Garden delivers rare beauty: Photos, video

VIDEO: Spend some time at Tugurium with Stephen Ryan and Craig Lidgerwood. Video: Leigh Sharp

Tugurium sits along a gentle street bend in Macedon, about 80km north of Melbourne.

Even in winter this cool-climate abode is full and vibrant with texture and striking form. As you approach the property from the road, a curved driveway offers just a hint of what is nestled beyond the front boundary.

For more than 25 years its owners, renowned horticulturalist Stephen Ryan and Craig Lidgerwood, a botanic artist, have worked meticulously to slowly turn what was once a burnt-out block of land into an acre of woodland paradise.

Stephen bought the land about two years after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fire had left its indelible mark on the Macdeon Ranges. The original house on the block was destroyed in the fires, so too were any plants that had once grown there. All that remained on the site were a few singed messmates and a mass of seedling Blackwoods, he says. Even the topsoil was gone.

Today it is bursting with an assortment of cool-climate plants, including Trillium, Epimedium and Japanese maples with garden beds deep filled with dahlias, agaves, perennials and hundreds of bulbs. “I wasn’t even interested in gardening the place at the time as I was busy working in the nursery and on other people’s gardens,” Stephen says about Tugurium’s start. “But then in 1988 I met Craig and we had two pair of hands to start transforming it.”

Transformation started with soil preparation and continues to this day as at least 10 massive truckloads of mulch is brought into the property annually to nurture the land and its plants.

“Friends say we built the second storey on our home so we could maintain a view as the first one was disappearing under the mulch,” Stephen says. Different types of mulch are brought in each time to mix up the nutrients for the plants.

“I think of it as varying the food as each type of mulch offers something different for the soil so I like to vary it.”

Stephen, a long time resident of Macedon, is a passionate gardener and says “gardening feeds my soul”. He started working at his father’s nursery at the age of 10, when he also joined the Mt Macedon Horticultural Society. By the age of 19 he was the president and still is to this day. His lectures on plants are in high demand and he and Craig host tours of gardens here and abroad. Many would recognise Stephen from his time on ABC television’s Gardening Australia, which he hosted for three years. Tugurium featured prominently throughout his time on the show, which gave the average viewer access to “a gardener’s garden”.

He is also a self-confessed “compulsive plant collector” and loves rare and unusual species. His nursery, Dicksonia Rare Plants, is one of only a handful of rare plant nurseries in Australia and, along with Tugurium, is home to three national collections for the Garden Conservation Association of Australia – Cornus, Sambucus and Acanthus.  

I always say gardening is not a destination, it’s a journey... (it) is all about learning and I will spend the rest of my life learning. - Stephen Ryan

As befitting a woodland garden, plantings are unstructured. Stephen has chosen to use different plants of similar textures to create variety while maintaining a sense of continuity. But as you wander along the garden paths a sense of fun and quirkiness emanates. There’s a chook and duck shed dubbed ‘Cluckingham Palace’ whose residents are named after food dishes such as Peking, Sweet and Sour and a l'orange, a succulent garden deliberately planted on the roof of a small shed. Burmese cats Guinness and Perinet roam the property during the day, while Stud the cockatoo and Dick the galah provide background chatter as Corgies Emma and James enjoy a quiet life in their own section of the back yard.

Even the name of the property suggests gardening shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

“Tugurium means hovel,” says Stephen, proudly laughing. “Or mean dwelling. As with gardening, we kept with the Latin in naming our home. Gardening is about having fun. I like a bit of randomness in the garden. You shouldn’t take it too seriously and above all enjoy it.”

As for divvying up the garden jobs, Stephen says Craig is responsible for the straight paths and the perfect circular lawn that hosts the orchard trees. He is also known as the “under gardener” and is the proud owner of a mug that states just that. Stephen sips from a mug labelled ‘head gardener’. It’s clear this couple love to laugh as they garden.

“You can rely on Craig for a straight line,” Stephen points out. “Craig likes perfection where I am more random.”

The orchard garden is in the front yard of the property next door, which the couple bought in 1999.

“If you are going to enjoy the view, you should buy the view,” Stephen says of buying the house next door. “Otherwise someone can come along and chop down this or that and change things completely.”

As the adjacent property had no big trees, Stephen says it lent itself to being a more formal style but it still had to tie in with the original garden. Evergreen hedges envelop the lawned orchard and again curved paths were chosen to enhance the mystery as to what lies around the next bend. The vegetable garden is self-sustaining and regularly brimming with produce. A nearby compost plot is regularly turned over. Citrus trees were planted in a narrow section of land that lapped up the sun’s rays.

“I was told I was mad and that citrus wouldn’t grow here,” Stephen says, “but have a look at them brimming with fruit.”

The third section of the garden was completed in 2001, when the couple bought a piece of road reserve. The finishing touch to any garden, Stephen says, should be a pond. Tugurium has two. Each is dug to about 1-2 metres deep to minimise evaporation and to also provide peace of mind during the hot summer months. Water in the front pond sustained the garden and protected the property last summer as fires swept through Riddells Creek nearby.

“It doesn’t matter where you live there is always a risk for anybody, I am more unlikely to be hit by a tram,” he says of opting for a rural lifestyle.

“We built this when I was host of Gardening Australia,” he says of the front pond. “And seating should be placed to enjoy the garden.” Pairs of chairs are strategically placed at many scenic spots throughout the property.

Tugurium is open to the public on August 16 and 17 as part of Open Gardens Australia. The scheme, in operation for more than two decades, aims at promoting the enjoyment and benefits of gardens and gardening. Since 1987 more than $1.1 million has been given to projects across Australia. As Stephen rarely opens Tugurium in winter visitors will have the unique opportunity to see the bones of the garden with its structural foliage and deciduous plant framework and winter blooms.

“Hopefully the tulips will be in bloom for people to see, but as it has been quite frosty these past weeks they may not be out. However, there will still be plenty for people to see.”

And that would include a rare pair of former perennial grasses Miscanthus Giganteus, which have taken on a red and yellow hue courtesy of a couple of paint cans.

“They had died down but rather than waste I trimmed them and made them into a sculpture. One year I will have every colour of the rainbow, if I ever have the time and the temerity to do so,” he laughs.

“I always say gardening is not a destination, it’s a journey... (it) is all about learning and I will spend the rest of my life learning... and when I get really, really old I will just keep relearning.”

Share in the joy of Tugurium at 8 Centenary Avenue, Macedon. Gates open at 10am and entry is $8. To find out more visit opengarden.org.au.

Botanical art

Visitors to Tugurium’s open weekend will also have the chance to enjoy the work of botanic artist Craig Lidgerwood.  

“Botanic art is the accurate and detailed visual depiction of a plant including form, colour, texture and size that enables the identification of species,” says Craig, describing his work.

“Historically, it is often dated back to the early herbals when illustrations were used alongside text to use as an aid to identify mainly medicinal plants and it is often stated that botanic art came into it's own as a further tool for identification when plant nomenclature first was developed.”

He first became interested in botanic art as a child when he would copy illustrations from his mother's gardening books.

“Later on as a young adult I began collecting old botanic lithographs and was fascinated by the detail and accuracy of colour, form and texture the artists employed,” he says. Years of study followed and “botanic art firmly became my over-riding passion, interest and obsession”.

He works from a studio overlooking Tugurium.

“Plants dominate my daily life. I'm constantly stimulated by the natural world and by the natural beauty that surrounds us. To try to capture the beauty of these plants within a work of art is both a fabulous addiction and a challenge.” Visit craiglidgerwood.com.

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