The text of the following article has been reproduced by courtesy of HighLife Magazine, first published in February 2006.

Wondrous Oasis

Bowral may well be known for its many beautiful gardens, but Canyonleigh, 30km south-west, is not. Rather it is considered farming country, ideal for grazing stock and in recent years, large vineyard plantings and olive groves. So it is a lovely surprise to discover The Burrows, a magnificent cool climate garden oasis tucked away on Tugalong Road, cheek by jowl with paddocks and bush. More susprising is the sheer scale: 10 acres under cultivation and expanding!

The property is the home of John and Susan Carter – known respectively as Bear and Poss by their family and many friends – who moved to the 25 acre holding 10 years ago. Susan recalls: “John bought it virtually without me seeing it and my first impression wasn’t good. Apart from the space there was nothing charming about the house or the land. It was just paddock. A big dose of imagination was needed which thankfully John has – in spades!”

Off to a good start

For a garden of its tender years, the look of “age” and abundant growth is amazing. Susan puts it down to the light, loamy soil of Canyonleigh and to the framework of existing mature trees

– mainly towering eucalypts and some beautiful hickory wattles – that they inherited with the property. “People were sceptical when we shared our plans for the garden, saying the soil in this area was too sandy for what we wanted to do but we have found the soil to be very sympathetic. It does need a lot of mulch and we have worked in substantial organic matter, but it drains so beautifully and I think that helps the trees get their roots down quickly and stay disease free,” she says.

Passion for big projects

Expansive home and garden projects have been a long-time passion for John and Susan. Twenty five years ago they saved and rebuilt the derelict waterfront home Mort Bay House in Balmain, Sydney, where they lived until moving to the Southern Highlands in 1984. Their next project was Wivelsfield, now known as Parkfield, in Burradoo; a grand Australian homestead of more than 100 squares, built with recycled and antique materials. As usual, when it was completed they became restless. “When things are finished, we tend to start doodling on envelopes,” says Susan. After selling, they purchased a 10 acre rural block in Bowral called Bantry. An old cottage from Bowral Street was bought, moved to the site, renovated and extended, and then the couple created a large garden from scratch. With Bantry completed and sold to former Federal Labor politician Graham Richardson, doodling began again in earnest. “This time we wanted to do a really big garden project, but we wanted the countryside as its framework, not a fence or the house next door,” Susan explains.

The garden at The Burrows has grown a bit like Topsy. There was never a detailed overall plan, but at the outset, two decisions were made. “We both love water, so wherever you are in the garden you will see or hear it – and we wanted vibrant colour all year round,” says Susan.

What has evolved is a wonderful blend of informal elements such as cottage garden beds bursting with foxgloves, lupins, poppies, daisies, roses and azaleas; and formal displays with regal fountains, important specimen trees, standard roses and clipped hedges. There are numerous water features including dams, streams and reflection ponds. The reconstruction of the two dams presented an initial problem because the sandy soil would not hold water. “They were just nasty, empty holes in the middle of a bare paddock. Before we could do anything, we had to bring in clay to line them – it was a huge task,” explains John. The dams are now surrounded by lush vegetation, particularly cool climate tree ferns – an imaginative idea of John’s – which in parts have grown so well that they’ve created a rainforest-style micro environment. Susan has since used tree ferns with great success throughout the garden.

The stream was made using the natural slope of the land, beginning at the top of the garden and tumbling merrily along its entirety, collecting at various points along the way in pretty ponds, before making its way to the dams below. All the water features are connected and use reticulated bore water which – considering the scale – is an engineering feat in itself.

Semitrailer loads

Further structure was created using treated pine and lattice to build arbours, seating areas, covered walkways, boat houses, pontoons for the dam, bridges to cross the stream and shelters – like The Pavilion overlooking the croquet lawn. Tonnes of sandstone and bush rock were placed to create stairs, dry-stone walls, seating areas and retain the dam and pond walls. “We estimate we have brought in more than 40 semitrailer loads of rock,” says John, “and I’m always finding I need more.” Hedging has been used extensively to further confine or redirect views.

While John saw to the infrastructure, Susan did the plant shopping. “I buy them by the truckload,” she says. Her philosophy on selection is based on suitability for the location – if it grows well, use more – and scale. “In a country garden, plantings need to be generous. You can repeat themes without being repetitive and within those masses add specimens for drama, texture and variations of level. But there must be harmony. Each plant needs to relate to its neighbour.” Colour plays an important part, with Susan using it in large blocks. “For trees, I love golden themes – particularly around the dams – so I have used golden willows, golden elms, conybears and London planes.” Specimen trees provide an anchor for the eye, which Susan says is important in a large garden, and she has judiciously selected a range of deciduous and evergreen varieties, one of her favourites being a cashmeriana, a type of cypress with a striking weeping habit.

Winding gravel walkways connect the different areas of the garden. There is a sense of “arriving” at significant points like the Fish House or Stream Bridge; and a real anticipation as to what might be discovered next. Sections have been planted with massed floral themes which, as the seasons unfold, provide breathtaking displays. There is the azalea walk, the laburnum and espaliered camellia walks, the wisteria walk, the cherry walk, the birch grove and The Avenue, elegantly lined with Manchurian pear trees. Hedges contain keyholes and gates to provide access to, or glimpses of other garden rooms and an eclectic mix of sculptures and pots – from the classical to the contemporary – are cleverly placed to add interest.

The creation of The Burrows garden has been a family affair and areas of the garden are named after mums, aunts, children and grandchildren, and friends who have also helped along the way. There are humorous touches – like the sign that warns visitors that Susan cheats at croquet – that add warmth and personality.

Flattering comparison

Many visitors to The Burrows have likened it to the famous garden of French Impressionist Claude Monet, in Giverny, France. John and Susan haven’t been there, but believe the comparisons have been drawn because of the abundant use of water and the combination of formal and informal areas. Other similarities include the extensive use of roses – grouped in small areas in a colour theme, as ground cover or climbing in riotous profusion over archways and arbours; massed bulbs providing magnificent drifts of annuals like daffodils and bluebells in spring and the sourcing and planting of specimen trees. Monet was a passionate collector of trees and so is Susan. As far as John and Susan are concerned the likenesses have been purely coincidental. “It’s flattering and it’s a comparison we’re happy to live with,” says John.

Challenge a way of life

Big challenges come naturally to the couple. In the paddock, Susan’s horses graze contentedly, enjoying a well-earned day off. She learned to ride – and garden – at her English mother’s knee and became an acclaimed horse and carriage driver, qualifying to compete on behalf of Australia in the United States in 2000. She has retired from carriage driving and is now competing in dressage, recently winning her first championship.

John came to Australia as a young man from England with a plan to “get rich on the land”. His dreams were dashed when his first job as a jackeroo on an outback station turned into a nightmare. Disappointed but not discouraged, he made his way to Sydney and became successfully involved in the property industry. He developed a passion for vintage car racing and for 15 years competed in motor racing, driving an Elfin, the Australian-designed and built car from the 1950s. In the early 1990s, he was one of the driving forces behind the design, building and co-ownership of Wakefield Parkway, the motor-racing circuit in Goulburn. Recently, he has rekindled a childhood passion for painting. Not one to do things by half, the couple has restored an old hay shed adjacent to the garden to create a private art gallery and recently held their first exhibition, with John showing alongside local artists Margie Mullins, Jenny Stewart and Ken McDonald.

So what next?

“The great thing about a garden project of this size is that it will never be finished. John already has his eye on the next paddock!” Susan laughs. “For a change, we might be able to stay put for a while.”