Q&A with Helen Young.
DESCRIBE THE GARDEN: Nellie Melba purchased the property, a 24ha dairy farm, in 1909. It’s at the gateway to the Yarra Valley, about 45 minutes east of Melbourne. She remodelled the house and gardens, creating a grand estate of nine bedrooms and 2.8ha of formal gardens, utilising the skills of William Robert Guilfoyle, architect of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. There are individual themes consolidating Melba’s world travels, including the Italian garden, croquet lawn, rose garden and arbour, native garden, herbaceous border, vegetable garden, orchard and Italianate pool and bathing boxes. A grand cypress hedge 720m long and up to 8m tall that was planted as a windbreak more than 100 years ago circles the formal gardens. Many people have long wondered what lies behind this commanding hedge.
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL? As well as the unparalleled provenance, it’s the family connection. Coombe was Melba’s home until she died in 1931 and is still owned by her family, who stay here regularly. Celia Vestey, her great-granddaughter-in-law, has a world-renowned garden in the Cotswolds and is heavily involved with the plantings. The history of the garden has been captured in paintings by Hans Heysen and other artists, unseen by the public for 80 years and now on display in the gallery.
HOW DOES THE PROPERTY OPERATE NOW? We opened to the public in late 2014 after 10 years of working to bring it up to scratch. The converted stable block now offers a restaurant, cellar door, providore and a gallery that celebrates Melba’s life achievements with changing displays from her collections and belongings. We host opera and theatre performances, weddings and other special events. It’s the family’s hope that Melba’s legacy and story live on by opening the estate to all. To visit the garden, visitors must book on a tour, as it’s still a private, family garden. Go to coombeyarravalley.com for details.
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: Water — both the lack of it and drainage issues with the clay loam soil. When I arrived 12 years ago the property had only mains water so a priority was restoring the dam, windmill and pump shed.
FAVOURITE PART: Melba’s granddaughter Pamela Vestey always dreamed of a native garden with frog pond and fountain. Work to create it from a disused bitumen tennis court 10 years ago was completed for her 90th birthday.
WHAT’S LOOKING GOOD? The rose garden, replanted over the past four years, is looking wonderful. We try hard to have garden highlights through the year, so it’s a feast for the senses no matter when you arrive.