Q&A with He­len Young.

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & DRINK - 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.

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