Don't be fooled by Kay Rees' diminutive appearance. This Waikato woman knows all about long days digging in the garden and getting down on her hands and knees to lay bricks. Kay's gritty streak plays out in her gardening strategy too - once set on a course, she's utterly determined to achieve her vision.
Almost a decade ago she began planning the Japanese-style garden she has developed, along with her husband Geoff, on their 1.3ha block at Karapiro, south-east of Cambridge.
The house build was Geoff's project and the landscaping and garden were Kay's. She got stuck into it while the house was being built, digging out and building edging for paths and tending a nursery of young maple trees to plant out on the new property. The maples survived two years in their makeshift nursery and the maturing trees, which included the varieties 'Beni Otake', the small standard weeper 'Crimson Queen' and the more difficult to grow 'Silver Cloud', now provide beautiful spring and autumn colour in the
Kay says many trips in Asia, though not Japan itself, and the influence of a Japanese friend have fed her passion for Japanese gardens. She has read widely and deeply about how to create and nurture such a garden. Armed with this research and a topographical map, she set about making a plan for the Karapiro site - a plan she never wavered from. Simplicity and peacefulness were and are driving forces.
The flat-roofed, pavilion-style house has spare, clean lines, something she wanted to repeat in the garden style. "And I wanted it to be a retreat from the world. A place to go into with an almost religious feel - restful, calming and thoughtful."
The Rees' property rises gently from the road. Sweeping lawns and a driveway lined with Washingtonia palms lead to the Oamaru stone house, which sits on a plateau across the site. Beyond that, the land rises more steeply to the back boundary and neighbouring tree blocks. It's around the house, in courtyards and hedged enclaves, and adjacent to the house that Kay has developed her various Japanese-style gardens.
The simplest and most disciplined is her courtyard Temple Garden of raked gravel and carefully placed rocks sitting in a bed of green Irish moss. It is enclosed by a bedroom wing, an Oamaru stone wall and a hedge of Camellia tsaii. There were doubters when she was planning this space, says Kay, "and I knew if I was going to have it, I would have to dig it out myself". Which she did. To her delight, the lovely Te Kuiti gravel was delivered as a birthday gift.
Geoff, who is very supportive of her ideas and the handyman of the property, made a special rake for her to groom the garden. He has taken on other projects, such as building a tea house in the main garden and making the ornamental steel-strap balls by a quiet seating spot, and also does regular maintenance work such as hedge and shrub clipping.
Even though Japanese gardens require a disciplined approach, Kay says she's willing to try anything. If things don't pan out as expected, she'll try something else. She plays around with different colours, foliage and textures until she arrives at a pleasing mix.
As the garden has matured, Kay has divided and repeated plant combinations and colour blocks she likes. She calls herself a "mean gardener", dividing plants over and over until she has the mass of colour she wants. The purple iris bed grew from one small clump given by a friend. And the mass of small variegated flaxes ('Apricot Queen' and 'Rainbow Red') in beds at the front of the house has been split and replanted several times.
Views, narrow and wide, are important throughout the property. Every room in the house has a view, often to a topiaried Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Kaizuka'). Kay has used different features to anchor views - perhaps a specimen tree or shrub or a bridge or path to draw people along to a particular end point. In some cases, views are framed by structures, such as the urn-shaped opening of the tea house, a timber pergola, or the Oamaru stone walls and ceiling of the enclosed terrace.
It's obvious that Kay Rees gets much pleasure from her garden. It's more than just a pleasant physical environment and a gorgeous visual display. There is also spiritual satisfaction and contentment to be derived from being in it - benefits that were clearly part of her original vision.
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