An undercurrent of passion runs beneath the surface of this tranquil South East garden and its array of sculptures, wetlands, quince trees and peacocks.
Gardens: Paradise in Penola
Envisage a wetland reflecting the gnarled features of towering river red gums and the golden autumn foliage of oaks and elms, with the croaking and splashing of frogs and ducks punctuated by the occasional cry of an iridescent blue and green peacock roosting in a tree. Still Water garden is three hectares of heaven.
Cathy Hughes and Rick Paltridge are the custodians of this verdant garden abutting their Penola cattle property, which has belonged to Rick’s family for 150 years. The garden was first designed in 1959 by his step-grandmother Mary Skene-Kidman, who named the property Still Water after a Psalm from the Bible.
“It’s a beautiful part of the world and we feel blessed to look out onto it every day. It’s a place where we feel calm and generally at peace – our little slice of paradise,” says Cathy.
Today, the park-like garden is a confluence of Rick and Cathy’s respective passions of building sculptures and growing quinces. The grounds are dotted with an array of Rick’s skilfully crafted pieces inspired by US architect Frank Lloyd Wright, while Cathy’s main point of focus is her quince orchard of about 100 trees.
“I came to the South East for work and Rick jokes that I married him for his water licence,” says Cathy. The couple married 10 years ago and began planting their quince orchard in 2013.
“I don’t have a background in being an orchardist, so I call it an experimental orchard. I’m faking it until I make it.”
Over the past century, the diversity of Australia’s quince varieties has more than halved. Inspired to keep the “quince magic” alive, Cathy has slowly collected every variety available in the country.
“I can hold my hand on my heart and say that I’ve got all 16 of Australia’s known varieties growing in the orchard. They’re a beautiful fruit to cook with and they have so many uses. I’m also interested in the broader cultural and historical connections that come with this very ancient and almost forgotten fruit.”
It was quince jelly that first kick-started Cathy’s obsession and she has since created recipes for everything from chutney to ice cream, while making a range of products under her brand Quince HQ.
“Quince works beautifully in sweet and savoury dishes, and pairs well with spices such as ginger, cinnamon and cloves and foods like lamb, apples and cheese,” she says.
“Quinces have been around for a long time. It’s like an epic love story about a fruit that we’ve fallen in and out of love with. Most people know quince as an ugly, wrinkly fruit but there are varieties that are small and apple-like, have a lovely velvet skin and are quite beautiful. They haven’t been developed commercially and I think that’s the appeal; their imperfections are part of their beauty.”
In the garden, Cathy has converted original iris and rose plantings into two connected perennial borders, while the older section, called “the shrubbery”, reflects the original blueprints and plantings influenced by 20th century landscape designer Edna Walling. The grounds are interspersed with 50-year-old deciduous trees planted by Rick’s step-grandmother.
Still Water is a spectacular spring garden, yet Cathy’s favourite season is autumn, when the tree canopies develop their golden coats and the quinces come into season.
The garden is home to a pride of resident peacocks and peahens. As soon as the female hatches her chicks, Cathy must be quick to get them into the secure orchard and out of the reach of foxes. The orchard is also a permanent home to a pair of ducks that keep the bugs at bay.
“The peacocks are undemanding, but they are gorgeous. They talk to each other for six months of the year, fanning and strutting around, but for the rest of the year you’d hardly know they’re here,” Cathy says.
The property’s gravel driveway winds off of the main road, past a Mount Gambier limestone wall recently built by Rick. It is just one of his spectacular installations that are dotted throughout the grounds.
“Rick might have been an architect in another life. He is always thinking about the next project and Frank Lloyd Wright has been a long-held interest of his. Fortunately, we’ve got a huge garden space in which he can live his dream,” says Cathy.
Typical of the Penola region, the property has always had a swamp, surrounded by red gums that date back hundreds of years. To encourage native wildlife, Rick developed the swamp into a much larger two-level wetland joined by a small waterfall.
“Rick was concerned about the reduction in wildlife diversity, so this was his commitment to bring back the birds, insects and reptiles, and that’s exactly what’s happening. We now have native ducks and ducklings that use it as their home base. The frog life is incredible; some nights we can’t hear ourselves because there are so many of them,” says Cathy.
In the perfect location to sit and look out over the water, a memorial seat is appointed with a plaque that is inscribed as the Mary Skene-Kidman Memorial Wetland Seat.
“Friends and visitors to the garden often comment on how relaxing it is to see that water feature among the big river red gums, which have the most amazing reflections on a nice day. We’re very lucky; it’s a beautiful part of the world.”
This story first appeared in the April 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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