987 people have been able to see the Fords' big landscape garden with domestic elements around a house and also the Adams' garden using Australian plants in a smaller space,'' she says. ''I really feel they inspired a lot of people to go home and look at their perennials and lush green lawns and pull them out.''
Gwen pulled stuff out, too. While she kept Gordon's Jeep with its sculptural grill-bling parked near her vegetable beds, this was no time capsule. Gwen wrote about her ''new vision'' of using only drought-tolerant plants for restored spaces or replacements and about removing one rock from an outcrop all the better to accommodate a new seat, for example.
She also wrote about her errors (the removal of 15 self-seeded pittosporums from a fence line that created a ''nasty vacuum'' in one instance), her reading (everything from Australia's Marion Halligan and Paul Thompson to Osler to French garden writer Gilles Clement) and her local gardening group.
All the same, she continued to refer to the garden as her ''late husband's'', describing it as ''both a responsibility and a blessing''.
While she ''occasionally hesitated'' before planting something that would not mature in her lifetime, six years ago she wrote that she had come to agree with English gardener Christopher Lloyd, who said that a tree can be more important than yourself, nearing your end.