Musk Cottage: Rick Eckersley’s Rogue Garden

Over the course of an hour on the phone to acclaimed Australian garden designer Rick Eckersley, I’m warned to never get involved in a hairdresser’s contest (they’re very competitive); informed that “to get design clients to agree to doing something different is like getting Scomo (Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison) to believe in climate change”; and that to be a good garden designer you need to “be fresh, you need individualism and you need style. Style! Style! Style!” Rick also tells me that he’s definitely not into shrubs clipped into tight balls. Rather, he says, the only clipped shapes in his old garden, Musk Cottage, were in the shape of erect penises.

It’s curious thing, as a writer of people and place, to visit a person’s garden without them whilst also having never met face-to-face. Usually, there’s a lot of cues that can be picked up by witnessing the way a person moves through and interacts with their garden, and how they speak about it, from it. But we visit Musk Cottage, at Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula south east of Melbourne, without Rick. The property is in the process of being sold and he is at home in Melbourne.

It’s late on a Sunday afternoon and the light is glorious. We enter the side gate, greeted by a cluster of massive pine trees, one on its side leaning out over the path. To my right is a grid of Eucalyptus sideroxylon growing out of snaking mounds of privet – the tree’s black trunks swallowed in clouds of green. The pathway expands and contracts in the the most exquisite of curves and I am so over-stimulated I want to run – to see what’s around the corner, behind the tree, over the hill, and down that path. Really, it is one of the most exciting gardens I’ve visited.

And so I wander, very quickly because I can’t help myself, through Rick’s garden without him. Daniel the photographer is actually running, trying to capture it all before the light starts waning. I am having the best of times – talking to myself out loud and Rick in my mind – whist imbibing his garden.

Rick Eckersley. Image by Brook James

Rick is a trailblazer of Australian garden design. He’s been designing gardens for others for forty years (“please put that in very small type”, he requests) and making the garden at Musk Cottage was an opportunity for him – a highly creative and boundary-pushing designer – to indulge. It “gave me the opportunity to do what I had long desired – design and build a garden for myself, where I was only answerable to myself for its design integrity.”

Rick began making the 10 acre garden in 2006, with the help of his colleague and friend Myles Broad, of Eckersley Garden Architecture (E-GA), a firm established by Rick and now directed by Myles and Scott Leung (Rick’s role, as described on the E-GA website is ‘Creative Sultan’). Every weekend for around six years Rick and Myles would head to Flinders from Melbourne and Rick would plant and Myles would build. 280,000 plants and plenty of timber, stone and gravel later, Musk Cottage took form. It is, as Rick hopes, a uniquely Australian garden. “I tried to make a quintessentially Australian garden. It is a garden that doesn’t look like a postcard from somewhere else, but a garden that feels like it has an Australian soul to it.”

I’ve rarely visited a garden that sits so well in the landscape. It rolls and curves and sweeps with the land. I’ve also rarely visited a garden that feels so intuitively right. It is a garden not meant to be only observed but to be journeyed within. The paths lead exactly where I don’t even know I want to go – swelling and shrinking at the right times, concealing and revealing, again, just at the right time.  

“In designing Musk, I wanted to break new territory but stay within the profile of the Australian landscape – I just tipped it upside down, pulled it apart and restitched it. My guiding principle was planting design that looked as though it could have occurred naturally.”

Rick Eckersley

The planting is predominately Australian native, but of course, there’s nothing straight about it. “I used stuff that other people wouldn’t bother using. People become prejudiced with plants. They don’t like this, they don’t like that. I tried to use really adaptable exotic plants with natives and other Mediterranean plants.”

“I went rogue”, Rick continues. As a garden designer, “you can’t design gardens unless you’re satisfying the clientele. The thing is, they restrict you. They say they’re open minded but they’re not. It can be frustrating. Often they just want another garden like next door, but bigger and better. With Musk Cottage, I had freedom. If I explained what I wanted to do at Musk Cottage to a client they’d just say ‘fuck off. I don’t want that’.”

Rogue does seem the right descriptor for Rick Eckersley and his garden. It also happens to be the title of his new book, Rogue: Art of a Garden (Uro Publications, March 2020). It’s a love letter to, and a celebration of, the garden at Musk Cottage. It’s beautifully mad too, of course. Rick started working on the book a couple of years ago, before he decided to sell Musk. “I wanted to make a book that presented differently. I didn’t want it to look like a magazine, or a typical garden publication. I wanted it to be really layered and alive.”

“I didn’t want any white pages with bloody black copy written on them. I didn’t want any block colouring. There’s no such thing as a block colour in nature. There’s no such thing as a straight line. I avoided all that. I wanted to bring out the beauty of something that’s totally unpretentious and still idyllic.”

It’s a delightful and surprising book. The design is wild and bold, and the images by Will Salter are gorgeous. Dotted through its pages are images of artworks created at or inspired by Musk Cottage and commissioned by Rick. Rick’s words weave through the book. Words like: “I see myself as a plant mediator”, “Maintenance is a designer’s success or failure”, and “Climate change will fuck us all over if it hasn’t already.”

The book could only have been made by Rick Eckersley, this is very clear. It’s an immersion into the mind of a very curious and creative character. Threads of unhampered imagination, an intuitive design sensibility and madness wind through both his garden masterpiece, Musk Cottage, and his book about it. Both are thrilling, refreshing and humming with life.

We reluctantly leave Musk Cottage when the light finally takes itself away for the day. I am bursting with energy and excitement. Musk has made its mark. It’s a garden I feel incredibly lucky to have spent time in. As Trisha Dixon Burkitt writes in the closing pages of Rogue: Art of a Garden, “And when you think you’ve seen it all, you go backwards and through, again and again – every which way. I don’t know of a garden that can so enthral, be SO full of life, of fun, be so fluid and dynamic, so richly planted and yet so environmentally aware, so unassuming, yet so elegant…In terms of individuality and originality, Musk is totally of the Richter scale.”

Rogue: Art of a Garden, by Rick Eckersley is published by Uro Publications and will be released in March 2020.