Visit: Red Cow Farm

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26 Mar 2019

In the Garden At Red Cow Farm

Words and pictures: Ali Mentesh and Robin Powell

In 1990, Ali Mentesh stood in the bald paddocks of Red Cow Farm and dreamed of a canopy of trees, a woodland-edged lake, and garden rooms fragrant with roses. In making the dream reality Ali turned himself into a garden designer sought-after for his imagination, and his hands-on experience of plants and how best to grow them. 


Ali estimates that he and his partner Wayne Morrissey planted some 500 trees in their first few years at Red Cow Farm, and the maturing trees now give the garden its sense of belonging. But Ali’s first love is for roses and there are more than 800 in the garden, lots of them David Austin roses, bred for their old-fashioned looks and heady perfumes.  


Clustered around the old cottage are the more formal, hedged garden areas, while beyond them the garden achieves a naturalistic wildness, drawing you on with glimpses of light and colour through that nurturing canopy of trees.  


For decades now Ali has opened the garden from late September until May, and if it’s a while since you visited, make sure you return, and see how his vision has formed something even better than his dream.   



I’m clipping the hedges 


As well as a couple of hundred metres of box hedging and about 150m each of cherry laurel, beech and hornbeam, we have maybe 80m of hedges of Cupressus leylandii ‘Leighton’s Green’ in the garden. Though ‘Leighton’s Green’  has a bit of a bad reputation, it’s a great fine-leaf hedge as long as you keep it maintained and can keep up with its vigorous rate of growth.  I like the colour: it’s a bright green, which is better in our strong sunlight than the darker greens, like the yew that is used so much in Europe. You get density of form, and a good sharp, clean edge. The downside is that we have to trim it every two-three weeks during the growing season, which can last  from mid-September to late-May. Doing it often also means that you can do it free hand, as there hasn’t been too much growth since the last cut. I’ve found the electric hedge clippers just aren't powerful enough to deal with the sticky resin of the ‘Leighton’s Green’ so we use motorised, extendable hedge shears that give a good clean cut.  



I’m colouring the lake 


It sounds odd, but we colour the lake. The dye, which is perfectly safe for plants and animals, inhibits the growth of algae and makes the water more ‘see-through’, allowing us to enjoy the koi that live in it. Depending on what colour you want, can turn the water a greeny blue or a more intense blue. I make it more blue in the autumn, as I like the contrast with the autumn tones in the garden. We always wanted to have a lake in the garden, not just to grow those lovely moisture-loving plants, but also to develop a natural woodland area. We positioned it at the lowest point of the property, which was already a swampy area. It’s very satisfying to see it now, with the trees growing into maturity, and the whole thing having a very natural look. I love the reflections of the trees in the water, the different forms and shapes of them. In the autumn I especially like the contrast of the golden tulip tree, the scarlet oak and a grove of evergreen Californian redwoods. Though you have a fantasy and a vision when you start a garden, and you keep pushing it, the results totally outweigh what you were planning.   



I’m loving the light  


Here, where the summer sun is so strong, and the days are so hot, you really anticipate the arrival of autumn and its cooler weather and lovely light. The angle of the light in autumn gives the garden wonderful effects, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I study the light in the garden through the seasons and in winter clean out and cut back enough to allow light in the right way.  As the leaves turn in autumn the light highlights them, and as they fall the light to penetrates to the ground, giving dappled patterns. Blue flowers look best in autumn light, or in afternoon or early morning light, as they tend to bleach out in strong sun. The monkshoods for example, which are predominantly purple and blue are best in autumn, and so is Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’, which starts flowering in summer, but really looks its best in autumn. Actea simplex, or bugbane, with long, white, bottle-brush-like flowers, on stems 1-5-2m tall, looks brilliant in the autumn woodland, with the light shining through it.  


It’s time to...


Clean the statues. I like the natural patina of age, and I don’t mind some staining from our bore water, but where there’s too much I scrub it away with a stiff brush and soapy water.  


Harvest hazelnuts, before our dogs get them all. The nuts can fall here as early as February and our dogs have learned how to crack the shells and get at the nuts, so if we want some we need to be quick.  


Feed the peonies, both herbaceous and tree types, with blood and bone and some garden lime in late autumn.  


Mark off areas of plants that will disappear over winter, such as hostas. I use sticks to remind me that something is there that I don’t want to destroy by mistake.   


Plant tulips. We plant a few thousand new ones each year, delaying planting until the middle of May. The ones we have already planted remain in the ground -  some disappear and others keep flowering for years. 



I’m admiring the grasses 


Though grasses offer lovely textures throughout the season, it’s autumn when the majority are in flower and they look most effective. One of the earliest of the miscanthus to come into flower is Miscanthus transmorissonensis, which is also one of the most drought-hardy. Even though it’s an evergreen we keep it fresh by cutting it down to about 10cm in late winter or early spring, just as the new growth is appearing. The key thing is not to shave the crown, or it will die.  Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cosmopolitan’ gets the same treatment. This one has beautifully clean variegation of creamy white against green, and unlike many variegated plants doesn't burn in full sun. The flowers lift the height to more than 2m, but it’s really the foliage that is the appeal here. Every four or five years, we lift, divide and replant the grasses, to prevent the core hollowing out, leaving the plant more likely to collapse. It’s best to engage a very strong person and a sharp spade for this job - I have to prepare myself physically and mentally!   



You can also visit Red Cow Farm, 7480 Illawarra Highway, Sutton Forest, (open daily from late September until May 10am-4pm, $10). Details at   


Find ornamental grasses and succulents from Woodside Plants (Stall 88) - a newcomer; Clover Hill Rare Plants (Stall 9); Secret Gardens Richmond (Stall 71); and Perenialle Nursery (Stall 4).  


Hawkesbury Race Club, Clarendon. Buy tickets at


Story first published in Garden Clinic Magazine Autumn Issue 53.