Green living is exactly what many early immigrants to Australia were doing when they came here to search for gold in a challenging new country during the mid-1800s.
In the small hamlet of Shepherds Flat, 10 minutes from the spa town of Daylesford in central Victoria, is Lavandula, a unique Swiss-Italian farm. Thriving sustainably on the property are many of the traditional plants, the staple of early settlers living in this harsh climate. It’s a picturesque site with clumps of Lombardy poplars growing alongside the meandering Jim Crowe Creek bordering the property. More than 2000 Italian speakers came to seek opportunity on the goldfields and many of their descendants are still in the area. “The original Swiss-Italian owners of the farm soon found it was much more profitable for them to grow food for themselves and to supply miners in the area,” Lavandula’s present owner, Carol White, explains. “They were good agriculturists, growing vegetables and fruits and farming along the creek flats.” Originally from the Melbourne suburb of Albert Park, Carol shifted here as a treechanger 20 years ago. “I am a romantic,” she says. “I fell in love with the abandoned stone cottage and its barn and dairy, surrounded by mullock heaps. It reminded me of buildings among lavender fields I’d seen in France.
I thought lavender might be a crop a single woman could manage on her own. When the farm and stone outbuildings came up for sale, I bought it. I didn’t know much about growing plants when I started.” There were a few of the old plantings remaining in the site from the early years, including grapes, gooseberries, quinces, an olive tree and four or five rose bushes. Between the cottage and the creek was just a mass of old mullock heaps and snakes sunning themselves or hiding among the rocks. There was no infrastructure; the creek was the water supply for the whole farm. The stone cottage had been derelict for 20 years and badly needed renovating to make it liveable. “I’ve always been passionate about architecture so that is what drew me to the site,” Carol says. “Old houses talk to me; they have personality. This one needed love. It was such an opportunity, with the stone buildings, the unusual settler story, to optimise the European-ness to create the self-sustaining lifestyle found in Ticino, where the original owners were from. I wanted to crop the land and have a large garden that brought the old feeling alive.”
On a visit to Provence and Sault in France, Carol researched the traditional ways of growing lavender and other crops, which gave her ideas to work with. She also travelled to Ticino in southern Switzerland. She strolled around the town, climbed alpine paths, noted the plants grown there and the stonework that created atmosphere. “Back here, it took a lot of determination to make it work,” she says. “I didn’t go out at the weekend like I used to in Melbourne. Instead, I would lug buckets of water from the creek to water the plants!” Carol wanted to maintain the truly original sense of the farm buildings, using only materials from the site. A stonemason from nearby Castlemaine, Peter Male, and his sons came to help restore the house and barn. There were cracks in the walls where stones were falling out and moisture in the basement. The cottage was built into the side of a small knoll, so the basement was actually the cool store for the year’s farm produce when there were no refrigerators or electricity. “It took two years to restore the house and barn,” Carol adds. “We lugged stones from around the property and mud from the creek for mortar in the same way the original owners had done. If there was a wooden beam that needed replacing we sourced it from remnant trees on the property. The only modern-day extras added to the house were a flushing toilet, hot water service and a locally made Ned Kelly wood stove for heating.”
The first year, Carol planted 1000 lavender plants in four test plots across the 30-acre (12-hectare) property, to see how they would go. “I carted water up from the creek to water them over the severe, hot, dry summers here,” she recalls. Around the cottage and outbuildings Carol has recreated the style of Swiss-Italian and French gardens found in Europe. “Its different sections anyone can recreate in their own garden,” she says. “I’ve used rocks from the property and laid them in sand to create stone-edged garden beds and cobbled paths and planted droughthardy herbs, perennials and shrubs.” She created a courtyard area with a canopy of grapevines to provide a sheltered respite from the summer heat. The cobbled-stone paving underneath warms with the sun in the winter when the leaves have dropped. This contrasts with how exposed to the elements Carol was when she first moved in. Now, the ambience is wonderful and visitors are instantly transported to the little village gardens of Europe.
Another great success story is a grove of shady ash (Fraxinus) close to where the little cafe (built in recent years) now stands. “These were a real surprise,” she says. “I brought in a load of mulch chips to mulch one of the early patches of lavender and these all came up from seed. They grew strongly but the lavender certainly didn’t, so I took out the lavender and kept the trees!” The property is a wonderful example of sustainable plantings with drought conditions and no town water, where only the tough survive. Straw mulch is used to control weeds and protect plant roots. No pesticides or herbicides are used and only traditional hand methods are employed. The lavender is dressed with lime annually and the gardens around the house are given some pelletised chook manure, cow manure tea and composted kitchen scraps courtesy of the geese and chooks.The lavender is all harvested by traditional methods using hand sickles. The quince crop derived from the original quince jungle is used for jams, jellies and pastes, while the olives are pickled and the grapes provide some wine.
Extensions to the garden have expanded it on the east side to a large Italianate sculptural garden. It’s a patchwork of triangular-shaped beds of different lavenders, with rows of tall pencil pines, fruit and nut trees, rustic rose arbours, spacious mown areas and Lombardy poplars for European ambience. Lavandula’s small festivals showcase its seasonal produce and rural skills, and the district’s talent. In summer, there’s the famous fragrant lavender harvest, stalls and entertainment. In autumn there are demonstrations of fruit bottling, jam making and olive pickling. Spring is the time to celebrate bird song, spring flowers and the original Swiss- Italian settlers of the district.
Lavandula is open to visitors every day September to May, school holidays June to August and closed August. The property is at 350 Hepburn-Newstead Road, Shepherds Flat. www.lavandula. com.au. Ph: 03 5476 4393.