Gordon Ford Memorial Reserve

Words and photos by Hank Tyler

Sam Cox at Gordon Ford Reserve

Gordon Ford (1918 – 1999) was Eltham’s pre-eminent landscape designer from 1946 to 1999. Gordon practised and perfected the art of creating gardens using native plants and basalt boulders.

For many years the residents of John Street hill have advocated for special recognition of the artists, musicians, architects and gardeners who lived and worked there. 

During the past three years, the Nillumbik Council has worked to establish the Gordon Ford Memorial Reserve, a small reserve at the top of John Street. In 2022, landscape designer Sam Cox, who learned his landscaping skills from Gordon, designed and built the small garden with native shrubs and trees, a paved curving walkway, basalt boulders, and a wooden bench.

On Sunday, 29-May, 20 John Street neighbours gathered to celebrate this memorial to Gordon and to grub out invasive weeds to maintain the natural beauty of this small reserve. Christine Farrugia, a resident of John Street hill, secured a small community connection grant from the Nillumbik Council to organise the memorial event and a warm morning tea for the weeders after light morning showers.

Grubbing Weeds, John St, May 2

After World War I, Gordon Ford and his artistic and creative friends built a number of mud brick homes at the top of John Street where Gordon and his wife Gwen lived. In the ensuing years, this method of earth construction was emulated by other neighbouring residents and resulted in a unique architectural aggregation of adobe dwellings and characteristic bush-style gardens.

Susan Begg, a John Street resident, knew Gordon for twenty-five years, and shared her recollections: “My first awareness of Gordon Ford was from my childhood in 1956  when he manoeuvred huge granite boulders into my uncle’s front garden in Rodda Parade. The adults spoke of Gordon’s ingenuity at shaping a flat, curvilinear space from a sloping block and moving rocks with a crowbar, wearing his ex-Army shorts and shirt and on his feet no boots, just rubber thongs.

Gordon, affectionately known as ‘Gordo’ by neighbours and close friends, constructed many natural bush gardens within the Shire and beyond. He always said that he preferred developing private gardens rather than big commercial jobs. Influenced by two pioneers passionate about natural landscapes, Edna Walling and Ellis (Rocky) Stones, Gordo created gardens with native plants that smelt and felt like being in the bush of his childhood.

He was a humble and gentle man who would whistle as he approached our homes, a bushman’s courteous way of announcing his arrival. He was able to relate equally well to children, adolescents, gardeners, artists, and philosophers. Gordo became a wise elder on the “John Street Hill” he listened carefully, and responded with wisdom”.

Sam Cox, worked for Gordon in 1995 and quickly bonded with his knowledge of landscape gardening. During the next four years, Gordon shared his gardening skills with Sam who became a full time gardener carrying out Gordon’s approach to natural landscape gardening. 

Sam recalled:

“My recollection of working with Gordo was one of opportunity given to a young man with nothing more to offer than his ability to physically work.  Gordon gave me a week’s work experience which turned into 3 1/2 years. Gordon was extraordinarily generous in passing on his knowledge, which I now feel a custodian of. 

After 49 years in the industry, his depth of knowledge was extraordinary, and he worked with grace and humility. His understanding of understatement and the perfect imperfections in landscape were second to none.”

You can read more about Gordon in “Gordon Ford the natural Australian garden” by Gwen Ford that is in the Eltham Library.

The wooden bench in the Gordon Ford Memorial Reserve is waiting for you to sit down, relax and take in the native plants in the garden. The bench seat is constructed from “bridge timber” donated by Hamish Knox, and crafted by Sam Cox’s skilled landscaping team.