James and Barbara McGeoch’s eldest daughter Kirsty drew inspiration from her travels to suggest the Tibetan word emaho as a name for their family home in the ranges of Ravensbourne, 150 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. Emaho means ‘wonderful’ or ‘amazing’ and it’s an apt choice for this tree farm and country garden nestled in a crook of the picturesque mountains.

“It fits well here, that’s how we feel about the property,” Barbara says. Prior to making their home at Emaho, James and Barbara ran a nursery in Brisbane and had also expanded into the international landscaping market. Then they visited friends in Ravensbourne, and became enthralled by the towering eucalypt forest and tranquillity of the region. When these friends called in 2000 to say that the 16-hectare property next door was for sale, the McGeochs were quick to seize the opportunity and signed the contract within two weeks.

The rich volcanic soil was one attraction. “We bought it because we liked it, but then we looked at how we could use it as well,” Barbara says. “It’s perfect for what we do, as it has good drainage.”

The McGeochs now grow trees at Emaho for domestic commercial landscape projects: at 600 metres, the farm’s elevation provides a sufficiently cool climate to acclimatise the trees destined for southern markets in Australia. However, the couple’s main business focus is overseas through Birkdale International which works on high-profile landscape projects in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Abu Dhabi.

Although the couple could see the property’s potential, it was hardly picture-perfect when purchased. “It was a cow paddock, covered in stumps and lantana, with falling-down fences,” Barbara says bluntly. “We had to clean it up, retain the good trees — and then start planting.”

Their first consideration was to secure a reliable irrigation system. They built a dam and put in lines to funnel water so that all rainfall would be captured. Wildlife corridors were created to link with the rainforest below the dam and perimeter planting was set up as a wind and dust break.

In 2005, with the building of the cottage complete, the McGeochs began work on the garden. Barbara describes it as “reminiscent of the traditional Australian country garden but with an Asian influence”.

Though only four years old, the garden looks much more established due to careful preparation and the use of semi-mature trees and mass plantings. Set into the side of a hill, it provides sweeping views of the tree farm and surrounding ranges.

The cottage was positioned to take advantage of passive solar gain, and a courtyard, which sits to the north, features Japanese maples bordered by a Camellia sinensis hedge and a copse of Mongolian pear, and golden and claret ashes.

“I brought in some trees that were already 10 to 12 years old,” Barbara says. “When you get the bones of the garden right, then you can plant a lot of smaller plants underneath.”

A path meanders through a forest of crab-apples, which gives a stunning display of pink blossom in spring, then winds through massed azaleas, camellias, irises, lavender, Indian hawthorn and agapanthus. The driveway is lined with bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Gracilis’), whose attractive form has the added bonus of acting as an effective wind and dust barrier.

Barbara says that preparation is crucial to maximise survival during drought. “Before planting we soaked the roots in a mixture of seaweed and fish emulsion so that the whole root ball was totally saturated; then we planted and watered them in with that same mix,” she explains.

“I’ve got huge swathes of azaleas that have never been watered since they were planted. People often over-water plants, so they tend to develop surface roots — and then when we get a dry spell, the plants suffer.”

Barbara has planted 5500 azaleas throughout the garden and considers many exotics to be as hardy as natives.

“We’ve created a sustainable garden with plants our clients perceived as not being drought-tolerant. We were left with the azaleas when we were closing down the Brisbane nursery — people thought they should be planting natives, but there are many exotic plants that are just as hardy. I really do believe that if you prepare your garden well to start with you will get a good result.”

James and Barbara presented Emaho in the Open Garden Scheme in 2007 — just two years after it was established — and demonstrated what can be achieved by using available resources in an environmentally sustainable system.

“The garden has such a sense of serenity,” Barbara says. “It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to see family and friends enjoy it.”