July 21, 2023

Labour of love

This stunning Adelaide Hills garden embodies one man’s dedicated effort to see his late wife’s grand dream through to its spectacular completion.

The garden was designed by Chris who was a co-founder of Australia’s Open Gardens Scheme and had a sharp eye for garden design.

Nigel Steele Scott’s blue eyes mist over and catch the reflection of the morning light. From his dining room table, the retired molecular geneticist takes in the panoramic view of his spectacular Mount George garden, its autumnal hues reflected in the mirror-calm surface of a spring-fed dam.

It’s a scene befitting a Monet painting and yet, in the garden’s extensive beauty, Nigel is sharply reminded of his late wife Chris Steele Scott OAM who died on Mother’s Day in 2014; a time of year that just so happens to be when the garden is at its best.

“I can’t help it; I miss her all the time,” Nigel says, his voice wavering. Chris was the architect of this dream garden, but sadly did not get to see it through to completion. “We were together for almost 60 years from when we first met. You get used to (her not being here), but you don’t get over it. I’m sure some people do, but I haven’t.”

A dam sits at the heart of Nigel Steele Scott’s Mount George garden, which was little more than a swampy paddock when he and his late wife Chris purchased the property almost 20 years ago.

Nigel is a plant scientist who worked for the CSIRO for more than 40 years and became a pioneer in the field of molecular genetics: studying the genetic information of plants. Chris was an avid plantswoman who co-founded Australia’s Open Gardens Scheme and was an active supporter of the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden.

Nigel quickly regains composure when returning to the story of his garden – named Cooinda – which started when he and Chris retired in 2004. With their children having left home, Chris became heavily involved in gardening while Nigel restored classic and vintage cars. They purchased Cooinda –12 hectares of sparse farmland – and moved from Adelaide to Mount George where Nigel could run a small cattle farm and Chris could design her garden that would occupy two hectares of their land.

While Nigel understood the science of plants, Chris was the green thumb. The couple planted everything here, except for an existing row of cottonwoods flanking the driveway entrance. A swampy paddock was excavated to create a spring-fed dam and the sloping land was retained with dry stone.

For Nigel, 85, Cooinda has been a passion project over two decades that he is excited to share with the public this month.

“We basically did all the work together, but she knew what she was doing and I had no bloody idea,” Nigel says. “It’s taken me a while to work out exactly what she was doing so I could keep working on it the way she intended.

“I was always interested in the garden and horticulture because of my work in agriculture. I wasn’t a gardener, but I always did want to be a farmer. I was interested in the land and growing things.”

Over the past 10 years, Nigel has heroically carried on the work at their expansive property to complete Chris’ vision. When he felt that he had finally accomplished his goal in 2022, he opened Cooinda to the public for the first time as part of Open Gardens SA. Opening the garden was always Chris’ intention.

The garden comes alive with fiery colour during autumn.

Today, whether he’s out on the ride-on mower, weeding or planting, the 85-year-old often thinks of Chris. “I hope she’d be pleased with the garden,” he says. Nigel is assisted once a fortnight by Dee Baker who has worked in the garden for more than a decade now. Nigel says he does most of the landscaping work and Dee takes care of the “fiddly” jobs such as pruning roses.

As Nigel talks about how the garden came to be, a wren lands on a fence just outside the window. In the paddock beyond, you can sometimes spot a pair of wedge-tailed eagles that perch atop the skeletal limbs of a long-dead Baltic pine. Nigel has sighted a rare southern brown bandicoot in the garden, along with more regular visitors of koalas, kangaroos, possums, ducks, and peregrine falcons.

Chris and Nigel could envisage this view when they purchased the property nearly 20 years ago. “The house faced another direction and we decided to redesign it so Chris could be in the kitchen, doing whatever she wanted to do, and she could see out around the garden. It’s oriented for us. It’s pretty nice to sit here and look out to the garden,” says Nigel.

Nigel busily works away, preparing to open his garden to the public this month – there is always work to be done around the two hectares of gardens.

“There’s a lot of structure to the garden that you mightn’t realise. Chris planned things for certain reasons. She very rarely planted only one plant – so if you find one, there’s probably three or four. In the case of the magnolia there’s 100 or so.”

Nigel will again open Cooinda to the public on the Mother’s Day weekend of May 13 and 14, so that others may enjoy it, with morning tea provided by members of Zonta.

“It just so happens that Mother’s Day is a time when the garden is at its best, but to me, it’s appropriate,” he says. “For others, it’s an opportunity to do something for Mother’s Day – come up to the Adelaide Hills, look at a nice garden and enjoy morning tea.

“I hope people enjoy it, that’s the main thing. There are many plants here that some people mightn’t recognise. May is a great time in this garden and it should be right on the money for colour.”

Cooinda is an Indigenous word meaning “happy place”.

The garden features an array of Japanese maples that put on a special shown in autumn. Above the house there is a small parterre garden where perennial flowers such as peonies emerge from time to time.

There is a perfumed area, a rose garden, an arboretum of deciduous trees, an assortment of natives, a vegetable plot and fruit trees. The dam is surrounded by semiaquatic plants including a huge giant rhubarb, Gunnera manicata.

There are some rare specimens around the property including an excellent Wollemi Pine – one of the world’s oldest and rarest plants dating back to the time of the dinosaurs – and a rare Japanese climbing hydrangea, Schizofragma hydrangeoides. Nigel and Chris tried unsuccessfully to grow several golden oak seedlings, but one of Nigel’s most recent attempts is showing promise.

Nigel and Chris renovated and extended their home so as to make the most of the garden views.

“This one looks like it will go,” he says of the notoriously difficult-to-cultivate species.

Like a botanic garden of its own, Cooinda contains many excellent specimens of trees including towering oaks, pines, turpentines and eucalyptus. The central dam is surrounded by pin oaks, conifers, maples and liquidambars, all planted by Nigel and Chris.

As SALIFE leaves Cooinda, Nigel prepares to return to the ride-on-mower to take up where he left off, focusing on the task at hand but, at times thinking of his life partner of 60 years. It’s all worth it at the end of the day when he looks out to the garden, knowing Chris’ vision is alive and well: in living – and loving – memory.

Cooinda is an all-seasons garden, but May is when it is at its most spectacular as the many trees – planted by Nigel and Chris – come into their autumnal coats.

“It’s a lot of work for one person but you’ve got to have something to do,” says Nigel. “It keeps you busy and keeps your mind active. I’m still learning all the time.”

For Open Gardens South Australia, Cooinda will open to the public on May 13 and 14. Visit opengardensa.org.au for more information.


This article first appeared in the May 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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