Making a tree change — literally — meant a steep learning curve for this gardening novice.

When my husband and I moved to the New South Wales Southern Highlands four years ago, our new home came with a five-acre garden classified as an arboretum. I didn’t even know what an arboretum was. To me it was simply a very large garden filled with amazing trees and plants that looked spectacular: the perfect place to play with our young boys. It was my dream come true.

My excitement was tempered a little by the first reaction of my mother, who is a garden expert. Following the meandering drive through the garden and parking under the rose-covered arches, Mum wasn’t even out of the car before she announced there was no way I’d be able to maintain it on my own. Uh-oh. The garden was designed by landscape architect Michael Bligh and its first trees were planted in what was a bare paddock in 1994. The garden was designed as a living showroom for Winter Hill Tree Farm, a 70-acre (28-hectare) nursery specialising in mature trees and hedging, which my husband and I bought in 2007.

The previous owners were keen and knowledgeable gardeners with an eye for colour and an understanding of plants. They planted mature trees complemented by hundreds of bulbs, roses and shrubs to create a garden regularly showcased in the Open Garden scheme. Taking over the business and garden was a huge undertaking because neither my husband nor I are horticulturists. We took the concept of a tree change quite literally and so faced a very steep learning curve. The garden was my responsibility, but where to start and what to do? I was given a lovingly prepared month-by-month garden to-do list by the previous owner but, unfortunately, it doesn’t help to be told to prune and divide the penstemons in June if you don’t know what a penstemon is. So for the first 12 months I adopted what I call the Darwinian approach to gardening: survival of the fittest. I watched as the seasons passed, the colours changed and flowers came and went, too scared to cut, unsure whether or not to dig.

It was initially distressing to see the garden change from meticulous to wild. I felt guilty and would apologise to guests, sorry it wasn’t in pristine condition. But slowly I came to realise that nobody but I noticed the little things. The trees and hedges are the stars of our garden and with little help from me they continued to flourish. The avenue of linden trees, initially planted to be pleached (interwoven), is now left in all its woolly glory. The majestic expanse of Japanese and Chinese elms and the burst of colour of the golden robinia against the many shades of green in the grove of ornamental pears are all amazing just as they are.

This story was originally published in Australian Country 15.6. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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Words Jaqui Cameron
Photography Sue Stubbs