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Published June 17th 2012
5 Secret Gardens in Melbourne
Photo by Rob Waterhouse.
Since reading The Secret Garden as a child, tucked away botanical places have held a special meaning. The thought that one might be self-contained; hidden from the rest of the world; close to others and yet so deliciously alone.
Melbourne has such secret gardens. Little known places, close to but away from the rush where you can lie on a rug, nose in a book, occasionally glimpsing sky through foliage without too many people stomping on your sandwiches.
To be secret it helps if such gardens have some form of demarcation, walls at best but at least fences, hedges or well defined shrubbery beds that shield you from the outside world.
So let me lead you down the garden path to some of Melbourne's secret gardens.
Abbotsford Convent Gardens. Image by Nick carson at en.wikipedia
The Abbotsford Convent (1868) was once home to a hundred nuns and a thousand orphans. They worked in a massive laundry and giant vegetable gardens that graduated down to the river.
These days the once derelict convent has become an important art's precinct and is gradually filling with hip cafes and trendy galleries. But as visitors use the front entrance and are engrossed in the many immediate attractions few realise that there is an amazing garden if they were just to walk around the back.
This secret garden is walled and usually on weekends the gates are locked from the street but you can still venture in by skirting around the edge of the convent.
An amazing botanical sight meets your eyes. There are huge English oaks, a common alder, a white poplar, a honey locust and sweeping lawns for lounging or canoodling. Not that the nuns would have approved. There is a heritage rotunda, meandering paths, a sweet smelling herb garden and masses of flower beds.
You can buy goods from the convent's bakery which has a wood fired oven dating back to 1901. The looming backdrop of the gothic convent makes for a dramatic setting for your picnic.
1901 wood-fired oven
A few years ago, this delightful garden was a wilderness infested with weeds and blackberries but volunteers transformed it into this oasis before you.
If you enjoy gardening you might like to help. They meet on the 1st Wednesday of each month. Contact the Abbotsford Convent Foundation on 03 9415 3600.
It is fitting that you travel down Chaucer Road to reach the little known back entry of Canterbury Gardens. The park is built on an old creek bed which means there is a huge dip in the middle which makes it seem extra low and secretive. The green slopes graduating down to the culvert are perfect for kids to roll down.
In keeping with the nearby Maling Road precinct, these are heritage gardens. The whole area is reminiscent of an era when men totted off to work on the train, women boiled their coppers and children roamed free. The park's elevated wooden rotunda was built in 1909 and kids today can still wave at the train as it passes by. There are large established trees and colourful displays of perennial borders and annual beds. A secret garden yes, but certainly one with room to move.
Canterbury Gardens, at 190B Canterbury Road, Canterbury.
Heide is the well-known home of John and Sunday Reed, an avant-garde pair who helped shape the rise of Modernism in Australia. Born of upper class parents they decided to snub their noses at society and get down, dirty and bohemian in Bulleen which back in the 1930s was a rural area on the banks of the Yarra. They left two amazing houses to the public, their original old weatherboard house (Heide 1) where Sidney Nolan painted his famous Ned Kelly series and Heide II which they purposefully built so it could later be used as a Modernist art gallery. You can pay to enter these interiors and learn of the Reed's fascinating lives or simply wander freely in their garden and in some ways learn so much more.
For this is where they spent so many hours planting hectares of trees or picking vegetables for their bohemian gatherings. Famously that might simply be a bowl of fresh peas if Sunday wasn't feeling up to cooking. Their ashes are scattered under a beloved tree in their garden. There are two hectares in treed parkland and gardens but it is Sunday's Kitchen Garden that fulfils the requirements of a secret place. She skirted it by a picket fence to keep out the cows and there is a succulent array of herbs and flowers. Right in the centre is a little arbour a quiet place for contemplation and a place to hide from the world.
While the name Alexandra Gardens sounds imposing, it is simply that they were named after Queen Alexandra. The gardens themselves are self-contained and set back off busy Cotham Road with its rattling trams and banked up traffic. There are large gates and planted borders that shield you from such hustle and bustle. As a teenager, I would link arms with girlfriends and dressed in our Sunday best take turns around these gardens. I might add, usually close on the heels of the church's limited pool of eligible bachelors.
These gentle strolling circuits were part of a tradition that little concerned me then. Hot on the heels of love it did not matter than the Alexandra Gardens dated back to 1908 and that generations of tightly girdled and parasoled young women had strolled here before us.
The Edwardian feature of these formal gardens bestows a certain charm. They remain caught in a gracious time warp that encompasses a heritage band rotunda, peaceful fountains, ponds and gracious lawns.
When wandering I saw an old friend effortlessly replicating the movement of her Tai Chi instructor. I did not wish to disturb her peacefulness but noted her smile and recalled when I last saw her. It was at her husband's funeral when he died too young from cancer. I was reminded of the regeneration that such gardens provide. These suburban oases are a place of solitude and reflection of solace of hope and yes of regrowth.
Maranoa Gardens are highly prized by troupes of botanical students who occasionally bus in and then examine in detail each of the 5000 species enthusing over a Chorizema cordatum (Flame Pea) or Hypocalymma augustifolium (White Myrtle), but I wish they would just go away. It may be an important place to view indigenous Australian plants but to me it is where my family have their Easter egg hunts or go for a quiet moment's contemplation when a family pet dies. Back in 1900, this was someone's private garden and I truly wish it was mine. There is only one little building and it has a wide verandah. This is the secret hideaway for the gardeners and as I rarely see them I think they pretty much do hide away.
These gardens are behind a huge fence twined with plants which creates a green barricade. Inside is a delightful treasure trove of luscious lawns, nooks and crannies and meandering paths which take you through various ecosystems including a woodland/heathland area, an arid rockery, a dry forest environment and fernery. This is the most secret haven in Melbourne which I have left until last. Because hopefully you didn't read this far so I can keep it to myself.
HelloMojo at en.wikipedia
Maranoa Gardens are open:
Monday to Friday from 7.30am to 4pm
Saturday, Sunday and public holidays 12 noon to 5pm; but closed on Good Friday and Christmas Day.