THE sense of community is palpable at Bickleigh Vale, the heritage-listed village where gardening pioneer Edna Walling set up house with like-minded travellers in the 1920s by overseeing the construction of 16 cottages and gardens nestling together in harmony.
Walling, a Burnley graduate, bought 1.2 hectares of land at Mooroolbark and a year later secured another seven hectares so she could build a Devonshire-style village that would be ''an ideal setting for quaint, homely little cottages dear to the heart of the city dwellers and the Mecca of those who can afford to retire''.
A Devon girl, she named the village Bickleigh Vale after her home town in England. With tall trees and dense plantings, she created a sanctuary from city life.
Walling's philosophy lives on 40 years after her death. Simon and Isha Scott bought Wimborne three years ago and it has become a refuge for their son, Llewellyn, who has learning disabilities. He has a tendency to ''escape'' but a ''telephone tree'' has been set up in the village so neighbours can alert them if he is spotted.
In the city, the Scotts worried about their son but in Edna's heartland they know he is safe.
Likewise, Jess, a 10-year-old bull mastiff with sad eyes, has found refuge at the Sheilan, a Scottish crofter's cottage at No. 5 Bickleigh Vale Road. An affectionate, gentle giant, Jess was incarcerated on a puppy farm for nine years, where her sole purpose was to produce litters (she had 72 pups in total). Eventually she was dumped, pregnant, and taken to the local pound.
When Lois and Peter Dolphin saw Jess, her ''milk bottles'' were down to the ground and she was wary of everyone. But they adopted her and now their parkland retreat at the Sheilan is a haven from her concrete prison past.
Llewellyn and Jess' stories are glowing testaments to Walling's ethos of harmonious community living and glorious landscapes. Imbued with her vision, the owners of the properties have been inspired to honour the influential designer's legacy through their gardens, seven of which are open tomorrow as part of Open Gardens Australia.
On the day I visited it was a glorious 22 degrees and spring was in the air with drifts of daffodils, bluebells and periwinkles throughout the gardens - a Walling prerequisite - towering wattles covered in fluffy yellow blooms, camellias in all shapes and hues, and deciduous trees, such as crabapples, hornbeams, birches and oaks, preparing to burst forth.
Walling built the first cottage for herself and named it Sonning, then subdivided the land only to people who would accept her designs for the cottage and the garden.
And so her vision was enshrined for generations.
There were side gates so people could move freely between properties. Walling also believed in hidden vistas with ''secret'' paths to wander and discover ''garden rooms'', her signature design feature. She was also renowned for her use of stone, from low walls and steps to paving she built herself. Some of her bird baths are still there.
Her spirit is also alive and well at Bickleigh Vale, with owners painstakingly following the tradition of keeping trees in natural copses, letting ground covers take over to emulate an English meadow and retaining moss lawns and even an original thyme lawn.
Trees are a feature at the Sheilan, with owner Peter Dolphin calling it ''my parkland''. His wife, flanked by an adoring Jess, loves the towering trunks, woodland areas and dense greenery that were such a large part of Walling's ethos.
Simon Scott, from Wimborne, has a connection with her: his mother was passionate about her work and his aunt had a Walling-designed garden in Malvern.
Richard Wilson and Ria Jonker own Mistover, one of the first cottages built in the village.
They commissioned a painting of Walling, which graces an outside wall so she can look out on the garden she created. Jonker says Walling sometimes remonstrates with her when she pulls out rampant ivy, another of the designer's favourites.
Downderry was built by Walling for her mother and has been owned by Maryann Sporon-Fiedler and Alan McKirdy since 1994. While there have been additions to the house and Sporon-Fiedler has created more garden areas surrounded by new stone walls and paving, Walling's philosophy is always uppermost in her mind.
Paul and Jen Vardy of the Barn (once home to Edna Walling), Anna Beesley and Mike O'Loughlin of Badgers Wood, and Jan and Allan Groves of Devon Cottage all have a symbiotic relationship with their gardens and are passionate about retaining Walling's distinctive style, knowing they are the custodians of important horticultural legacies.
This is a rare treat and should not be missed.
■The Barn, Mistover, the Sheilan, Badgers Wood, Downderry, Wimborne and Devon Cottage are open tomorrow 10am-4.30pm. Light refreshments and plant and craft stalls at four of the gardens. Bickleigh Vale Road and Edna Walling Lane. Parking in Pembroke Road only. Adults $30.