A plot of barren farmland near Strathalbyn has been given new life by two retiring health professionals with green thumbs and big hearts.
Sgorra Bhreac garden: A hill in the mist
A little wooden sign coated in red and black paint proudly welcomes visitors to the heart of Cynthia and Graeme Nicholson’s garden at Strathalbyn. During the humble sign’s life of some three decades the weather has often beaten it into a sickly state, and each time it has been repaired, repainted and nursed back to health.
Gaelic for “hill in the mist” the sign’s inscription “Sgorra Bhreac” comes from Graeme’s Sottish family crest, with the Nicholsons originating from the Isle of Skye. Graeme arrived in Australia when he was two years old. The timber sign was crafted by their beloved friends in Waikerie, Dave and Beryl Kirby, who have since passed away. The sign has followed the Nicholsons from their Riverland home to Murray Bridge and now Strathalbyn. “You can see the emphasis and focus on memories in our garden,” says Cynthia.
Cynthia discovered the land in 2010, while living in Murray Bridge and working in Strathalbyn. She took a stroll up a hill in her lunch break and came across some abandoned farmland – not much to look at, just an old farmhouse and a peppercorn tree. But she saw potential in the barren soil and the peaceful hilly backdrop. Cynthia quickly informed Graeme she’d found the place they had dreamt of; a blank canvas to build their home and garden.
“Within 24 hours we had bought it with a handshake, and they hadn’t even finished subdividing it,” Cynthia says.
Plantings started in 2010, with Cynthia involving her Murray Bridge Social Garden Group in the project. Plants were chosen to suit the area’s climate and rainfall, with low maintenance living a focus for their retirement. Work on the Tasmanian sandstone house began in 2012, with Cynthia taking time off work to be project manager. Graeme provided a little muscle when needed. “He calls himself Manuel, because every time I need a hole dug, he becomes ‘Manuel Labour’,” Cynthia laughs.
Dotted with peaceful spots to sit and admire the plantings, winding paths meander through the uniquely themed sections, which are influenced by the couple’s four grandchildren. There are vegetable, dinosaur and fairy gardens, as well as a fruit orchard. A cacti section is full of plants propagated by their son.
Visitors who stroll through the red Torii gates find themselves in a Chinese sanctuary, which includes a Buddha tree (Ficus religiosa); the species under which Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. “It’s growing, despite my horticulturist friend’s advice that I would never get it to grow,” Cynthia says. “This piece of the garden is quiet and meditative and people just like to sit and ponder, while watching the little wrens.”
Recycled materials are used throughout, including a century-old prison door from Adelaide Gaol and a bridge made of timber from historic Bleasdale wine barrels. The Chinese gates were repurposed from an old lean-to that housed the farm’s alpacas, while Cynthia’s old pots have become homes for goldfish. Water is caught in garden ponds and channelled to underground rainwater tanks.
Having lived on a fruit block in the Riverland for many years, the couple wanted to establish a large garden before retiring. “We had a magic time when we lived in the Riverland,” Cynthia says. “Our kids grew up picking oranges, avocados and stone fruit and we’ve built our garden on those memories.” The front driveway is lined with gorgeous Cleveland Select ornamental pears. Cynthia would have loved Manchurian pears, but their larger boughs are prone to breaking in the wind. The fruit tree section contains apples, plums, cherries, nectarines, figs, mulberries, avocados, guava and walnuts.
The vegetation attracts black cockatoos, blue wrens and rosellas. “The black cockatoos are absolutely stunning and our grandchildren love looking for frogs,” Cynthia says.
The garden is a hit with groups and tours, providing a therapeutic outlet for the wider community. Groups almost always go over their allocated visiting time, but Cynthia never hurries them along. “I don’t rush groups through because we need to create that community spirit, which I think we’re losing,” she says.
Cynthia hosts lunches and morning and afternoon teas, and also speaks at service clubs about her garden. Sgorra Bhreac has hosted weddings and proven to be an intimate garden ceremony location. They have raised thousands of dollars to make various philanthropic donations, including hospital equipment and suicide prevention.
The Nicholsons are avid supporters of the Cancer Council’s Flinders and Greenhill lodges, having visited friends and family members there many times. On one occasion, Cynthia noticed the garden at Greenhill Lodge needed some TLC, and gave it a full makeover with Strathalbyn locals donating plants and materials for the project.
Having solidified their retirement dream, the biggest payoff is sharing their creation with others. “It’s about the therapy that people gain from it,” Cynthia says. “The community spirit that has been created is just magic. I enjoy the solitude, walking around and appreciating nature and the birds.”
This story first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of SALIFE Gardens & Outdoor Living magazine.
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