There’s a patch of paradise in the depths of Melbourne’s northern suburbs; illustrated on Google Maps by clouds of green tree canopies, rather than grids of roofs and streets. This place of trees, gardens, and thoughtfully located houses is Bickleigh Vale; a unique 10-hectare housing development created by renowned landscape designer Edna Walling in the 1920s.
Walling was a trailblazer. She set about designing and building Bickleigh Vale when she was in her mid 20s, at a time when women were not expected to undertake paid work, let alone design, build and develop housing estates! She was tough too – all prospective owners were required to agree to Walling’s involvement in the design of both their house and garden, and to the supply of plants from her on-site nursery.
‘There will be sixteen or seventeen cottages with gardens varying from half an acre to an acre and a half, and every assistance will be extended to the inhabitants of the village in the planting of their trees and the planning of their gardens,’ Walling states in an article in Woman’s World. ‘By this means it is hoped that eventually the whole scheme will present a series of delightful landscape pictures…’
Fast forward nearly 90 years and Jen Vardy, her husband Paul and four children are custodians of one of the larger ‘landscape pictures’ at Bickley Vale – The Barn – Walling’s home from 1951 until her move to Queensland in 1967.
Jen and her family have been living at The Barn for the last six and a half years. The pair wanted to provide their growing family with freedom and space to roam, a rare commodity in the tightly packed suburbs of the city. When they saw the barn in the newspaper real estate listings, they pounced!
‘Our move to Bickleigh Vale was largely influenced by our childhoods,’ says Jen. ‘I grew up on a small farm with a big garden outside Bendigo, and Paul grew up on a dairy farm in Gippsland with a garden either designed or heavily influenced by Edna Walling. The Barn had the same feeling as the farm, yet is only half an hour from the city.’
The Barn sits among a vast 1¼ acre (5000 square meter!) rambling garden framed by stands of native and exotic trees, sweeping lawns, and abundant garden beds. It’s clearly a wonderland for Jen and Paul’s children, and a labour of love for Jen. ‘The garden is not a really manicured garden, and I don’t think that was Edna’s style. It’s a bit of work, but if I’m outside, it means the kids are outside,’ she says.
Jen and Paul’s kids are a lucky bunch. There are little gates between all the properties in the village, meaning the kids can run from one property to another, garden to garden. ‘Not only do we have more space, we also have become part of a great community,’ says Jen. ‘Edna’s vision when she established Bickleigh Vale was to create a community of like-minded garden people, and I think we still have that today. It’s really special’.
Since moving to Bickleigh Vale Jen has read up on Edna Walling and her work and philosophies, and I ask her what it feels like to be the owner of a garden like hers – a garden designed and tended to by one of Australia’s most renowned landscape designers? Her approach is sensitive and respectful, yet pragmatic.
‘It’s been nice to slowly to put our own stamp on the garden, and at the same time feel like caretakers,’ she says. ‘In her later years Walling used more native plants in her gardens, and we’ve started to do this too, as Melbourne can be a bit boom and bust in terms of weather. Plants indigenous to the area survive and thrive.’
Another way Jen is continuing the legacy of Edna Walling’s planting scheme is through the propagation of plants. ‘A lot of the plants we use in the garden are grown from cuttings,’ Jen says. ‘Our 83-year-old neighbour gives me cuttings and we continue the plantings that were growing when Edna lived here. It’s really lovely.’
What a vision Edna Walling had! Bickleigh Vale’s heritage listing, its resident’s commitment to maintaining Walling’s vision, and the strong sense of community within the village is testament to the importance of good design and its impact on quality of life.
The gardens at Bickleigh Vale are occasionally open to the public. Check out the website for more information about future openings. Please respect the privacy of the residents if you do visit outside of organised garden opening events. Stick to the laneways and remember all the gardens are private property.