Tulip Top: Rhodin Family Garden

The Rhodin family spends all year preparing their garden for opening for one short burst during spring. A recent visit confirms it’s worth the wait.

Southern Tablelands residents Pat and Bill Rhodin say their passion for gardening has taken them around the world. Twice, in fact, as on two occasions, their first home garden in Canberra won competitions with world trips as prizes. But 30 years ago, they moved out of the national capital in search of more space in which to build their dream garden. Now for one month each year, the world comes to them to see their remarkable 10-acre (four-hectare) site at Sutton north-east of Canberra just off the Federal Highway.

Rhodin Family Garden

“We bought the property in 1993 and for the first few years concentrated on developing around the house,” Pat recalls. “We gradually spread out into the valley, planting conifers, willows, English elms and more than 1000 blossom trees. We added a waterfall because the rocks were already there and built up the beds for the bulbs and annuals.”

While Pat makes it sound matter-of-fact, the spectacle that occurs each spring is testimony to the hard work that the Rhodins devote to their garden, which is called Tulip Top. There’s a staggering array of bulbs, more than 500,000 at last count, all arranged by colour and interspersed with annuals including rivers of pansies, primulas and Bellis perennis (English daisies), as well as flowering shrubs including an avenue of prolific forsythia.

Sutton Garden

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the garden is that the Rhodins manage the entire place on their own, except during the opening period from mid-September to mid-October, when they hire staff to run the ticket desk, catering facilities and plant store.

“Our son Dallas looks after maintenance and daughter Molly is in charge of catering and publicity, but Bill and I mostly manage the propagating, pruning, weeding, mowing, sewing and other maintenance,” Pat says.

Peonies

When the garden closes at the end of October, the first task is to dig up all those bulbs. They are then graded and packed away in storage. Next project is to plan and design the beds for the next year’s display. In autumn, all the bulbs go into cold storage for six weeks and in mid-June the Rhodins are outdoors again, planting the bulbs during a two- to three-week period. As spring approaches, the pressure to be ready for opening mounts. Then, finally, the blossoms start … countless varieties of crabapple, peach, cherry, apricot, quince and plum with their understoreys of bulbs and annuals, all competing for visitors’ attention.

Classical music is piped throughout the garden, which, thanks to its vast area, never feels crowded even on a fine Sunday morning when the promise of poffertjes (Dutch pancakes) to complement all those tulips lures extra visitors. As part of the Rhodins’ grand plan to make their garden as family friendly as possible, visitors are welcome to bring picnics and their dogs, provided they are on a leash and cleaned up after. There are picnic hampers for sale, a 70-metre-high lookout for surveying the spectacle and no end of spots for people to capture Insta-worthy shots to record their visit.

Tulip Garden Sutton

Inevitably, comparisons are drawn with Canberra’s other big spring attraction, Floriade. But it’s not an apples with apples situation. Where Floriade is a brash and blowsy public event, Tulip Top is a testament to personal passion, to people who have devoted their lives to creating something so beautiful, it’s a wonder it hasn’t received any awards.

“Well not yet,” Pat says. “But then again we haven’t tried. We’ve been too busy to fill out the entry forms.” ac

For more information on Tulip Top Gardens, visit tuliptopgardens.com.au.

Photography by Hayden Wright & Ken Brass

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