Arne and Jenny Cleland's garden makes an immediate impression of playing strongly with light and shadow, shape and texture. The rolling contours of the lawn, hinting at ploughed paddock shapes in the neighbouring farms, contrast with the smooth surface of the pond, which creates a mirror image of its surrounding grasses and weeping trees.
On the other side of the lawn are woodlands of white-trunked birches and, closer to the house, Japanese maples. Perennials grow beneath the maples, many with white flowers or silver and green foliage, creating a feeling of splashes of light in the summer shadows. In spring, an occasional group of Bowles' golden grass, low, lush and exquisite, is like a little patch of sunlight.
The garden is at Pukerau, a little hamlet just up the road from Gore in Southland, so all plants must be cold-hardy. Given that requirement, some gardeners might have concentrated entirely on northern hemisphere plants but the Clelands have a different approach, reflecting their enthusiasm for natives. Beside the garden they operate a native plants nursery specialising in producing plants for revegetation projects and a landscape design business.
The garden allows them to experiment with different ways of using natives. Arne has been growing pingao, the sand-binding native sedge, to see if it will prosper away from its natural sand dune environment. It's thriving in a well-drained spot in an intriguing combination with purple sage, a dark, copper-red euphorbia and Aciphylla dieffenbachii, a Chatham Islands native with light green, fern-like foliage. Arne is thrilled with it, but Jenny isn't enthusiastic. "It's really vicious, like cutty grass."
Less controversial is Lophomyrtus obcordata, which is grown as a low hedge around the vegetable garden. Another native plant they enjoy using as a hedge is Olearia 'Lochiel', which has a similar texture to buxus.
Arne's favourite native plant is Olearia fragrantissima, which grows as a narrow, upright tree and is deciduous, the combination making it well suited to small gardens. In December it's laden with pretty little creamy-yellow flowers with a scent of apricot and peach, especially in the evenings. When Arne is working on a farm revegetation project, he likes to plant a group of Olearia fragrantissima around farm sheds - the idea of a farmer stopped in his tracks by the surprising scent makes for a vivid image.
Olearia fragrantissima is a threatened species in the wild which, for Arne, adds to its appeal. There's a patch of it in the Hokonui Hills, not far away, and every December Arne and Jenny go on what they call "their annual sniffing session", relishing the fragrance of the massed flowering. Later in the year they return to gather seed for growing in the nursery.
The Clelands' garden has matured to the stage where it looks as if very little needs to be done - everything seems to grow in a natural, relaxed style. This is true to some extent, but there's always fine-tuning needed to keep things ticking over.
Because the trees are closely planted, a watch is kept to make sure they are growing happily together and whether something needs removing before it has an adverse effect on its neighbours. Just now they are steeling themselves to take down a big oak. "It's a beautiful tree," says Arne, "but it's crowding out maples in the woodland and it casts a lot of shade - the leaves hang on until the shortest day."
The garden is so well established, such a good fit with the house, it's hard to imagine that it was once a bare paddock. They bought the property and started the nursery in 1979. "We set ourselves a goal of 10 years to build and we just managed it," says Jenny. "We had nursery trees in what is now the lawn area to begin with, but three years before building started we began planting trees that would form the framework of the garden."
Their shared ideas of form, texture and colour ("subtle, not kaleidoscopic," Arne hastens to add) meant that they were in agreement as to what they were aiming for.
It's very much a garden in harmony with nature. Plants have to be able to thrive without mollycoddling and there are no watering systems. The same philosophy is applied at home and out on landscaping and revegetation jobs. As Arne says, "If plants need water, they're not sustainable. It's essential to use plants that suit the climate, especially in a dry region like Otago."For more images including web-exclusive images click on the "photo gallery" link above.