Highdown Gardens, open for Southern Highlands Botanic Gardens Open Gardens and Plant Fair

Jeanne Villani made a beautiful garden in Sydney’s northern beaches called Waterfall Cottage.

There really was a waterfall – and a little bridge over a creek and eight acres of rainforest in a magical place full of birds, darting shafts of sunlight, surprising plants and a massive moss-covered female form slumbering on the earth. The cottage was just as romantic as the garden; a two-storey sandstone Gothic Fantasy with steep pitched Gable roof, dormer windows and the air of a fairy tale you can’t quite remember.

Highdown Cottage in Bowral.

Waterfall Cottage was for years a stalwart of the sadly defunct Australia’s Open Garden Scheme with many visitors returning regularly. After 35 years Villani, aged 83, found she could no longer engage with the garden in a satisfying way. Having first secured its heritage listing, she sold Waterfall Cottage in 2017, and moved to the Southern Highlands, where she’d fallen in love with an historic house and garden.

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Incredibly her new place, Highdown, on Nott’s Hill in Bowral, could have been the Prototype for Waterfall Cottage: that same steep roof, dormer windows and fairytale air. The garden too is a find, created by keen gardener May Crago with help from her friend Claude Crowe, and Villani has set about restoring its best bets and improving the rest.

“May lived here from 1937 until 1985 and she was an avid gardener,” says Villani. “Shortly after I bought the place one of her children got in touch and gave me her notebooks about the garden and an album of pictures of how the house and garden looked, which has been invaluable.”

Crago’s friend Claude Crowe was the most influential nurseryman in the Southern Highlands in the 20th century, not only providing plants but designing some 300 gardens throughout the district. There’s one of Crowe’s trademark rills at Highdown, along with a wonderfully diverse “Crowe-esque” collection of trees, including a Douglas fir, a grand old pear, a huge Nyssa sylvaticaand a Quercus dentata outside the kitchen window.

“I’m trying to get it back to a garden in May Crago would be proud of,” says Jeanne Villani.

“I’m trying to get it back to a garden in May Crago would be proud of,” says Jeanne Villani.

The garden had been neglected for decades before Viallni arrived. She sought help from local landscape designer Chris Webb who identified close to 3,000 different plants in the garden and designed a Masterplan for its recovery and development.

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