Interview: Ralph Durr

Ralph Durr runs the kind of operation that immediately brings to mind Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Reserve in the Tom Robbins book, Another Roadside Attraction. It consists of a plant nursery, picture framing business, and railway museum, all housed within the Talbot train station in central Victoria.

The scenery changes from the lushness of the Macedon Ranges to the cleansing dryness of the Central Goldfields as my son and I drive through Tylden (where once I saw a couple walking their pet llama to get the paper and a coffee). We then pass through Daylesford, and the Swiss Mountain Hotel, stop for a hamburger at that little van in Newlyn, and soon arrive in Talbot, population 296.

I never know what I will find at Ralph’s. A giant pepper tree arches over rickety tables of natives, herbs and succulents, tables overflowing with old books, a Box Brownie camera, bric a brac, and more. A railway shed houses timber off-cuts and a model boat, and cherry tomatoes dry next to a miniature railway. Inside the station a fire roars while I make ponderous decisions on matt boards and framing moulds…

Hi Ralph! Can you tell us a bit about your business?
Well it’s basically two businesses. One is picture framing, and one is growing plants. And I started off with a bit of a railway museum.

The two businesses merge in well because if it’s a wet and cold day I can be inside doing the framing, and vice versa, if its nice and warm I will be outside. I find it tedious to do framing 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. You’ve got to concentrate. Whereas when you’re with plants you can think about something else and do something else like listen to the radio. We’re not a flash nursery, not every plant has got a label or price.

We do picture framing and we also restore old frames. We’re probably one of the few framers that restore old things. It’s a bit of a can of worms when you open up an old picture frame, it’s usually twice as much work as making the whole thing from scratch.

So what is happening in the workshop at the moment?
I’ve always said that we do the impossible most of the week, and miracles by appointment only. I’m actually working on one at the moment. It’s from 1919, it’s a Paris frame but it’s plaster. And it’s actually a mirror and it came from an old property here. I’m just trying to pull it apart and put it back together again.

Road trips – do people take them to get to you in Talbot?
That’s the beauty of being here. I’ve discovered that Talbot is sort of in the middle of nowhere, but it’s actually the centre of everywhere. I think that’s one of the reasons our farmer’s market works.

How did you come to live and work in a railway station?
I’ve always been interested in railways. I went to a garage sale at the Clunes railway station, and I was talking to the chap, and he said he had a long-term lease on it and he was moving.

I found out that there were quite a few other stations throughout Victoria at the time – I think 30 or 40 – available. I decided on Talbot mainly because the railway infrastructure was here with a siding. I was planning to buy a railway carriage, and I needed somewhere that I could put it.

This was about 15-20 years ago. Because railways had no use for the buildings, and generally they were heritage listed and they couldn’t be pulled down, they had a quandary what they could do with them. When I came here there were no doors, or windows, or floors. It was totally derelict.

Any ‘character building’ moments when you first set up?
I had a major disaster the first few years, I spent a couple of thousand dollars putting in plants that just didn’t suit. Most of the plants I grew in Ballarat just don’t grow here because of the frost mainly. And then in the last fifteen years we’ve had more droughts, more dry weather.

This area of Victoria used to be under the sea, so the soil is very poor. It’s very old, but lacking in nutrients. So I’ve evolved over fifteen years with different plants that suit the area. We mainly grow succulents, herbs and natives. We grow them all ourselves from seed and cuttings.

When did your love of plants start?
When I was about 10 I think. I remember the first plant I grew was Cootamundra wattle. I collected seeds in the front garden, I put them in pots and grew them from there.

Are there any particular plants that intrigue you?
I’ve always been interested in medicinal herbs like wormwood. It’s actually quite a dangerous drug used in the wrong way. It’s what they used to make absinthe from. I think there were some famous painters who used to infuse it in alcohol that virtually sent you crazy.

It’s a repellent herb so it repels mosquitoes and insects. It’s also very good with chooks, the chooks peck at it. It’s sort of like a worming agent as well.

I find it interesting because it’s been around for hundreds of years, and I remember it in my childhood in Gippsland on an old farm as a hedge. I can always recall the smell of it, it’s very distinctive.