A Kiwi in London
What does a transplanted Kiwi, with strong links to Aotearoa after four decades away, nurture in his London garden? Pittosporums, a kiwifruit vine and a remarkable subtropical cycad that’s already a veteran of 18 demanding winters.
New Zealand-born landscape designer Christopher Masson creates gardens for a contact book of extremely well-heeled clients throughout the UK, the US and Europe, but it’s at home that his virtuosity is really on display. His lovingly tended patch – a 250sqm finger of land behind the Wandsworth terrace house he’s occupied for 24 years – is a “repository for all sorts of things”.
He’s characteristically modest about his domestic gardening style. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing this garden on anyone. It’s experimental. And it’s mostly in pots. Grass was a nuisance.” Apart from “the heavy stuff”, he does all the garden work himself, though he says he had intended to “curtail activities” after a health scare two years ago: “Curiosity and a good pacemaker have spurred me on.”
Favourite plants? “No, I like things of the moment – the zeitgeist; what’s in the air.”
There’s an ease that comes with being confident in your own judgment, says Christopher, adding one of his favourite quotes: “After a certain age, anything goes with anything.”
Confidentiality agreements preclude discussion of his prestigious client list and their personal tastes, although his boyhood pal, Richard Matthews, spilled the beans to NZ House & Garden back in December 2009 that one is Madonna. Christopher’s working life involves jetting across Europe and back to New Zealand each summer to visit his 91-year-old mother in New Plymouth, where he also looks in on the historic Tupare garden, now owned by the Taranaki Regional Council, and has “a chat with the genies behind the place”.
Christopher grew up with gardening parents and always wanted to be a gardener. He completed an Honours degree in fine arts at Elam in Auckland, majoring in industrial design, then went on to product assessment for the Design Council in Wellington – “quite cutting edge in its day”.
After moving to the UK in his late 20s, he was lucky enough to be introduced to the gardening guru of the day, American landscape architect Lanning Roper, who became his mentor.
“I worked with him for seven years – independently but alongside. I learned a tremendous amount. He was my hero.”
Later, Christopher was fortunate enough “to hit a seam of work” through a Spanish woman he met while working in Switzerland. “Please come and help me with my small garden in Madrid,” she said, “and I’ve got lots of friends.”
“Small” turned out to be an understatement when applied to her garden, but she hadn’t understated her wealth of influential friends. Over the years Christopher has completed many major projects on the Iberian peninsula, gaining honourable mention in a slew of landscape design books. His philosophy is to use the vernacular of the country he is working in.
“The infrastructure has to be there and I adapt to that built structure. In Spanish there’s a word ‘duende’, meaning ‘ephemeral/ghostlike/unable to be pinned down’. The atmosphere of a garden can’t be captured; it’s nothing static and can be lost quickly. Many gardens are lost once their creators have ‘left the room’.”
He has also collaborated on many projects with the Spanish interior designer Jaime Parladé, whose work is a combination of contemporary and personal influences that Christopher particularly admires. “His work is magical. I feel inspired by his example.”
Another recent project, much nearer home in the UK, was for a Wandsworth neighbour who was chief engineer on the Channel Tunnel. He had built a glass box extension to his house and asked Christopher to redesign the garden. “We have to capitalise on the weather here. Sometimes we get the most brilliant sunshine in February [in the dead of winter] – that’s what we have to capture.”
His own garden folly is an outdoor room built to remind him of the Kiwi baches of his boyhood. “It’s not a summer house. It is south-west facing for the sun and the floors, wall and roof are all fully insulated so I can be out there at any time of the year. The low winter light shines right in. There’s a ladder up to the roof where there are two sun loungers, so I can go up late in the day and capture the last rays. It’s my retreat.”
He loves the outdoor room’s “slightly ramshackle” look, with its day bed and tousle of cushions, throws and rugs to encourage relaxation. He entertains here and in the charming dining area beside his bijou basement kitchen. In the summer, the room is thrown open to the night sky and to the fragrant lilies and many pots containing treasured plants he has coaxed into vigorous life. Salad from the garden graces the table, along with verveine tea made from the lemon verbena bush.
He’s seen enough of the good life to have observed the limits of luxury: “If you experience luxury, you realise what you really need in life. People are very simple. They want to be admired and to enjoy good wine and friendship.”
To see web-exclusive images of this garden click on the "photo gallery" link above.
Story: Sue Moody
Photographs: Brent Darby