February 27, 2023
8 mins Read
Towering gum trees, ferns in shades of deep green, steam trains winding over photo-worthy trestle bridges, and cosy lunch dwellings; the Dandenong Ranges epitomises a relaxing weekend getaway.
A popular escape for many Melburnians, this leafy green pocket is also thrillingly close to Melbourne. In a blink, the roads pass from suburbia to a verdant oasis.
The same can be said of the neighbouring Yarra Valley, although the landscape is vastly different. With hills gently rolling between more than 70 cellar doors, and fresh produce at every turn, it’s long been an obvious weekend retreat for those living in Victoria’s capital.
But wineries and scenic landscapes aside, it’s the marvellous gardens of the Yarra Valley that deserve a turn in the spotlight. Read on to uncover the region’s best.
Open to the public since 2014, the manicured three-hectare gardens at Coombe Estate, Yarra Valley, were once a well-kept secret, hidden behind a notably lengthy cypress hedge (some 600 metres long, to be precise). Today, they’re accessible only via guided tour, which is bookable alongside morning or afternoon tea, or lunch at this beautiful winery estate.
Feted opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – whose face you might have seen on the $100 note – took shelter from the bright lights of the stage here in the early 1900s. And it’s not hard to imagine how she may have found sanctuary among the leafy grounds, with its rare plants and old-world trees.
Explore her ultimate secret garden and you’ll trace winding cobbled paths, venture through hedge tunnels, view a succession of terraced lawns, wander through a rose arbour, and visit native, Italian and vegetable gardens.
It’s little wonder Coombe Estate houses one of the Yarra Valley’s best gardens: the blueprint was drawn up by none other than William Guilfoyle, architect of the Victorian Royal Botanic Gardens.
Alowyn Gardens is a two-decade dedication to creating almost three stunning hectares for visitors to enjoy. There are eight display areas here, including an edible garden, a French garden featuring a lavender field and a flower field, a birch and casuarina forest, a dreamy Instagram-friendly 100-metre-long wisteria arbour, and a mesmerising ornamental parterre garden that features box hedging laid out in symmetrical shapes.
So extensive and impressive are the grounds here, that you could easily dedicate an entire afternoon to their exploration.
Feeling inspired by the level of horticultural craftsmanship? Visit the Yarra Valley garden’s onsite nursery and pick up a few bulbs to plant at home.
Worked up an appetite from all the touring? Stop by Alowyn Gardens’ maple courtyard cafe and enjoy a freshly baked scone and a flat white.
Tucked alongside the small village of Olinda, the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden (formerly known as the National Rhododendron Garden) is no small patch of grass.
Nearly 40 hectares of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and other natives and exotics reside here, with the star of the show – the 15,000 multi-coloured Rhodies – popping into flower as spring reaches the Dandenongs and transforming the hillsides into a veritable sea of colour. It is, in fact, the largest collection of its kind in Australia.
This botanic garden is prime picnic real estate, so pack a hamper and set up a blanket on one of the lush green lawns.
And if you’d like to explore more of the park in your post-prandial daze (but don’t quite have the energy), hop on board the ‘Garden Explorer’ – a small electric open-air bus that offers a guided 25-minute tour of the grounds.
The hills come alive with bright flowers and woodlands at Cloudehill, which adjoins a nursery. The collection housed at this Dandenong Ranges garden is really rather eclectic, from giant 80-year-old European beech trees to Japanese weeping maples, cool temperate bamboos, so-called ‘wedding cake’ shrubs, ornamental grasses, bluebells and plenty more.
Between December and March, the venue hosts a number of twilight events, capitalising on the soft evening light that summer promises, not to mention the glorious green surrounds; in previous years the programme has included productions of Shakespeare, operatic performances, and string ensembles.
Cloudehill Nursery and Gardens is also home to a rustic restaurant, Seasons, that offers a beautiful outlook and promises fresh, seasonal produce grown in the property’s own kitchen garden.
If you like views with your gardens, then you’re in luck at the hills’ (literally) top spot, overlooking the city skyline and the towering Dandenong Ranges National Park.
The maze has four secrets to uncover, including (spoiler alert) sculptures, butterflies and illusions; it’s like brain training inside a lilly pilly hedge puzzle. And besides its namesake attraction, SkyHigh is also home to an English garden with mature blackwoods.
If you’ve got kids then keep an eye on SkyHigh Maze’s website, as the Mount Dandenong attraction also hosts a series of ‘Children’s Festivals’ throughout the year that features activities and games.
More fun than you can poke a tulip at, the Tesselaar Tulip Festival is home to more than a million flowering blooms, plus market stalls and entertainment.
This annual event typically takes place between mid-September and mid-October, and across its four weeks of opening there’s a host of different themes to choose from, such as Turkish Weekend (expect Turkish art, dance, music and food), Children’s Week (think live shows from Kung Fu Panda, craft workshops and a petting zoo), and a Food, Wine and Jazz weekend (featuring complimentary wine tastings, naturally).
There’s also a tractor-train ride available, aimed at those with limited mobility issues, and children. BYO picnic and graze away your day on the lawn while overlooking the sea of flowers.
This four-hectare lavender farm in Wandin North, on the southernmost fringes of the Yarra Valley, plays host to a Harvest Festival every November to celebrate the start of the farm’s lavender season.
Aside from wandering through fragrant rows of the lilac plant, Warratina’s Harvest Lavender Festival also promises live music entertainment, a local maker’s market and more.
Only avid and aspiring gardeners need apply for this springtime event, held at Romantic Nursery in Wandin North.
More than 5,000 varieties of plants, many of them rare and not normally available to the general public, will be available to purchase during the two-day Yarra Valley Spring Plant Fair. The fair also offers a variety of talks by gardening experts and professional horticulturalists.
Forget Japan: this family-owned orchard is awash with a flurry of cherry blossom petals for just two fleeting weeks come spring, typically between late September and early October.
Visit CherryHill’s 34-hectare Wandin East orchard to witness these beautiful blooms in person, and enjoy the annual festival’s food vans, live music, craft stalls and house blossom gelato.
The Yarra Valley lies to the northeast of Melbourne, and the Dandenong Ranges to the east. Both destinations are approximately an hour’s drive from Melbourne.
Stick with the garden theme, plus added wine, at Chateau Yering Hotel, the grand dame of the Yarra Valley.
This historic homestead’s 32 suites all feature a hefty dose of country estate chic, many offering garden views from their private balconies and verandas. The jewel in the crown of this estate’s gardens is the towering Chilean Wine Palm, which is classified on the National Trust Heritage Register.
There are worse places to hole up in than Beechmont Garden Retreat. Located in lovely Olinda, this spacious and stylish four-bedroom, three-bathroom home features naturalist nods throughout (think wallpaper featuring dragonfly and butterfly prints, floral arrangements in each and every direction, plants dotted throughout the property, and cushion covers with floral motifs).
But better still, it’s planted on a four-hectare estate that accommodates formal and rambling gardens.
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