Trisha Dixon’s Secret Garden

It’s 8pm and we’re driving through a maze of narrow dirt roads punctuated by the spot-lit dashes of startled kangaroos, pot-holes and the very occasional driveway. There’s talk of being lost, but I’m not ready to admit it. Phone reception is non-existent and the prospect of a cold night’s sleep in the back of the van, nestled amongst tripods and gumboots, is gaining momentum. Thankfully, my vague recollections of Trisha Dixon‘s directions to her property, Bobundara, find us eventually in the right place. We open the doors of the van with relief, classical music blasting from the homestead nestled deep in the embrace of the dark Monaro landscape.

Trisha bounds out of the house to greet us. To suggest she’s our angel of salvation may be dramatizing the situation slightly, nevertheless, she’s an incredibly welcome sight. We share a meal before heading to bed. The garden also sleeps, awaiting our exploration when daylight arrives.

Seeing the landscape, not just feeling its form in the dark, gets me out of bed early, eager to find out exactly where I am. We watch the magical Bobundara landscape awake, coffee in hand, as the sun rises over a low hill to the east.

The house and garden at Bobundara sit nestled in a fold of the vast, rolling forms of the Monaro countryside, in southern New South Wales. The garden is protected and green, bordered by a small creek. The surrounding landscape, however, is vast, vast, vast. With naturally treeless rolling hills, huge skies and occasional stands of twisted snow gums, it’s expansive in summer and harsh in winter.

Trisha has lived at Bobundara since the mid 1980s. She loved it immediately. As is often the case, the house reminded Trisha of her childhood home on a property near the small town of Bungonia, in the southern tablelands of NSW. Bobundara was “a funny old house. It was a bit shambolic, but had integrity and a great atmosphere,” she tells me.

The oldest parts of the house were built in 1831 when the property was one of Monaro’s major pastoral holdings, and have been heritage listed since the arrival of Trisha and her family. The garden is also historically significant – described in the NSW State Heritage Register as “extensive pleasure gardens which have retained their original 19th century cottage garden character. Mature trees dating from the early Victorian era, such as several types of elms, Chinese photinia, plum trees etc. and the garden layout are tangible evidence of gardening practices, styles and plantings.”

Historical significance aside – in some ways the physical forms of the house and garden can be understood fully only when seen in relation to their steward, in this case Trisha Dixon. Trisha is a fascinating woman who both nurtures and is nurtured by the garden and landscape at Bobundara.

“My mother just loved gardening,” Trisha tells me. “Dad used to say that if he wasn’t there, she’d forget about eating and meals – she’d just stay in the garden all day!” As is often the case, a childhood in the garden leads to a life in the garden. Trisha is no exception. Her pathway, however, was anything but straight and narrow. It goes a little like this – Pilot, TV weather presenter, photographer, journalist, author and contributor to around 10 books, landscape consultant, and now global wander. But back to the pilot thing…

In her early 20s Trisha decided studying science at university wasn’t what she wanted, and that being superwoman was. “I was staying with a friend who was working for a man who needed a pilot, so I became a pilot,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “I said to my parents, ‘Guess what, Mum and Dad, I’ve got a job as a pilot.’  And they said, ‘Darling, you can’t fly.’ I did a crash course, and learnt very quickly. That was that.”

Whilst learning to fly Trisha worked in the ABC newsroom in Canberra. “I’d work all night and fly all day. It was just the best,” she tells me. After a few years of flying, she returned to the ABC, where she was roped in to presenting the TV weather. From there she moved to Sydney to work as a photographer and writer for The Land and Country Life newspapers, before getting married and moving to the Monaro region of NSW, and a few years later, to Bobundara.

Being based at Bobundara – living in a historic house surrounded by a historic garden – influenced the direction of her output, and the garden soon became the subject of Trisha’s attention. “When we first moved here, there were the beautiful big old trees and lot of fruit trees which was really lovely.  But then there were these conifers, modern roses and marigolds. It had no soul,” she says.

I tried to put the mystery back into the garden, and to open it up to include the landscape surrounding it.”

“As soon as I moved here, I joined the Garden History Society,” Trisha tells me. “I think it’s very important to understand the past in order to move forward. People think the first gardens in Australia were all English style gardens but they weren’t. The first gardeners came around the Cape of Good Hope and brought plants with them that were really suitable to our climate. They didn’t have lawns, they didn’t have water. When I came here, I looked at what used to be here and tried to work to that.”

Trisha’s two main design influences were Irish gardener William Robinson and Edna Walling. “I was always kind of going to go a little bit wild!” Trisha tells me. “I like axis and form but I love softness. Robinson and Walling both had very architectural gardens, but they were always offset by a wild garden that wasn’t watered and barely mowed. It made its own beauty. That’s what I wanted.”

Bobundara is a magical garden. It’s atmospheric and soulful –Trisha’s hand shows itself not by what’s been planted, pruned or controlled, but by what’s been left to be itself, showing deep sensitivity and respect for the place, the landscape and its history. It’s also a practical measure – “If my garden reflects me, then I’m a very, very messy person,” Trisha says. “If I wanted it to be perfect I’d have to be here every day of the year, working on it. Instead, I choose to have an exciting life of people, photography, travel, art and family.”

You’ve got to decide what’s important to you. I just love the whole adventure of life,” she says.

 

Trisha Dixon is, according to a mutual friend, “one of life’s great enthusiasts”. I believe it. Her energy is phenomenal, and the joy she finds everywhere around her is contagious. “When I arrive home after being away my heart sings,” she tells me. “I’m like a child. I skip around the house and garden. I have the music going so loud that when I bicycle out to get the mail, even at the front gate (around a kilometre away!), I can still hear it.” Incidentally, the morning we photograph the garden the poetic meanderings of Leonard Cohen’s last album You Want It Darker accompany us as we chase the morning light.

We leave reluctantly. The wild maze of roads we were engulfed by on the way to Bobundara is nowhere to be seen. We’ll be back, in the daytime.

This story was produced with support from The Australian Garden History Society (AGHS). AGHS is committed to promoting awareness and conservation of significant cultural landscapes through engagement, research, advocacy and activities. Please check out their website for more information on who they are, what they do, and why they’re a great bunch of people.

Also, if you want to get access to the best gardens, Australia’s most interesting garden thinkers, and support an organisation focused on protecting and celebrating Australia’s cultural landscapes, perhaps you should consider joining AGHS?