Eagles Bluff: A Not-So-Traditional New England Garden
| August 9, 2017
It’s a glorious winter morning in the New England region of New South Wales and I’m driving along a narrow, dirt road in pursuit of Carolyn Robinson’s garden, Eagles Bluff. All around me the Australian landscape is wild and alive. Sheep graze at the banks of the Bluff River, golden grasses sway lazily in the breeze, the mountains swallow up the horizon in every direction and the birds are singing to me through my open windows. There’s no phone service and I’m probably lost but at the moment I’d be perfectly content to drive this road all day.
Two sudden near collisions – first with a black wallaroo and followed closely by a mountain goat – break me from my daydreaming long enough to realise the turn off to Carolyn’s has arrived. As I pull into her driveway I’m overcome once again by my surroundings – a huge, bare hill peppered with the skeletons of old gums looms in the distance and there, blending almost seamlessly into the foothills, is Eagles Bluff.
Home to garden designer Carolyn and her husband Peter, Eagles Bluff is the Robinson’s private patch of paradise. A hardy combination of native and exotic plants, trees and grasses, the expansive garden speaks to the wild, rugged landscape surrounding it; a refreshing break in style from the traditional English gardens that the New England region is so well-known for. “English gardens tend to be closed off from the landscape which is something that would be devastating to do here. This garden is an adjunct. I’ve got a backdrop already – I don’t need man made hedges!” Carolyn calls to me from the kitchen as I stand with my forehead pressed against her glass walled living room, enraptured by the living artwork that is the front native garden, the river and the distant Bluff River Nature Reserve.
Carolyn’s previous garden, Glenrock, where she and Peter lived for 27 years, is a lovely example of an English style New England garden, with twin perennial borders, rock walls, expansive hedges and colour co-ordinated beds. “Because Pete was from England we spent a lot of time in gardens over there and so that was the paradigm within which I started,” Carolyn tells me. “But over time, as with all artists, your own style emerges.” After many years of gardening at Glenrock Carolyn began to feel restless and weary of the size her garden was becoming.
People don’t realise that part of the joy of gardening is creating. Before you know it, you can end up with a garden that is bigger than is wise!”
A small ad in the local real estate window displaying a plot of 2km Bluff River frontage would become the answer to Carolyn’s hankering. “We fell in love with this valley. We’d been down here once on a picnic and I remember thinking how lovely it was,” she says. And so, in 2010 the couple arrived at a blank canvas – an open paddock, empty except for a few rocks and two tea trees, Leptospermum brevipes. The perfect spot for Carolyn’s plant imagination to run wild.
Seven years later, Eagles Bluff is bursting with life. Although it’s the middle of winter, (think dry days, minus degree temperatures and devastating frosts), colour and the promise of the warmer seasons to come is everywhere. A Cootamundra wattle tree is vibrant yellow beneath the canopy of a Wallangarra White Gum. A towering Mugga Ironbark covered in buds reflects red against the spikey yucca and tufted miscanthus grass below. A flowering prostrate grevillea is full of the hum of bees.
The garden in spring is brought to life by the Australian natives,” Carolyn says. “At this time of year, the autumn deciduous trees haven’t quite finished losing their colour and the natives are either ready to burst or are already a mass of colour.”
Carolyn’s design work is all about plants, and her botanical knowledge is impressive. “My plant palette is much bigger than many other designers,” she tells me. “I’d hate to be limited to a palette of half a dozen plants. That would bore me terribly because I love plants for their own sake.” Strolling around the many beds of Eagles Bluff, this signature, eclectic style is evident everywhere: massing ground-covers, balled shrubs and formal clipped hedges contrast against textured foliage, spreading natives and flowing ornamental grasses.
“I have the best time arranging my gardens,” Carolyn tells me. “When I begin, I’ll put all of the plants to one side and then the most exciting part for me is placing them – that’s what I love doing.”
I refuse to assemble plants on a plan because in my mind, that’s set in stone. My best ideas happen when I’m creating on the spot. That’s when I get inspiring thoughts about placement and combinations.”
I can picture her clearly, creating each garden bed as if she were styling a room: Assembling native tube stock in the rock reef, imagining how tall they will grow together on the banks of the man-made dam; winding the elaeagnus hedge to loop around the bottoms of the upright Prunus nigra ‘Fastigiata’; mixing penstemons, Russian sage, sedums and achilleas in the herbaceous perennial border before planting and covering with miscanthus and tea tree mulch fresh from the shredder.
Ever present in the garden is the haunting backdrop of the hill, desolate except for the odd wild ficus on the horizon. Gazing from its vastness across to the lush, densely tree-packed mountains of the nature reserve, the impact of man’s hand is stark. “Most people hate that hill,” says Carolyn. “It’s just an example of mindless tree clearing with no benefit and was probably counter-productive for the farmer who did it.” But there’s a glint in her eye, the reflection of the ambitious garden designer within as we stare up at the mountain.
If I was 20 years younger, I would have loved to buy that block and revegetate that hill. I’d plant a little seedling at the base of all of those trees and protect them from cattle and wild goats with wire guards.”
We turn our backs on the empty hill and wander toward the front fence, admiring the hundreds of birds flying back and forth between the river casuarinas and the line of grevilleas and wattle that mark the edge of the garden. Lines of David Austin roses and dry-stone paths, built from sedimentary rocks found on the property, pave our way and are a beautiful homage to Carolyn’s English Glenrock style. Overhead, three eagles soar, a fitting finale at my visit to Eagles Bluff.
“I’d love to keep going.” Carolyn says, motioning to the paddocks that reach down to the river. “To experiment. To cut paths through those areas of blade grass and plant native shrubs and miscanthus amongst it.” I hope she does and I wouldn’t be surprised if she did. Carolyn Robinson is surely one of Australia’s most inspired garden designers.
To see more of Carolyn’s gardens visit her Facebook & Instagram. Eagles Bluff is a private garden open to the public by appointment. For further information please contact Carolyn by email: [email protected] or phone: 0427 361 831
Images of ‘Eagles Bluff’ by Nicholas Watt as featured in the State Library of NSW, Planting Dreams Exhibition, 2017.