Plant / Life: Coombe Estate

In 1909, after nearly 20 years of international success, Australia’s first lady of opera, Dame Nellie Melba returned to Australia and bought a property in Coldstream, Victoria. She built a house, calling it Coombe Cottage, and the garden soon followed. A grand cypress hedge was planted, enclosing the property, and creating a sense of intrigue and mystery that has lasted the past 100 years. In 2014, the gardens hidden behind the hedge were opened to the public for the first time.

The garden at Coombe Estate is nestled amongst the lush farmland and vineyards of the Yarra Valley.
The garden at Coombe is around 100 years old
A voluptuous wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) winds its way around the verandah of Coombe Cottage.

Coombe is still owned by Dame Nellie Melba’s descendants, the Vestey family. Lady Pamela Vestey, Melba’s granddaughter, lived on the estate from the 1970s until her death in 2011. The property is now owned by Lady Vestey’s two sons, Lords Sam and Mark Vestey, and has been managed by a passionate estate manager, Daniel Sinclair Johnson, for the last 12 years. Daniel spends his days running tours of the gardens, managing the six gardeners, and overlooking The Melba Collection of artworks, gifts, jewellery and personal effects.

‘The estate houses some of the most beautiful internationally-inspired gardens in Victoria’, says Daniel. The seven acres of gardens consist of an Italianate garden and pool, a French style rose garden, an English herbaceous border, a native garden, and a kitchen garden. The different areas of the garden are surrounded by the famous 10 metre high hedge, running 700 meters around the garden’s perimeter.

The hedge is part of the original design, and according to Daniel was recorded in paintings by Hans Heysen in 1914.

Daniel’s favourite part of the garden is slightly newer than the iconic hedge. ‘I love the native garden and pond,’ he says. ‘This was created on what used to be a tennis court, played on by a former Wimbledon winner! Lady Vestey and I planted the natives and built the frog pond ten years ago, and it has now matured and softened to become a highlight of the formal gardens.’

Perhaps due to the mystery suggested by the tall hedges, or to the celebrity of garden’s former owner, there are plenty of stories about Coombe. One is the story about the 20,000 daffodils sent from the Blue Mountains of NSW to Coombe as payment for a performance by Melba. Another is story about Charlie Chaplin in the swimming pool, which is alleged to be the first swimming pool ever built in Victoria!

One story we do know to be fact, though, is the one about Lady Pamela Vestey being christened in the bird-bath in the garden! ‘This is typical of the true nature of Melba,’ Daniel says. ‘Her humour resounds throughout the property. The garden is a place of fun and relaxation, a happy place.’

Coombe Yarra Valley garden tours operate from Monday to Saturday. Visit their website for more info and bookings.

A huge old oak tree at Melba Estate
A peony plant (Paeonia spp.)
The frog pond, framed by a pair of red flowering camellias (Camellia japonica cvs)
The garden at Coombe is broken up into a series of rooms, each with a different feel. This gateway leads to the swimming pool, surrounded by ornamental fruit trees, in full blossom at the time of the shoot
The driveway entrance to Melba Estate
An avenue of pine trees frames one of the roads within the estate.