Cruden Farm Garden Diaries

It’s 10am on a Tuesday morning and I’m crying at my desk. No big, sad sobs, but quiet tears that spring when a word, a story, a person touches a place deep within. The words are Lisa Clausen’s; the people are Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and her gardener, collaborator and dear friend Michael Morrison; and the story is told on the pages of Cruden Farm Garden Diaries, a new book published by Penguin Books and photographed by Simon Griffiths.

Michael and the Dame admiring the giant liliums which filled the summer garden with scent and dramatic height. Image by Simon Griffiths.
“The Walled Garden at its ‘blousey’ autumn best – as the Dame used to say, like a bowl of roses, their petals about to fall,” writes Lisa. Image by Simon Griffiths.

Cruden Farm Garden Diaries is not just a book about a garden. It’s a rich tale, charting the evolution of a quiet, creative and incredibly productive relationship between two kindred souls that continues to this day, following the Dame’s death aged 103 in 2012.

The story begins 46 years ago in 1971 when Dame Elisabeth decided she needed a gardener. She began asking around, and Michael was recommended by friends. He arrived for morning tea and began work soon after. “Perhaps they recognised something of an artist in each other then,” Lisa writes. “But what neither could know was that together they would go on to create a garden famous for its beauty and warmth, built on a forty-year partnership that would prove central to both their lives.”

Thirteen years after they began working together Dame Elisabeth suggested to Michael that he begin writing a diary. Ever thrifty, she supplied him with a ring bound book from the local newsagent, and Michael began. “He did it, as he does everything, with great dedication,” Lisa tells me. His first diary was tentative and self-conscious, she suggests.

But as the years passed the diaries flourished, becoming thoughtful, frank and frequently poetic in their observations.”

There are 28 annual diaries in total, and Lisa was lucky enough to gain access to them all – no mean feat, given the fact that their author is an incredibly private man who wrote only for an audience of one – ‘The Boss’. “He would give her the diary at the end of every year and she would read it,” Lisa says. “It was like a conversation between them.” The book is peppered with excerpts from the diaries, painting a clear picture of both the pair’s shared love of the garden at Cruden and the evolution of their friendship.

Dame E hard at work removing pushy violets and nut grass from Iceberg hedge in Picking Garden. My afternoon employed com­pleting the spreading of straw mulch over bulbs with time off to enjoy a picnic afternoon tea with Dame E on the peninsula – so lovely watching the ducks at play – Dame E had a 10-minute catnap in the sun (unusual to see her still for this length of time) before going off in her cart to collect the hose from the garden to water the bulbs.  – APRIL 11, 1988

In Michael Dame Elisabeth found more than employee. She found someone who loved her garden as much as she did. “ Gardening is often quite a solitary thing,” Lisa tells me. “You love your garden so much but you don’t necessarily want to bore someone with the details of it.”

Designing the gracious bluestone steps leading down to the tennis court was a source of great delight for the pair. Image by Simon Griffiths.
“There are few greater pleasures at Cruden than sitting under an oak like this one, which began life as an acorn taken from the country garden of the Dame’s sister, the late Sylvia Ritchie,” writes Lisa. Image by Simon Griffiths.
The buggy loaded up with flowers for a party in the garden; Michael would ride on the back holding buckets ‘while the Boss lead-footed it’, writes Lisa. Image by Simon Griffiths.
Michael’s diary from 1985. Image by Simon Griffiths.
Michael still does the house flowers at Cruden Farm. Image by Simon Griffiths.
Prunus ‘Elvins’. Image by Simon Griffiths.

Dame Elisabeth’s passion for her garden (and life!) was formidable. Lisa writes of her injuring her hip whilst climbing the grapefruit tree to prune it aged 82 and raking trailer loads of leaves with Michael well into her 90s. Michael seems to be cut from the same cloth – his diary charts him regularly sneaking into the garden before dawn to water on days he’d been told to rest by The Boss. His dedication to the garden was, and still is, unwavering.

Together the pair worked incredibly hard towards a shared goal of cultivating beauty. They planted trees, pulled out trees, picked black spot off roses, weeded oxalis (Dame Elisabeth’s nemesis!) made posies for Dame Elisabeth’s guests, dug dams, planned borders, lamented the lack of rain, celebrated downpours, and gave the 54 hectares of land their all.

Collect remainder of the leaves – garden so lovely – with all the warmth & tracery of the trees & winter wood – do love this time of year – really shows up the form and bones of the garden – such warmth and strength. Dame E walking in the garden – delaying leaving for the day until the last possible moment – saying how she hates leaving all this beauty – even just for the day. – JULY 5, 1993

Michael writes of their daily ‘oo&r’ trundles (“named for their constant exclamations of delight”, writes Lisa), an opportunity for the pair to both enjoy the present and plan for the future. They’d begun as walks but as the Dame aged, the pair zipped around in her electric buggy – apparently she took great delight in frightening visitors by whizzing a little too quickly down grassy banks and tight corners!

The Dame’s love of her garden never dimmed. “At 102, she was deciding where to plant new trees, inspecting new fences and ordering roses with Michael,” Lisa writes.

At 103, the pair were designing a new spring bed and she was still playing bridge, with Michael making a posy for her playing partners, as he had for decades.”

When Dame Elisabeth could no longer leave her bed Michael bought the garden to her. And this, for me, is where the tears began. “Every morning he filled the room with armfuls of whatever was in flower and shared the garden’s news, telling her of jobs done and jobs to do, describing scents and new shoots as vividly as if she were walking among the beds herself,” Lisa writes. On December 5, 2012, she passed away. Three days later, the garden was blooming, without The Boss, and Michael began his diary entries again.

Garden in dream time. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch roses in full bloom. – DECEMBER 8, 2012

Great gardens don’t just happen. They take an incredible amount of time, passion, patience and creativity. They’re invariably labours of love, and are a tremendous gift of hope and beauty to the world. Cruden Farm is one such garden – the result of an incredible woman and her equally incredible ‘number-two gardener.’ The book, Cruden Farm Garden Diaries, captures the heart of the garden, and provides a soulful window into an incredibly fruitful creative partnership.

Cruden Farm Garden Diaries by Michael Morrison and Lisa Clausen, with photography by Simon Griffiths, is available online here, and from bookstores nationally.

Dame Elisabeth loved to glimpse Cruden’s cows wandering beyond the garden. Image by Simon Griffiths.
Dame Elizabeth Murdoch ‘loved every square inch of it (Cruden Farm), from boundary to boundary. There wasn’t a plant or patch of grass that she didn’t know intimately,’ says Michael Morrison. Image by Simon Griffiths.
Cruden Farm Garden Diaries by Michael Morrison and Lisa Clausen, with photography by Simon Griffiths. Photo – Simon Griffiths.