Subtropical heirloom garden
A new leaf
Family heirlooms can be a blessing and a burden. It may be lovely to take possession of a piece of your past but tastes do change. If you’re given an ugly mug that only your mother could love, you can at least flog it off on TradeMe… but what if that heirloom is a garden? And not just any garden, but one created in the 1950s by the founders of NZ Gardener magazine?
In 1951, Jim and Barbara Matthews bought their three-acre (1.2ha) block, 5km back from Waikanae Beach, from Rita Angus’ father – its elm tree featured in one of her paintings. Before that, a previous owner had commissioned Alfred Buxton to put in a cherry walk, a formal pond and a curving brick pergola. (Buxton, whose portfolio includes Christchurch’s Mona Vale, grew Iceland poppies up the road in Otaki.)
Jim and Barbara were gardening royalty. They wrote gardening books, entertained busloads of visitors, published NZ Gardener from their home and leased more land next door to grow proteas and ericas for the cut flower market.
Thirty years later, when the property was subdivided, their youngest son Julian and his Canadian wife Liz bought the overgrown, bush-choked back third of it. Liz had her doubts: “She didn’t think we’d ever be able to get a house in there.”
It would take a brave man to take a chainsaw to his parents’ creation, but Julian is no horticultural slouch. Currently gardens editor of NZ House & Garden, he also edited NZ Gardener for 12 years – and he’s pretty handy with a saw.
“For the first years I spent every weekend felling karaka trees as we carved our way through. We were never short of firewood.”
With “no kids and no money”, the couple constructed a basic timber house that, as more of each came along, was extended three times to accommodate sons Rob, 22, Ian, 19, and Doug, 17. The roughsawn pine cladding was originally stained brown but an overcoat of Resene ‘Mosaic’ has given the boards a blue-black sheen reminiscent of tui plumage.
The front door is bright red, for Julian’s not afraid of colour, or scratched cars. “It adds to the fun,” he tells visitors who nervously navigate his tunnel-like driveway. Evergreen magnolias and michelias link limbs overhead and an understorey cast of daphnes, maples, ferns, clivias, palms, salvias and liriope reaches out to swipe your side mirrors.
Visitors also assume that the sunlight at the end of the tunnel will reveal a garden trapped in a time warp – a museum piece faithfully preserved by a conservative, curatorial son. That’s a complete load of codswallop, of course, for gardens are rarely static for five minutes, let alone five decades.
Though Buxton’s formal pond remains, the old glasshouses are gone, the curving brick pergola has crumbled (its demise hastened with a sledgehammer) and Julian’s parents’ front lawn is now an adventurous hot border of Abyssinian bananas, mountain pawpaws, fishtail palms, red and orange dahlias, salvias and larger-than-life Kenyan lobelias. Frosts are rare here and subtropical shrubs such as Brugmansia ‘Butterscotch’, lime parrot-beaked Crotalaria laburnifolia and the monarch magnet Montanoa bipinnatifida all set a cracking pace.
Would his parents even recognise the place? It’s unlikely. “But I think Dad would be astonished by the use of dramatic foliage plants which weren’t around in his day.”
Many of the trees Julian’s parents planted, including what must surely be New Zealand’s most impressive armour-plated floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa), still stand but many more have been seen off with a saw. “If an old tree loses its shape or starts to annoy you,” says Julian, “you’re an idiot not to get rid of it.”
That includes the towering Norfolk pine at the front door. It’s at least 33m tall, with a girth to match Tane Mahuta, but hasn’t been the same since being struck by lightning in a storm. When the boys were small, Julian convinced them that its giant seeds were dinosaur droppings and off they’d trot to gather them up in their trolley. But the boys are all grown now and the Norfolk’s on its last legs. By the time you read this it’ll be gone, opening up the front garden to more light and planting possibilities. “It’s sad but exciting,” says Julian. “The garden’s changing all the time and, in many ways, I’m just getting started.”
Like the late Christopher Lloyd, whose hot border at Great Dixter Julian cites as an influence, he’s not the least bit afraid to try something new one year, only to rip it out the next. “It’s often said that people either garden to impress others or to please themselves,” he says. “But I garden to impress myself.”
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Story: Lynda Hallinan
Photographs: Paul McCredie