Owners of Heronswood and The Diggers Club, Penny and Clive Blazey are a formidable team. Married for over 50 years, the couple met in 1963 when they had just finished school and wed in 1967 when they had finished university. Clive studied Commerce at Melbourne University (to which Penny attributes Clive’s marketing prowess) and Penny studied History and Anthropology at Monash University (a subject that was first introduced to Victoria in 1964).
Clive Blazey is horticultural aristocracy. His father founded Hortico in Melbourne in 1946 and it was his upbringing that stimulated Clive’s obsession with plants. Says Penny, “When I first met Clive in 1963 he talked a lot about plants and knew all their Latin names, and I didn’t know anyone else who talked about plants in that way. It was fascinating.” After marrying, Clive and Penny worked for a year and then travelled extensively for two years through Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. “We saw the most interesting plants and there was so much freedom there at the time,” explains Penny.
In 1978, when Penny had given birth to their third and youngest child, Clive was focused on starting a business that specialised in unusual seeds. The Diggers Club (originally called The Diggers Seed Club) was founded in Middle Park at the site of The Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Clive and Penny bought a stable on the land which they converted into a home and Clive transformed the ¼ acre of land into their first commercial garden.
When Clive and Penny bought Heronswood in Dromana as a family home in 1982 (moving there in May 1983) they moved The Diggers Club to the new site. Heronswood provided the perfect backdrop for Clive, who wanted to create a garden (on the three and a half acres) that would inspire Australian gardeners. He established the gardens at Heronswood in collaboration with head gardener Dave Pomare. They worked together on the inspiration and design for the garden, creating a living catalogue of worthy plants that performed well combined with the very best gardening ideas Each plant was selected for its beauty and structure and they were predominantly perennials that would keep on giving year after year – forever if looked after properly.
The Blazey family would travel overseas each year to Mediterranean climates similar to that of Australia, in search of plant ideas and heirloom seeds. They developed a wonderful collection of unusual perennial plants with open pollinated seeds to provide what they call ‘the gardener's inheritance’ - seeds you could save, sow, share and enjoy forever. Originally a cottage garden, the style of planting evolved over the years based on what the population demanded and climate required. There was a focus on dry climate varieties during the drought in the 1990s and it has now evolved to an edible garden space.
Clive later took over The Garden of St Erth in Blackwood (near Daylesford) which was originally created by Clive’s school headmaster. Each season the garden has something to offer visitors, with carpets of daffodils in spring, long flowering flower borders in summer and magnificent autumn garden colour. Clive and his team also operate very successful retail stores at Cloudehill in Mt Dandenong and at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.
Clive is an advisor to the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa in the USA which was established in 1978, the same year as The Diggers Club. The Seed Savers Exchange collects heirloom seeds from around the world, in particular Europe, China and Russia where seeds were basically being thrown away. In 1992 Clive brought back a large number of seeds and was the first to introduce Heirloom varieties like black tomatoes.
Clive and Penny have worked with a wealth of staff over the years, including Talei Kenyon (who has been with them for over 16 years and heads up their Media and Partnership program and sits on the Trust Board) and Heronswood’s new head gardener Bill Bampton who joined the team after leaving the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. There are up to 140 staff employed at any one time, ebbing slightly with the quieter season of summer and growing to capacity from April to December when the majority of orders are received (10 staff are still based at Heronswood managing the café and the gardens).
The Diggers Club started with only one catalogue a year, they now produce eight catalogues and take orders from all around Australia as well as selling seeds to all over the world including Afghanistan, the Middle East and Russia. The bulk of The Diggers Club has now moved to 120 Boundary Road to alleviate the pressure that was being placed on Heronswood. It’ a big parcel of land with established gardens, plastic tunnels for propagating and large sheds for packing orders (seeds, bulbs, perennial plants, hardware and a selection of books including some of the nine or so books Clive himself has written, like 'The Australian Vegetable Garden', 'The Australian Flower Garden' and his latest book 'There is No Excuse For Ugliness' which is based on a famous quote by the architect who designed Heronswood – Edward La Trobe Bateman).
The Blazey family are philanthropic at heart, giving away a percentage of their profits each year to those in need. Penny has been very involved in the National Trust (she was President for a number of years) and for several years she opened the house at Heronswood for National Trust events. She subsequently opened the house to the public for charity, raising close to $100,000 for projects in East Timor. Says Penny, “People in East Timor are incredibly poor. We helped to build a kindergarten and a dental clinic in Balibo, and we send a monthly stipend to a medical clinic that services the whole of East Timor. We also currently help a group of nuns in Madagascar which is another very poor country that often gets overlooked.”
Penny has a deep fascination for tribes and cultures around the world. She has worked at the Maribyrnong Detention Centre and talks passionately about the plight of asylum seekers. She is a great advocate for the value they offer a community. Penny was also an honorary Probations Officer in Melbourne for some time and joined a women’s feminist group on the Mornington Peninsula that ran a refuge house for women in the area.
Clive has now established The Diggers Garden and Environment Trust to ensure the profits from The Diggers Club goes to staff bonuses where possible, and to maintaining (forever) Heronswood, The Gardens of St Erth and the preservation garden at Boundary Road.
Penny and Clive hosted a celebration for their 50th wedding anniversary last year, heralded as ‘The Last Hoorah at Heronswood’. Says Penny, “We had many celebrations at Heronswood. Two of our three children were married there and we also had a huge party for our 25th anniversary.” The couple no longer resides at Heronswood although the property is still in the family. They purchased a home in Northcote to be closer to their adult children (and Clive is busy setting up a garden in the grounds) and they now spend their time between there and a weatherboard home in Sorrento built by Penny’s father more than 70 years ago.
While Clive resigned as CEO (Lisa Remato who has been with the organisation for nearly 30 years heads up the operation) he is still very much involved, working every day at Heronswood or Boundary Road, or planning his next adventure be it a new book, travelling or a new garden enterprise (there is a burgeoning association with a heritage nursery in Canberra). Clive also has his sights set on erecting a treehouse in a Moreton Bay Fig in Heronswood. There’s no stopping them.
105 Latrobe Parade, Dromana
Open seven days from 9am-5pm and dining from 10am.
(Closed 24-26 December and Good Friday.
*Note an admission charge applies to enter the gardens and cafe.
Why not pre-order a picnic hamper during warm months to take into the garden and enjoy under the shade of one of the property’s stately trees?
Continuing in her parents’ entrepreneurial ways, Tessa Blazey is forging a name for herself in the world of jewellery and design. Tessa experiments with sculptural forms through the use of unusual gemstones and curious settings. Her rings are inspired by the personas of her favourite film heroes and villains and many of her pieces appear simultaneously modern and ancient as they mirror the aesthetics of the films that inspired them. Tessa has also collaborated with Alexi Freeman in an incredible display of silver plated chain fashion and jewellery – breathtaking!