Natives and exotics flourish side by side at garden designer Carolyn Robinson’s latest project, ‘Eagles’ Bluff’
On a quiet side road between Deepwater and Tenterfield in northern NSW lies one of the region’s most extraordinary, best-kept secret gardens. It may not stay a secret for long, however, owing to several factors.
The first is that the garden, ‘Eagles’ Bluff’, is an excellent example of a rare combination garden – natives and exotics flourishing side by side – and one from which all gardeners in Australia could learn. Another factor is that the garden has been created by one of the region’s renowned garden designers, Carolyn Robinson, whose first garden, ‘Glenrock’ at Tenterfield, has been visited by thousands of garden lovers over the last 20 years. Carolyn has also designed and created many other gardens in northern NSW and southern Queensland.
The final factor is that as part of the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden’s 200th anniversary celebrations, Carolyn is one of a small number of garden designers whose gardens have been photographed for an exhibition at the NSW State Library. In the exhibition, entitled Planting Dreams: Grand Garden Designs, leading photographers have captured the essence of contemporary landscape design across the state, showcasing the creative processes of some of Australia’s most extraordinary landscape designers.
This honour all come about because of Carolyn’s talent for gardening, which was only realised in 1989 when she and her husband Peter bought a ‘blank canvas’ on the northern side of Tenterfield, which they named Glenrock. Here, with Peter’s encouragement and support, Carolyn created a garden which has been acclaimed and recognised throughout the country, and has featured in many magazine articles as well as Celebrate the Seasons: garden memoirs from New England, Liz Chappell’s recent book on historic and contemporary New England gardens.
Creating the masterpiece that is Glenrock created its own pressures as well as a sense of completion, and Carolyn and Peter began to think of moving on. In early 2008, they started looking around the country, investigating as far away as Tasmania before settling on a block in a valley just on the other side of Tenterfield. The valley was already known to the Robinsons, who had picnicked there and thought it a lovely spot. The agent dropped Carolyn in the middle of the block, approximately where the house is located now and she was overwhelmed by the view. “I remember walking back to the road, looking at the view and thinking I could live there not feeling overwhelmed by the need to make a garden,” she says.
Initially the Robinsons set up a safari-type camp on the nearby river, still living at Glenrock and designing the house for Eagles’ Bluff. Happily, Glenrock was bought by garden lovers and so continues to thrive.
During the six months it took to build the house, Carolyn built the dry stone wall to surround the pond, an
outstanding feature of the garden. Carolyn then had a change of heart and decided that perhaps some garden should be established for shade, shelter and for softening the southern aspect, all complementing the site. But these were minor decisions in contrast to the reasons for establishing Glenrock. Carolyn says the garden at Eagles’ Bluff started for the complete opposite reason to Glenrock, which was so barren it had to have a garden around it to make it bearable.
At this time, Carolyn also observed that the climate was several degrees warmer than Glenrock; it was at a lower altitude and although there were frosts they were not as extreme. She could grow the same native plants she had at Glenrock where frosts were as low as minus 15 degrees.
“I wanted to experiment with natives and exotics planted together as I had to blend the garden with the surrounding landscape. I knew my plant palette by now and was able to plant in a much more planned way, whereas Glenrock was constant trial and error and less than 20 per cent of what I planted there survived. It took some time to learn which type of plants did thrive.”
The plant combinations are breathtaking, displaying a huge range of colour, texture and form. Glenrock favoured exotics: ceanothus, choisya and perennials flourish beside native leptospermum, acacia, grevillea, xanthorrhoea and masses of grasses. The grey beds are particularly outstanding with Carolyn’s plantings of Jerusalem sage, lavenders, saltbush, buddlejas, acacias and xanthorrhoea.
There were, however, some new challenges to overcome. The water supply at Eagles’ Bluff is not reliable, so Carolyn needed a mulch that would let small amounts of moisture in, thereby maximising what rainfall there was. She found that organic mulch provided a cold, impenetrable barrier, so she turned to fine rock and gravel mulch, which allows moisture through and the warmth of the soil to rise up overnight.
The garden is now about two hectares in size, but within that space there are many areas of wild grassland. This is slowly changing and over the last few months Carolyn has been creating broad swathes of garden beds under already established trees including claret ash, ornamental pears and crabapples. Throughout the garden she continues to build her trademark stone walls and steps with more planned for the future.
Carolyn reflects on what gives her the most pleasure, “I think it’s the plant combinations in the larger beds, some of which are 15 metres wide. I love having the space to show off the foliage and you need depth of field to arrange plants effectively.”
Peter, too, has settled very happily into their new location, enjoying the tranquillity, the landscape with his ‘girls’ (his breeding cattle from Glenrock) happily grazing around him, the fact that Tenterfield is still close enough to continue his voluntary roles at the local radio station and the Visitor Information Centre, and he has even been known to dabble his toes in the pond on hot summer days.
Eagles’ Bluff has become one of the most significant examples of innovative gardening in the state, a fact that has been recognised by its inclusion, along with Glenrock’s, in the forthcoming photographic exhibition at the State Library. Renowned architect Howard Tanner, the contemporary gardens survey coordinator and consultant for this exhibition, explains, “Carolyn’s two gardens are interesting from the perspective of Glenrock being, in my opinion, the finest traditional Australian country garden created in NSW since the 1980s. It’s in the exhibition to contrast with her more recent garden at Eagles’ Bluff, which is a most impressive contemporary garden, with sweeps of meadow planting and wonderful plant textures linking the garden with the broader landscape.”
STORY LYNNE WALKER