A passion for gardening is practically in the DNA of Jan Owens, who has devoted the better part of the past decade to transforming a bare paddock into a showpiece garden at Willawa, the property she shares with her husband, Arthur, near Jindabyne in the NSW Snowy Mountains.
Jan’s earliest childhood memories are peppered with experiences in her grandparents’ gardens … helping grandfather Eric store the dahlia tubers under the house for next year’s season, running up the backyard to grandmother Nell’s very own Mr McGregor’s garden … and her parents continued the tradition.
“Growing up at Corowa in the Upper Murray the first thing we did when we arrived home from boarding school on holidays was wander around with our mother checking out the garden,” Jan recalls. “We’d check in with seasonal flowers, new trees or a new garden framing a vista towards a particular paddock. We’d bring in bunches of flowers, which my mother was so artful in arranging in her extensive vase collection.
“Mum was a wonderful, inspirational gardener and she had no fear of what could be achieved. She used to draw designs for places they moved to that had no gardens at all and cajoled Dad to build endless rock walls and edges. Her copy of Edna Walling’s 1948 book was kept on the shelf next door to What Bird is That? and she’d dig and dig, pile on manure and transform nothing into beauty in such a short time. We heard about her plans for colours, shapes, wall gardens, ponds, bog gardens, shade gardens… there was never a fear that these ideas could not be achieved. And there was never a problem about extending the garden as the fence was moved further and further out into the paddock.”
The apple clearly hasn’t fallen far from the tree, so when Jan and Arthur decided to trade their city lives and move to Jindabyne, where they’d enjoyed many skiing holidays, Jan managed to persuade Arthur to tackle the task of turning the snow gum and boulder-strewn landscape into a showpiece garden. “It’s been a huge transition for Arthur,” Jan says. “For someone who confessed when we first met that his idea of a garden was a small patch of lawn and one rose bush, he’s come a long way and he’s my right-hand person when it comes to every new project and our open days. When we travel overseas or in Australia we always incorporate garden visits and these days, Arthur is just as likely to be the one adding to the list of must-visit gardens.”
The property came with a cottage and a pioneer-style homestead, constructed from split Victorian hardwoods, to look as though it had been there for 100 years. In fact it was only built in 1992, with decorative beams and mantelpieces recycled from the original 1886 Dalgety bridge. Although the Owens bought Willawa in 1998, they rented the homestead to friends and used the cottage when they came down on weekends. When they moved down permanently in 2005 and took up residence in the homestead, the cottage located beside the winery shed became overflow accommodation for visitors and friends. “The cellar doubles duty as a fire shelter,” Arthur says. “So you can drink your heart out while you wait for the fire to pass.
Arthur has made the transition from fire control officer to farmer/gardener/vigneron with apparent ease and happily tends his acre of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Savignon and Chardonnay. “I’ve learnt by observing and asking questions,” he says. “We’ve been lucky enough to visit wineries all over France and Italy and I’m always learning more. At 1150 metres, you’re not supposed to be able to grow grapes and with late frosts sometimes we lose the lot. But depending on the season we usually make about 400 litres, which is plenty for family and friends. Our claim to fame is that as far as we know we are the highest red wine vineyard in Australia.”
There’s food aplenty at Willawa as well, with Hereford cattle in the paddocks, chickens supplying eggs, and a grove of Var Mission and Spanish Queen olives providing extra virgin olive oil. Tomatoes, pumpkin and melons are grown in a glasshouse and the permanent beds produce strawberries, leeks, rhubarb, potatoes, asparagus and artichokes. The vegies are rotated annually through leafy, legumes, root and crop types in four beds to create healthy soil and companion planting negates the need for pesticides. The orchard contains apricot, quince, cherry, apple, peach, and plum trees as well as blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. The herb beds are chockers as well and the chooks are fed any leftovers, which they convert to great fertiliser for the soil.