Master Gardener: T.R Garnett of Marlborough College, Geelong Grammar School, The Age and The Garden of St Erth by Andrew Lemon
Review by Penny Woodward
I always knew him as Tommy, and I only knew him in the last phase of his life when he and Penelope bought their property in Blackwood, which they called The Garden of St Erth. In 1986 Tommy wrote the forward to my first book Australian Herbal. At that time he didn’t need to be explained, anyone who gardened knew Tommy Garnett. But, today historian Andrew Lemon believes that his work is starting to be forgotten. Many of his books are out of print (luckily, I have them all) and his 15 years of articles for The Age are not on line. His gardening columns were always a joy, reflecting his scholarly background and gardening enthusiasm. I believe that no-one in Australia has yet bettered his erudite and wide-ranging garden prose. And there was something of this same approach to his gardening. Eclectic and idiosyncratic St Erth was a plantsman’s paradise.
I well remember my first visit, it was bone-chillingly cold, my breath misted the air in front of me, the ground was slippery with frost and I started to shiver but at the same time was totally beguiled by the garden surrounding me. A secret almost hidden garden, English style tucked into the middle of typical Australian bush. This bush later became an integral part of the garden. At this time, more than 25 years ago, the Garden of St Erth was the home and haven of Tommy and Penelope Garnett. Set in rural Victoria in hilly bush country 90km north west of Melbourne, the Garden of St Erth is constructed on the site of the old gold mining town, Simmonds Reef. At the height of the gold rush there were 14,000 people living here, at the time of my visit there were only two.
Although I visited their garden many times over many years, Tommy was best known to me, and others, through his From the Country columns in The Age. It has been a great joy to now read The Master Gardener and discover the detail of other parts of his working life; and family life with Penelope. We get to know Tommy as an English schoolboy, student cricketer, a flight lieutenant in the second world war, a scholar with a fascination for the classics, and a school principal in both the UK at Marlborough and at Geelong Grammar in Victoria, Australia
It was only after Tommy had retired as the head of Geelong Grammar that he and Penelope moved to Blackwood specifically to create their garden. Tommy was well known for saying that “All gardening is based on decay and renewal” recognising that gardens change over time. He also always encouraged gardeners to have a go and not to worry too much about mistakes. He was truly a scholar and a gentleman.
The Master Gardener at 632 pages takes time to read, but it is time very well spent.