As a fourth generation member of her family, Liz Chappell grew up at ‘Devon House’ near Glen Innes in the New England. She then moved to Sydney where she studied and worked as a journalist for a number of national magazines. She also met and married her husband, Elton Squires, who worked as an accountant in Sydney. Fifteen years later they decided to move to Liz’s family’s grazing property with little idea of the challenges that awaited them.
The charming double gabled brick house was built by Liz’s great grandparents in 1877 and bears a striking resemblance to a gingerbread house. It is now surrounded by an equally fairytale-like garden. This was not an easy task as Liz and Elton discovered.
“Elton and I were very aware of respecting the historical integrity of the Devon House garden but, from the start, we recognised that some things just had to go,” says Liz.
“Even trees don’t grow forever. In this Australian climate, with our depleted granite soils over a heavy clay base, exotic trees seem to have a shorter life than in their native northern hemisphere.
“We are endowed with permanent water; the Severn River below our house is a water feature no man-made creation could equal. This is a somewhat mixed blessing, as our location creates a frost pocket with winter readings as low as minus15°C. When our nearest town, Glen Innes, records the lowest winter temperature in New South Wales we are often two degrees lower.”
Liz and Elton set out to learn about the conditions and challenges of gardening in their area. A bulldozer was engaged to remove several large trees that were nearing the end of their lifespans, along with overgrown hedges blocking the magnificent river view. New garden beds were pegged out and substantial quantities of manure and hay for mulch were introduced. A period of trial and error ensued as Liz learned the hard way which plants thrived and which ones didn’t.
“We are the fourth generation to garden at Devon House. My great grandmother planted the first elms and poplars. My grandmother added the photinea windbreak and evergreen shrubs. My mother was a keen floral artist and contributed the hybrid tea roses, camellias and rhododendrons. The size of the garden has varied with the age and energy of its owners.”
Although Devon House’s garden is smaller, there are strong similarities between this garden and the marvellous garden of ‘Kiftsgate’ in the Cotswolds, England, also gardened by three generations of women. Both gardens are strong in structure and soft in plantings, with great plant combinations. In addition, both gardens complement the historic houses they surround and both have wonderful vistas.
Nevertheless, the garden at Devon House also benefits from at least one man’s influence as Elton has built all the structures, including the welded rose arches and seats, the timber arbour and colonnade. Both he and Liz have constructed the stonework and laid the generous sweeps of gravel paths. He also worked with Liz in restoring the garden when they first returned to live here.
Liz explains, “When EIton and I moved here in 1991, we cleared aged privet, photinea and radiata pines to open up the view of the river and have totally revised the layout. We have endeavoured to emulate a late Victorian style, with clipped shrubs and hedges (the Elaeagnus and Euonymus are originals), curved gravel paths and old fashioned style roses: noisettes, rugosas, hybrid musks and David Austins. The rose and perennial plantings near the house are kept deliberately low and mostly white to preserve the view and to reflect well under lighting at night.”
Further away from the house, a park-like effect has been achieved with large lawn areas and trees with autumn colour: claret ash, crab apples, liquidambar and a coppice of silver birch underplanted with bulbs.
In the two long perennial borders Liz has grouped like colours achieving a shaded effect of pale pink to cerise to red then orange to yellow. The border in pink, mauve and purple is best in late spring when the roses and bergamot feature. Cranesbill geraniums are Liz’s recent find and they thrive. Cannas, liliums, foxgloves and tall salvias are used for height and structure. Michaelmas daisies also do well and have proliferated in several heights and colours.
Over more than 20 years Liz has created a diverse and much admired garden of abundant roses, perennial borders and exotic trees and learned there is indeed a wealth of ornamental plants that will thrive in her garden.
Along the way, Liz kept a journal of gardens visited, plants admired and, of course, every addition, trial and triumph in her garden. Now she brings this experience and the collective wisdom of many other gardeners across New England together in her recently released book, Celebrate the Seasons. This gardening memoir is like chatting to a friend over the kitchen table and is an essential book for cold climate gardeners, featuring not only Devon House but also other gardens in the New England that Liz admires or has learned from. Inverell born photographer Kim Woods Rabbidge provides a fabulous collection of photographs taken with the perception of an artist and the knowledge of a gardener.
“When I started I had no inkling of the road ahead. My journey as a gardener has been filled with joy, with friendships forged through a common passion, with the excitement of visiting scores of splendid gardens around Australia and across the world and with the satisfaction of sharing our own garden with hundreds of enthusiastic visitors,” concludes Liz.
The book was launched by well known garden celebrity Fiona Ogilvie at Devon House on the weekend of November 14 and 15 2015, when the garden of Devon House opened its gates to the public, giving garden lovers and would be gardeners a chance to see the garden and then read the book.