December 15, 2023

From the ashes

When Maureen and Chris Highet finally took to gardening, it surprisingly became an instant love. However, when their property was hit by the Cudlee Creek fires in 2019, it was the kindness of strangers that kept them going.

Maureen and Chris’ property was formerly part of a 7000-acre station called Mount Beevor.

Maureen and Chris Highet were never really gardeners, so when they purchased their Harrogate farm in the late 1980s with its smattering of gumtrees (Eucalyptus mannifera), tired cypress (Cupressus) and clusters of African lilies (Agapanthus), the property’s garden stayed simple and relatively unkempt for a couple of decades.

“Chris and I both worked in the city and our children went to school in the city, so weekends were spent doing the usual thing when you’re working all week and you’ve got to catch up,” Maureen says. “Consequently, I didn’t garden.”

The property was once part of a 7000-acre station called Mount Beevor after Captain James Rigby Beevor who settled the area in 1839.

The garden surrounding the homestead is filled with African lilies and lavender.

The homestead Maureen and Chris now call home was the second established on the station, meaning the century-old home needed plenty of tender loving care.

“We completely gutted the interior of this gorgeous, old, stone house and replastered it and put in new ceilings and new floors,” Maureen says.

The couple then ran the property as a farm, taking care of Red Angus cattle.

Chris handcrafted the garden’s feature sculptures, arbours and gates.

Any thought of transforming the garden was a possibility that came much later.

In the first two decades of owning the property reinventing the garden had never bothered Maureen, but something changed when she retired in 2010.

“I was absolutely bored silly and I had no idea what I was going to do with myself as this is a farm with no nearby neighbours, my husband was still working in the city and the children had flown the nest,” she muses. “I started pottering around the homestead and I got quite enthusiastic.”

Chris then came up with the idea to move the couple’s donkeys, Rosie and Blossom, to a different paddock so Maureen could start a garden in the two-acre plot. Then he got out all his “boy’s toys” and started crafting a space for his wife to plant – driving his bobcat through the contours of the sloping paddock to create generous paths that would soon become the flourishing garden beds of Highcroft Garden.

Large “iceberg” stones that couldn’t be moved have been used for landscaping.

The couple found the terrain to be extremely rocky, so Chris’ excavator was put to work removing the abundance of rocks just below the surface.

“The rocks on the surface looked like granite, they were grey and irregularly shaped,” Maureen says. “However, the rocks beneath the ground were flat and looked like sandstone.

“He put them all aside and, because it starts off high and then steps down very gently to the roadway, he formed what I call the ‘Great Wall of Harrogate’.”

The old shearing shed has been transformed into a scenic lookout and workshop.

This great wall spans the length of the garden, adding a touch of colour and texture as well as providing the perfect environment for resident lizards to thrive.

“Iceberg” rocks that were too huge to move were planted around, with visitors assuming Maureen intentionally placed them for landscaping.

“They are actually just original rocks that we couldn’t move.”

Climbing roses decorate the arbours along the garden path.

Maureen began at the base of the paddock, planting a hedge of Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis) on both sides of the garden to create a privacy screening from the roadway.

She then started planting in her first garden bed; an abundance of rigorous conifer trees that stand proudly among burgundy barberry (Berberis) bushes and grasses in greens and greys.

Ornamental pomegranate (Punica granatum) trees dot the area, flaunting small bursts of bronze from the fruits that emerge in autumn.

Planting such a large area can quickly become expensive, so Maureen gratefully accepted cuttings from friends and visited local nurseries to purchase “sick” plants from the sales areas and cultivated them in her nursery before planting them in the garden.

Chris’ “boy’s toys” are essential for garden upkeep.

She also quickly discovered the value of water and the importance of getting the right plants for the right locations.

“We live in a bit of a rain shadow here and we don’t always get the rain that falls in the Adelaide Hills, so I knew I would have to plant drought-hardy plants,” Maureen says.

“When I first started gardening, I asked the Mediterranean Garden Society to come up and give me some advice. I cringe now when I think about it because there was nothing here and about thirty people came up, but they were very helpful and that is where I started.

If it can grow in Syria or California, it can grow in Highcroft Garden.

“I didn’t know much about Mediterranean plants and so they told me places in the world to look: if it grows in Syria or California, it will grow here.”

She started with the basics – rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) and lavender (Lavandula) – but Maureen soon discovered the abundance of plants that would bloom in the environment.

She came upon the glorious colours of oleanders (Nerium oleander) and found a favourite in Arabian lilacs (Vitex trifolia), a bush of olive-green leaves with purple undersides that bloom delicate, purple flowers.

Maureen enjoys theming sections of the garden using colour combinations.

Her beloved roses also thrived in the environment and now flaunt brilliant seas of colour throughout the garden.

She was even able to create a space inspired by formal English gardens, planting a viburnum (Viburnum tinus) hedge around a bed filled completely with white roses (Rosa iceberg).

The rockiest garden bed posed an obstacle because Maureen couldn’t plant anything with large roots, but succulent cuttings took to the land and quickly covered the area.

Maureen learned a lot from South Australian gardener Sophie Thomson, who started her garden in Mount Barker the same year Maureen retired, making their gardens about the same age.

An abundance of original infrastructure is scattered throughout the garden.

“I think I have been to every Sophie Thomson talk, if she was doing a talk somewhere, you bet I was there,” Maureen says.

“I learned a lot from her as she is also restricted with water. She has a bore, but it is very salty so she has to be careful with it.”

The flourishing garden has attracted plenty of wildlife with galahs and cockatoos flying in to eat the roses, rabbits burrowing in the garden beds, hares nibbling at the bark of the trees and kangaroos making themselves at home in the nearby paddock.

Lizards have made their home in the “Great Wall of Harrogate”.

“The kangaroos don’t eat very much but they do trample things – they go where they want to go and if the garden is in the way they’ll just go through it,” Maureen says with a laugh.

For a time, the garden was home to a resident kangaroo that Maureen and Chris’ grandchildren affectionally named Milky Way.

“I remember one day I saw her in the garden and she had a kangaroo paw flower in her paw and was nibbling on it – it was lovely,” Maureen says.

Succulents can thrive in even the rockiest of gardens.

The garden is also home to many blue wrens whom Maureen and Chris have befriended.

“They’ll fly up to the homestead and eat seed right from Chris’ hand.”

But in 2019, Maureen and Chris’ property was one of the many devastated by the Cudlee Creek bushfire that ravaged 57,563 acres of land in the Adelaide Hills.

The Highets lost about a third of their garden, including all of the much-loved roses and almost 25,000 trees across the 120-acre property.

The “Great Wall of Harrogate” is a standout feature of Highcroft Garden.

“The fire was heartbreaking and I lost my mojo there for a little while,” Maureen says. “For about three months I was really down and didn’t know how I could start again.

“We had some very generous people who gave me plants and cuttings, but I just put those in the nursery and was still questioning what I was going to do.”

It was when the couple began replacing the seven kilometres of lost fencing that Maureen’s hope was restored.

Maureen was pleasantly surprised when her beloved roses thrived in the garden.

One of the truck drivers delivering fence posts had told a friend about the damage and he offered to send an abundance of mulch to the property.

“This lovely man who I have never met sent up all these bales and that was when I started again,” Maureen says.

“I covered all this horrible soot with barley straw and it was much better because I wasn’t looking at all this devastation. That helped me mentally to get started again.”

The garden has regenerated since the fire and is once again flourishing.

From here, a journey of regeneration began and Maureen’s resilience shone through.

“I have replanted and, unbelievably, things that were burnt to the ground have regenerated.

“I had a garden group come through recently and they asked what part had been affected by the fire because you can’t see where it was anymore, which is just incredible.”

In October 2024, Highcroft Garden will host the Mediterranean Garden Society’s international conference.

Maureen and Chris have befriended the many blue wrens that make Highcroft Garden their home.

Fifty members from overseas and even more from around Australia will visit Maureen’s garden for its annual conference.

“Now it’s all about keeping the garden going in its restoration and maintaining it to this standard so it looks beautiful when the conference arrives,” Maureen says. “It is easy for it to get out of hand if you don’t stay on top of it.”

In conjunction with Open Gardens SA, Maureen will open Highcroft Garden to the public for the first time since the devastating fire, with open days planned for November.

Maureen spends at least four hours in Highcroft Garden each day, but will sometimes garden from dawn to dusk.

You can follow Maureen’s garden adventures on Instagram:


This article first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of SALIFE Gardens & Outdoor Living magazine.

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