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Diamond in the Rough - a transformation to a Garden for Wildlife

An inspiring story from a Gardens for Wildlife member about creating a wildlife-friendly productive food garden in an urban setting – truly a Garden for Wildlife.

My husband, Andrew, and I flew home to Launceston, Tasmania for Christmas in 2014 and noticed a ‘for sale’ sign on the fence two doors down from his parent’s home. The real estate agent kindly agreed to show us around, even though it was the holidays. I can remember the moment we walked in the door because it was like stepping back in time. Built in 1875, the house had been largely abandoned for nearly 70 years and was filled with a lifetime of dust and cobwebs. It had no power, no kitchen, and was dark and gloomy with lead paint flaking off all the walls. As we walked through the tiny rooms that made up the servants quarters, the agent advised us the house was going to auction and would likely be purchased by a construction company that would knock it down and cover the 1 acre block with units. It was at this moment we passed through a bizarre false wall erected in the middle of the hallway and into the main part of the home. Suddenly, the grandeur of the house was revealed as Andrew and I stood in the murky, dusty light slowly spinning around trying to take in the height of the ceiling, the decorative archway and architraves, the 10m long hallway. The real estate agent disappeared out the front door and I turned to Andrew and said: “we have to save this house”. Ten minutes later we made an offer.

It was madness really. We were living in Melbourne and had no intention of buying a house, never mind one that was not livable – yet, the house was ours! For 18 months the house sat as it had for so long, slowly crumbling. I lived in the house as best I could, but with no bathroom, kitchen, laundry, or heating, life wasn’t easy. I spent much of my time speaking with neighbours and the Heritage Council and searching the internet, museum, and city archives to find information on the history of the house. Sadly, little had been documented and some records had been lost in the Invermay floods. I was able to locate a single aerial photograph from 1920 and determine the original name: Ellerslie House.;

Finally, in 2015, Andrew and I quit our jobs and joined forces with his uncle (a builder) to spend six months working on the house. This was a physically and financially challenging time, but the rewards were huge. A kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and 33m verandah were revealed to the world: no small feat considering the house had no power (and power tools were required to renovate it!). The misery of chasing electrical wires into double-brick is something Andrew will probably never forget, as is four days of bashing down a chimney (I hurt in places I didn’t even know existed and earned the nickname Darth Vader because I was covered head-to-toe in black soot).

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Photo 1 Back yard (south end of block) day 1 after junk removed. 


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 Photo 2   Back yard after

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Photo 3  Front yard before

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Photo 4  Front yard (north end of block) July 2016

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Photo 5  Front yard after - December 2016

The struggles this house created are now well behind us, and Ellerslie House is now a much-loved, (nearly) fully restored beauty.  From the street, all you can see are her seven chimneys standing tall above the high fence.  Ellerslie House was built by Daniel Room who also built Mayfield House a couple doors down.  Daniel’s son, Tom Room AM became a Mayor of Launceston.  Few realise the piece of history that sits quietly behind the gates, so we make an effort to throw the gates open in summer and invite people in for a tour.

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Photo 6  Jennifer (nick named Darth Vader) undertaking renovations (demolition) work in Ellerslie house

 The tour includes the 0.5 acre of gardens, which are part of the DPIPWE Gardens for Wildlife network.  Ellerslie House sits in the middle of the plot, with the northern half converted to permaculture where everything from kiwi fruit to hops are grown in huge abundance (excess produce is donated to the Launceston homeless shelter and various ‘crop swap’ community groups).  The southern half of the block was once a junkyard, filled with abandoned vehicles, water tanks, and more shards of broken glass, nails, and screws than one could possibly count.  The junk was removed, along with decades of invasive blackberry and the land fully restored and converted to bushland, complete with a large pond and >300 Australian native plants.  Many of these plants we propagated ourselves through the Tasmanian Native Plant Society, with the property now home to numerous unusual and endangered species such as serrated banksia and river heath.  A historic 40m high California sequoia planted in circa 1914 is in the garden.  Fundamental to the recovery of this ‘metropolitan oasis’ is a monitoring system which Andrew and I implemented just prior to the restoration: every month we deploy a special net (malaise trap) which generates data on the abundance and diversity of flying insects.  We currently have data for four years, during which time the cuttings we planted have grown from tiny sticks into fully-fledged trees.

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Photo 7  Lounge room before and after extensive renovations

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Photo 8  Bedroom before and after renovations

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Photo 9 New fire place

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Photo 10 New and welcoming door

There are different levels of adventure in life.  And there are moments that define you.  We never guessed it would be the accidental discovery of a house that would set our lives on a whole new trajectory.  For us, Ellerslie House has become a teaching tool: if a house built in 1875 that was all but forgotten can become self-sustaining on a relatively small block (note: the house survives on a 5kw solar system – we haven’t had a power bill in three years and has rainwater collection), it speaks to the potential in all buildings and gardens, new and old.

Jennifer (Gardens for Wildlife member)

(All photos supplied by Jennifer)