Gardening runs through the veins of South Australian Betty McKee who, together with her husband John, has transformed a bare block into something truly spectacular.
For Betty McKee, gardening was just what you did. In the 1900s, her grandfather had a vegie garden and orchard, from which he’d sell produce, her mother was a “fanatical” gardener and florist, and all of Betty’s aunties had lovely, large gardens of their own. So when Betty and husband John acquired the corner block on her parent’s farm in South Australia’s Mt Gambier, naturally, they set to work establishing the Sheriffmuir garden.
Dubbed Sheriffmuir, after a moor situated on the outskirts of John’s hometown, Bridge of Allan, near Stirling in Scotland, the land was originally just a sloping, bare three-acre (1.2-hectare) paddock on a hill, upon which Betty and John have since built and designed their current home and garden over the span of 50 years. “John has the skill to construct and I have the love of gardening,” Betty says.
Patience was the name of the game as it took a good two decades to begin seeing results and for the plantings to mature and establish themselves. “For the first 40 years, I was the total gardener with John putting in structures as I came up with ideas,” Betty says. In fact one of those very structures was built by “quietly romantic” John, a former engineer, as a surprise for his wife. “John and I were in Adelaide and we saw this dome arbour in a garden and I said to him, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice?’” Betty says. “I never thought anymore of it and about a week later, he asked me to go down to the workshop [on the property] to have a look at something and there was the dome top he had started building. It was a lovely surprise, and then we had to find a place in the garden to put it.”
The Sheriffmuir garden itself is a sublime show of colour and form, which changes with the seasons. And Betty, who spent her working life as an executive assistant for a timber mill, designed it fairly off the cuff. “The garden was never planned, it just evolved as I planted my favourites,” Betty says. “First the abundance of autumn trees, which was influenced from the autumn colours through the Adelaide Hills, interplanted with conifers as highlights for when the trees are bare. And then in late August, the camellias come to the fore. There is an abundance of rambling roses and weepers during the late spring, while in November, you will see day lilies, bearded iris and Louisiana iris.”
Aside from her bloodline and formative years growing up on a farm following her mum around, carting the cow manure to the vegie garden from the dairy, Betty says her inspiration has come from English garden magazines and books by the likes of Beth Chatto and Penelope Hobhouse. “I’m a person who can see a picture,” Betty says. “It has to be balanced, and that’s the artist part of me, I think. I like to see through trees to another lawn. Everywhere you look, a plant is planted for it to be showcased. I’ll sometimes get two hours in the garden before breakfast. It is the best time, the birds are chattering, the ideas are flowing because I’ve thought about a plan all night and can’t wait to get out there.”
Species in the garden include Betty’s personal favourites camellias and several roses — Betty estimates she has planted 500 roses in total, including David Austins, as well as rare heritage varieties — and mass plantings of hellebores, ground cover comfrey, drifts of Bergenia, violets that run amok under trees and double yellow daylilies planted in clumps through beds of granny’s bonnets and blue flag irises. Wisteria provides a subtly sweet vanilla perfume as you walk among its vines, while lemon-scented lily offers an air of freshness. There are paths leading you to sectioned-off garden rooms, such as the Fountain Garden or Frog Hollow, some bordered by manicured hedges, there are benches dotted around to sit and take it all in and magnificent trees such as dogwood, maple and magnolia. John even keeps some lizards on the property, including a 40-year-old, seven-foot-long lace monitor, often a star attraction for visiting youngsters.
Speaking of visitors, the McKees soon realised that the garden they created was one to be shared and so, in 1997, they started welcoming the public through the Open Gardens SA program, and they continued doing so for 20 years. Interest was evident as the pair began receiving requests from engaged couples hoping to marry at Sherrifmuir, and in 1998 Betty and John held their first wedding on the property. “I love when at a wedding, the children are dressed up in tuxes and fairy dresses, and they go running through the garden, through the paths and around corners, and they’re just delighted. Then they’ll get down to the bottom of the hill and roll in the grass, laughing,” Betty beams. Through the years, Betty and John have hosted more than 200 weddings at the property, with the final taking place just last summer.
But now, after 50 years, although Betty and John still admit that theirs is a garden for sharing, they are content to reap what they’ve sowed together as a couple. “We enjoy the garden but we’re getting older now,” Betty, who’s a sprightly 73 years young, says. “It’s hard work but we just couldn’t imagine retiring to a little flat with no garden. At this time in my life, I’m reflecting back on the garden through the years and I don’t want to leave it now. I’ve had a lot of pleasure out of it and I just couldn’t leave.” ac
Photography by Ross Williams, Styling by Bronte Camilleri