History of Heide Gardens
The Heide landscape has a long history as fertile ground for the physical and cultural sustenance of its inhabitants. The story of the site begins with the Wurundjeri-willam people of the Woiwurring language group, the traditional owners of an area that encompasses the Yarra Basin and surrounding streams. Before European contact and since the beginning of the Dreamtime they had been caring for and living sustainably on the land. In the region’s open forest there was an abundance of plant food, and the Wurundjeri caught fish, eels and yabbies, and hunted possums, kangaroos and birds.
While the Wurundjeri lived lightly on the land their presence continues to be felt at Heide, with a magnificent scar tree on the property—a large river red gum estimated to be 400 years old. Given the Woiwurrung name ‘Yingabeal’ in 2014, it is one of the region’s most significant examples and marks the location of a gathering place and the convergence point of five songlines. This towering tree on the brow of the hill overlooking the river remains the spiritual heart of the property.
After Europeans arrived in the area the landscape changed irrevocably, and it was quickly subdivided and cultivated for farming. Much of the Bulleen, Templestowe and Doncaster district was turned into orchards by the 1860s, though the Heide property and others in the immediate surrounding area were used for sheep, dairy and vegetable farming for the next 100 years.
photograph: John Gollings
photograph: John Gollings
photograph: Jeremy Weihrauch
When the Reeds acquired Heide in 1934 they undertook considerable restoration work on the cottage, which prevented them from taking up residence until April 1935. They utilised this waiting period to take stock of the property, establish the basis of the first kitchen garden and initiate their planting program. There were hardly any trees except for some large pines and a few others around the house, and several red gums, manna gums, wattles and willows on the riverbank. Yet the whole landscape, John Reed remembered, ‘with the winding river as its artery gave us a deep sense of pleasure, and even then we saw Heide as becoming a little park, and really we always worked towards that end’.
With this vision in mind, from late 1934 the Reeds started to plant as many trees as possible. They sourced a range of exotics including alders, birches, chestnuts, golden ash, lindens, oaks, poplars, giant redwoods, a sycamore, walnuts and willows. Trees usually planted in other suburbs were not among the selection, suggesting that from the beginning John and Sunday had a taste for more unusual and even rare species, and were developing a ‘collection’ rather than designing conventional parklands.
With the help of talented gardener Neil Douglas in the 1930s they established an orchard of apple and pear trees in front of the house, a smaller grove of stone fruit on its south side, and a wider complement of fruit and nut trees elsewhere, such as almond, crab apple, fig, hazelnut, lemon, loquat, pomegranate, persimmon and walnut. John also planted an Algerian oak behind the house, using dynamite to blast a hold in the shale reef on the slope of the hill.
The layout around the cottage, while developed organically rather than to a rigid plan, more of less conformed to Gertrude Jekyll’s Arts and Crafts notion of a garden as a series of rooms with diverse characters and functions. With Douglas’s assistance a walled garden and herbaceous borders were created in the 1930s, and his creativity informed a wild garden south of the cottage.
The Reeds and Neil Douglas had in common a penchant for unusual plants that contributed to the character of the Heide gardens. In particular, this can be seen in the installation of two avenues of Osage orange trees to act as a windbreak for Sunday’s kitchen garden. The drought-tolerate North-American species was an inspired choice for the poor soil in this area of the site and today is recognised as a heritage stand on the National Trust Register of Significant Trees. Its inedible, nobbled, bright green fruit attract the attention of many visitors who walk through the Heide gardens in autumn.
The Reeds’ decision in the early 1960s to build Heide Modern coincided with a marked shift in their approach to the planting out of the property. The house was designed to integrate the exterior with the interior: a house—gallery—garden continuum, and they rethought their long-standing program of growing exotic species and committed themselves to Australian plants and trees. They investigated the vegetation indigenous to the district with a view to recreating an authentic sense of the original habitat.
While Heide Modern was being built Sunday created another kitchen garden, adapting all her learnings from the previous decades. Her distinctive design remains in place today, as does her range of plantings that blend vegetables and annuals in the lower beds while the upper section is delicate and perfumed. The installation of a pool on a flat area of land at the top of the paddock in 1974 rounded out their major work in the wider Heide landscape.
In all the Heide gardens were much more than the backdrop to an important chapter in the story of Australian modernism; they were part of its quotidian reality, and required full-time work. Since the museum’s opening in 1981 the gardens have been added to with an artist’s garden by Fiona Hall featuring native plants, a healing garden near the Heide Cottage, and Yaluk Langa, an indigenous garden at the river’s edge that is a long-term project. The sculpture park that John Reed began with sculptures by David Tolley and Ron Upton, continues to develop with installations and commissions is a distinguishing feature of Heide Museum of Modern Art today.
photograph: John Gollings