A selection of delights worth planting now.
If not the quaint roadside stall Natasha Morgan decks with her homemade preserves, cordials, posies and fresh cut flowers on the run through the Wombat State Forest to Daylesford, you may never notice the rambling timber cottage set back among a grove of big trees. A gravel drive meanders into this enclave of oaks, pines and an ancient monkey-puzzle tree, and circles a garden bed at the front door. Once inside the house, you take in the gardens, the beds overflowing with herbs, vegetables, berries and flowers. Further out are a cluster of beehives, an orchard and a chicken run. And overlooking it all is the shipping container Natasha has converted into a studio space, where she holds bespoke dinners and events, and workshops on everything from seasonal food, foraging and floristry, to garden design and dry stonewalling. The old house, on two hectares, was once the post office for the tiny hamlet of Spargo Creek, 100 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. It has not only been home for two-and-a-half years, but the hub of the new life Natasha and partner Michael Howard have created for themselves and their children, Saffron, five, and Oliver, three. Previously, they lived in Melbourne’s West Footscray, where for several years they had been “passively” looking for a place in the country. “We had a list: a radius of one-and-a-half-hour’s drive from Melbourne, high rainfall, good soil, and art and culture. I’d imagined a weekender — somewhere to have a garden and grow things,” says Natasha. “We’d visited friends in the area often over the years, and when we got a real-estate alert, we thought, this looks interesting! We came on the weekend, stood under the trees in the paddocks, looked at each other and said, ‘How are we going to make this happen?’” Natasha trained as an architect and landscape architect. She has worked as an urban designer, landscape architect, and a lecturer at Melbourne University and RMIT, where she continues to teach part-time. Michael is a landscape architect, too, currently lecturing full-time at RMIT. It was after the children arrived that Natasha felt a need to re-evaluate. “I was ruminating on what I was doing with my life,” she says. “When I thought of the things I like, it was always things with my hands: gardening. I wanted a place to grow and harvest. I’d always loved flowers, and the ideas evolved. This property was the answer to my questions.” Meanwhile, Natasha had taken time out to do a floral workshop with Katie Marx at Newstead in central Victoria. Michael is also a horticulturalist and had once been a buyer for noted landscape designer Paul Bangay, among others. “He has a huge love of flowers, too,” Natasha adds. They moved to Spargo Creek, in Victoria’s cool central highlands, in the dead of winter. “It was very cold — down >
to minus four — but beautiful.” The house had an original 1800s section that comprised front and rear rooms with an upstairs attic space. A new wing with the main bedroom and bathroom had been built about 10 years before they arrived, although it was never finished. “The previous owner had half renovated; when we came it was almost derelict. There were burn piles everywhere and broken glass. The house was grotty. There had been dogs, cats and bats inside, and there were Acrow props holding up a wall in the dining room.” Natasha and Michael did some work themselves and managed the rest on a small budget: they opened up the alcove around a wood-burning stove that they use at times for cooking and warmth (“It had such a low hob; I couldn’t get my head under,” says Natasha); re-lined the kitchen and installed new cupboards and an oven; and replastered the sitting room. While removing “10 layers of wallpaper, hessian, plaster and masonite” from the dining room wall, they discovered an early timber and earth wall imprinted with finger marks and covered with old battens. It’s now a standout feature. “We said, we’re not covering this up again! We put a sealer over the rammed earth and left it as is.” The new wing has herringbone-pattern parquetry floors that had been left unsanded. “We sanded, stained and sealed them,” says Natasha. However, they resisted sanding other floorboards. “We didn’t want to lose the ‘memory of the boards’.” Instead, they painted them with black exterior paving paint and did the walls in charcoal or white. The couple’s love of antiquity creates the harmony in their decorating tastes. “Michael likes gold and gilt; I like utilitarian — stoneware, copper, pewter. I collect antlers and he collects candlesticks, but we have a shared sensibility and love patina. Things have got to feel worn; we look for things with potential. And the house is the same for us. It had architectural merit and history — the things we love.” In 2015, Natasha made a New Year resolution to learn to use power tools. And the first thing she made was the shelving for her larder in the mudroom. “I love preserving,” she says, looking at the well-stocked shelves. Establishing the garden for produce and cut flowers was also a priority. “There were five apple trees and we put in another 18 mixed fruit trees, plus started on the terraces for the kitchen garden, which we finished in September last year.” They call their farm Oak and Monkey Puzzle after the trees they fell in love with on their first visit. Through her Instagram account and workshops, Natasha has discovered a region full of creative people. “There are amazing artisans here,” she says, “and the ethos of our workshops is sharing and creating an experience. If we’re doing flower workshops, there’s always an installation in the studio. Or if we’re doing dry stonewalling, everyone works on it. Things keep evolving. It’s a place to grow, harvest and get unbelievable satisfaction. I’m happy here. I just knew it was going to come together.”
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT Michael has collected the sitting room’s artworks from markets, auctions and vintage stores; Natasha’s roadside stall; the dining room boasts an original earth wall, table from ebay and painting from Camberwell market; a rooster patrols the orchard; a family portrait; old soil sieves make inspired wall decor. FACING PAGE Natasha on the verandah with some of her freshly picked flowers.
CLOCKWISE, FROM LEFT The rose painting is by Dora Mcrae, a friend of Natasha’s grandmother, also an artist, whose easel sits alongside. The chair is from Manteau Noir and the desk from Izzi & Popo; Joshua Bowes teaches dry stonewalling; Natasha’s delicate drawings; foraged greenery and cut flowers. FACING PAGE Jam simmers atop the wood stove in the alcove. For stockist details, see page 141.