March 8, 2024

The cottage in the hills

Having garnered tens of thousands of social media followers who have connected with his hands-on transformation of a run-down Adelaide Hills property that was once the home of a horticultural pioneer, Brenton Roberts might just be South Australia’s most famous home gardener.

Brent is often working in his garden as early as 5am and his dedication to gardening has struck a chord with followers of his Instagram page.

Overgrown with a tangle of blackberry bushes. No mains water. A bushfire hazard and as steep as a ski slope. When Ray Brodie Cottage was listed for sale in 2011, prospective buyers turned tail and ran. Tucked away in scrubland next to a stringybark forest behind Aldgate, the ramshackle 1868 cottage wasn’t a fixer-upper – it was a nightmare.

The unrelenting march of the bush was overwhelming the steep two-hectare property, hiding clues that the cottage had once been the home of distinguished 20th century gardener, Tullie Cornthwaite Wollaston. Wollaston had lived in the cottage during the early 1900s while he designed the gardens and nursery of a nearby estate that was years later owned by Sir Alexander Downer. Today, it is Arbury Park Outdoor School.

Wollaston was so well connected that in 1927 the director of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens paid him a visit. But this fascinating tidbit of local history had been omitted from the real estate listing when the run-down Ray Brodie Cottage was put on the market 12 years ago.

Brenton Roberts’ love of gardens was instilled at an early age, while growing up on his family’s farm in Mount Barker.

The listing simply pitched: “Broad appeal especially for those with vision who are prepared to put in some effort to realise a dream lifestyle”.

Enter Brenton Roberts, a national sales manager, and his wife Libby, a children’s occupational therapist, who were living in Melbourne at the time.

“Some effort,” however, was a wild understatement.

Brent and his wife Libby have created a dream family home and garden on a slim budget and over a short time frame since moving into their 155-year-old cottage just over a decade ago

Brent had developed a love of plants from an early age while growing up on a farm in Mount Barker.

“My grandma loved plants,” he says. “When I was growing up, I found it relaxing and peaceful to be in her garden. She had plants everywhere. She’d go for a walk and come back having pinched cuttings from around the neighbourhood.”

When he was 17, Brent lived with his mum in a Rose Park maisonette that adjoined the home of politician Christopher Pyne. Brent took ownership of their outdoor space and gardened alongside his politician neighbour on many occasions. “We used to garden together quite often. He’s a very funny guy. We had a shared wall covered in ivy and we were always cutting it back,” says Brent.

Brent trims his corkscrew Mexican cypress

“I get relaxation and peace from being in the garden. I find it soothing and healing – they say that when you see green, it has a calming effect physiologically and so when I’m in the garden, enclosed by the plants around me, it really is a happy place. I think it’s just inbuilt.”

Libby met Brent around the time of his 21st birthday. “I have to admit, when I went around to his house and saw his garden, I was impressed to find out that he’d created it himself,” says Libby. “We spent hours hanging out in the garden when we first met. Chatting to him as I watched him work in the garden – which is still how we are today.”

Brent pursued a career in sales but regrets that creative pathways didn’t seem as accessible when he finished school back in the late 1990s.

“People didn’t push you into creative careers like they do today. I’d never heard of garden design, or even design in general. Gardening has just been a great creative outlet for me,” he says.

In 2012, the couple was living in a small home in inner-city Melbourne with their first child, Lachlan (now 14). Brent studied garden design part-time through Melbourne University. “In Melbourne, we could be in the living room and talk through the window to our neighbours,” says Brent.

Longing for more space and a return to SA, they kept an eye on properties in the Adelaide Hills and discovered Ray Brodie Cottage. Where others saw a nightmare, Brent envisaged a fairy tale. Even before they bought it, he’d drawn up a garden design. His boss at the time gifted him a consultation with renowned garden designer Paul Bangay as a going-away present. “We were excited and had so much energy. I had this picture in my mind of what it could look like,” says Brent.

Euphorbia wulfenii flourish at Ray Brodie Cottage, self-seeding around the property to create brilliant swathes of lime-green.

“You could see people had gardened here once before. There were old oak trees and a remnant camellia grove that’s probably as old as this house. Euphorbias and echiums were wildly overgrown and had self-seeded, so I knew what plants might work well.”

With the steep slope, the first challenge was creating two large level terraces – the upper for a lawn and the lower for a pebbled landing where the family now enjoy summer dinners among the London plane trees.

Brent organised local builders to drop off their unwanted clean fill. Some days, he’d come home from work and find 10 new truck loads. “It was an excavation site that looked like the scene from the lunar landing for a good 18 months,” he says.

Brenton and Libby stroll through the avenue of Manchurian pears with their youngest children Maya, 10, and Billy, 5, and their rescue kelpie Thorby.

The couple has worked countless hours clearing the overgrown scrub to create a firebreak around the cottage. One of Libby’s favourite jobs is hacking away with the whipper snipper.

“The garden kind of looks unfinished and that’s because it is – we haven’t bought an instant garden. Growing the espaliered trees across the wall is ongoing. That’s been six or seven years and we just continue to tie the branches on,” says Brent.

The steep driveway has been planted with 60 Manchurian pears that have grown into a towering alley that is gorgeous when in bud. “It’s been a patience game. For example, instead of buying mature corkscrew cypress trees we started with knee-high plants, and I gradually shaped them as they grew.”

Surrounded by Brent’s fairy tale garden, the cottage provides bucolic views to gum trees and bushland.

An historic stone shed towers over Brent’s storybook vegetable patch, full of rustic charm thanks to recycled materials and stick fencing. Inspired by Gardening Australia’s late Peter Cundall, Brent adopted a system of six raised vegetable beds whereby crops are rotated on a six-year cycle.

To Libby, Brent’s seemingly infinite drive and energy are a mystery. “I don’t know how he keeps on top of it with a full-time (sales) job, he doesn’t sit for long,” she says. But for Brent, time in the garden is a happy place – something he yearns for. And when he does take time to sit back, he’s thinking about the next project.

“Even little things like being on the ride-on mower, coffee in hand, there’s something really relaxing about it,” says Brent. “In summer, you can be gardening at five in the morning, come in just before seven for a very quick shower and be in the car by 7.30am. Then I get home and will be outside gardening, we’ll have a barbecue, and stay out until 8pm.”

Brent took to gardening early, but had never heard of garden design when he finished school in the late 1990s.

Early on, Brent set up an Instagram page as a way to document his progress. Now, he has snowballed a massive following of more than 70,000 people from around the world – a number that’s up there with celebrities and influencers. Not bad for a hobbyist gardener. He attributes the growth in part to posting consistently.

“To start with, the Instagram thing wasn’t necessarily about sharing it with other people, I just wanted a record of the journey, capturing the progress along the way. I remember at one point I had 800 followers and thought that was a lot because I didn’t have that many friends,” he says.

“It’s a story that people are interested in. There was a tipping point when I realised people other than my friends were following me. They started asking questions about things I was doing in the garden, so I started doing quick videos.

A grove of camellia trees had been overwhelmed by thick scrub which Brent and Libby have cleared back.

“There are before-and-afters and projects such as building dry stone walls, and I think people find it calming. The same relaxation that I find in the garden, you get some of that through the screen.

“During Covid, people would say: ‘I love watching your videos, because I’m in lockdown in Europe where we can’t go outside and it’s really nice to see your spring garden’. Some people have been following our journey for years and there’s a community of gardeners who are just as passionate about it as I am.”

Brent’s online videos document jobs like trimming Manchurian pears to simply panning across the hypnotic drone of the sprinklers watering his summer garden beds. In other videos he takes viewers on walking tours. The aim is to eventually host an open garden, maybe next year.

On what was previously a steep slope, the lower terrace is now perfect for summer dinners among the London plane trees.

While he takes great joy sharing his garden with a large community, it’s having created an incredible lifestyle for his family that gives Brent the most satisfaction.

The plan is to start his own garden design business. For now, his number one clients are happy, particularly five-year-old son Billy and 10-year-old daughter Maya who follow dad around the garden with their mini wheelbarrow and spade.

“The great thing about gardening is that I’m not always stealing from family time and I do try and drag the kids out with me,” says Brent. “I often garden in the morning while the kids are still sleeping.

The gravel driveway leads past the house to a romantic old barn which serves as a garden shed next to Brent’s veggie patch. Inspired to become self-sufficient, the family enjoys their lifestyle of having freshly-grown produce while using rainwater and a bore to keep their garden green.

“It’s spectacular at about 6.30am on a summer’s morning, with the sunlight hitting the walls of the old cottage. Every time I’m up at that hour, I’m blown away. I love it.

“If I’m lucky, I’ll get to do a full day of gardening but if I can just get a pocket of an hour or two in the garden, it keeps me happy.”

Brent and Libby have called Ray Brodie Cottage home for just a blink in its 155-year history, but have written its most famous chapter, bringing their garden to thousands far and wide. If Tullie Wollaston could only see it now.


Follow Brenton’s garden journey on his Instagram page.

This story first appeared in the October 2023 issue of SALIFE Magazine.

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