Robert Stark’s frontyard in Mount Martha is gorgeous. Paved meanderings. Central water feature. Lilly pilly hedges, perennials. Gigantic, colourful ceramic pots filled with sculpted greenery all designed and created by his renowned garden designer son, Andrew. Move through to the back of the property around the quaint weatherboard house where he’s lived since 1972 and this is where propagation is in plain sight. This is where Robert is in his element. With a wealth of retail and wholesale horticultural experience behind him, it’s obvious that this 75-year-old Dookie Agricultural College graduate and companionable green thumb feels at home in the great outdoors. After all, he’s had 43-odd years “standing at the end of a hose”, he laughs.
He continues: “My mother’s side of the family were vegie growers from 1855 until the late 1950s. I was born in Brisbane, moved to Redcliffe and then to Burwood, where I was raised on a market garden. I was out digging spuds at the age of 10 and milking cows every morning and night. We grew cauliflowers, cabbages, beetroot. It was great. I met Garry Crittenden (Crittenden Wines) at the Keith Turnbull Research Institute where we were researching vermin and noxious weeds. That was my first job out of school. Crittendens Nursery in Mount Eliza opened in 1968 just after the 1967 drought and I bought into it in 1973. It was one-and-a-half acres (.6ha). We kept the retail nursery in Mount Eliza Way and opened Crittendens Wholesale Nursery in Mount Martha after that. We grew up to 40 per cent of our own product. That’s what set us apart from other nurseries — having the horticultural knowledge behind us.”
We are standing out back of his property where the growing is good. There’s the vegie patch where broad beans, tomatoes and spring onions flourish plus trays of succulents, ivy and other examples of Robert’s passion for plants. “People came into Crittendens for advice. I knew about soil conditions and correct fertilisers. It’s where Andrew began his association with plants. He came to the nursery every day after school. His mum and my wife, Marcia, who we lost to liver cancer, worked there too. We worked hard but enjoyed the relationships we had with the customers. I loved experimenting with growing. I cross-pollinated a dwarf white agapanthus with a tall purple agapanthus and the result was stunning. I still enjoy propagating but always find the time to enjoy a glass of wine and tinker with the stock market too.”
Robert is modest about his achievements and is deeply committed to the region where he’s made a life for his family. He remembers Mount Martha having just one service station and needing to do the weekly shop in Mount Eliza or in Mornington, which was half the size it is now. There was a railway station there too. He concludes: “Hawker Beach used to have 20m of sand back then. I used to take Andrew down to explore the middens. It was a great way to bring up kids.”