WATER conservation is not a modern phenomenon. Sir Frederick Sargood, a wealthy Melbourne businessman and politician, was at the forefront of harvesting and recycling water in the 19th century.
In 1868, he bought 10 hectares of land in Elsternwick, on which he built a two-storey Victorian mansion. It was surrounded by a large pleasure garden in the Gardenesque style, complete with geometric beds and paths, glasshouses, vegetable gardens and orchards. A large man-made lake was installed to store stormwater runoff from the surrounding neighbourhoods through a network of pipes, which was used to irrigate the garden.
It would have stood him in good stead during Federation when Victoria was in the grip of a crippling drought. Sargood's foresight has benefited the garden in two recent droughts that could have caused the demise of many of its plants and trees due to water restrictions.
The grounds of the National Trust-owned Rippon Lea House are a popular venue for weddings, functions and theatre productions, and the trust wants to make the gardens more accessible to the public. One of the first projects is to replace the front wooden picket fence with a Victorian cast-iron installation so people can see into the garden and through to the house.
Other works have included replacing the main roof tiles, installing solar panels and upgrading the lake and grotto. A new educational garden is also under way behind the cafe. It is predominantly for children, with Harry Potter-type interactive and sensory elements featuring scary and poisonous plants, a composting area and vegetable plots. Other plans include play areas, raised boardwalks, sculptures and a fountain.
Another plan increases the harvesting of roof water from 75 per cent to 100 per cent, which will be used to flush the inside toilets instead of using potable water.
According to head gardener Justin Buckley, this is ''the last frontier'' of Sargood's vision to make the property fully sustainable.
The heritage gardens are also being upgraded, working from plans drawn up for the 1880s site when it changed from a Gardenesque style created by Sargood to a more Picturesque aesthetic following a revamp in 1882.
''When Sargood was here it was a lot more formal, rather like the von Mueller period in the Botanic Gardens when he had lots of conifers and straight lines,'' Buckley says.
''In the pictures from the 1880s, you can see some of the trees on the western lawn that were already 20 years old, and some of the elms and Moreton Bay figs go back 143 years. There are probably 200 trees at the top of the list, which we work on and replace if necessary. Unfortunately, some of the original trees come to a crossroads where you have to remove and replace them.
''The rest of the garden is always on an improvement program. Over the past 30 to 40 years, especially with the 1980s drought and the more recent one, certain plants have proliferated at the expense of others so we need to rebalance that.''
The nursery, which sells plants propagated from species in the gardens, will also be redeveloped to offer a larger plant variety to the public so they can have a little piece of Rippon Lea at their own homes.
The trust's Victorian chief executive, Martin Purslow, says the organisation wants to celebrate the generosity of Rippon Lea owner Louisa Jones, who bequeathed the property to the trust 40 years ago.
''We want people to have a sense of ownership and to see the site and facilities and love them as generations have in the past.''
■192 Hotham Street, Elsternwick, open Thursday-Sunday 10am-4pm
DIG IT: OUT AND ABOUT
Free rose pruning demonstrations today from members of the Rose Society of Victoria at Wilson Botanic Gardens, Princes Highway, Berwick. BY0 secateurs. 11am and 1.30pm.
Cut for the crop
The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation is holding a workshop today on pruning established fruit trees for bumper crops next summer. KGF learning centre, Collingwood College, corner Cromwell Street and McCutcheon Way, Collingwood. Tickets $65, subscribers $55, kitchen garden schools $45. 9.30-11.30am. kitchengardenfoundation.org.au
Tea and horticulture
High tea tomorrow at Truffleduck, Hyland Street, Fyansford (Geelong), with John Arnott from RBG Cranbourne on the second stage of the Australian garden and horticultural trends. Organised by the Friends of the Geelong Botanic Gardens. Members $35, others $40. Inquiries 0425 881 341.
Wings and wonders
An exhibition of winged things and wonders of the natural world including watercolours, oil and acrylic paintings and collage. Until July 29 at Domain House, Dallas Brooks Drive, South Yarra. Gallery hours Thursday noon-8pm; Friday-Sunday 11am-5pm. Free.
■Events to email@example.com two weeks in advance.