It's a good thing Graham and Louise Cleary are so passionate about plants, if only for their neighbours' sake. The cocoon of tall palms and native trees that envelops their home in the Auckland suburb of Kohimarama is more than just visually appealing - it's also an effective sound barrier. This comes in handy for some of their more boisterous parties, such as Graham's 50th birthday bash, when a three-piece band performed in the dining room. "It's just a big party house really," says Louise. "Even the kitchen bench has been danced on."
Hidden down a long driveway and surrounded by trees, the spacious, open-plan home is the perfect spot for entertaining. And these two have had a fair bit of practice. They frequently host clients of Graham's landscape design company, Natural Habitats. In fact, the night before NZ House & Garden visited they were up until well after midnight serving wine and home-made canapes to clients gathered around the outdoor fireplace.
"The house just has this amazing indoor-outdoor flow and we like to make the most of it," says Louise, who does the catering for the company. "The entire property lends itself so well to functions and parties in lots of different ways."
So much so that they decided to use it as the venue for their 1920s-themed wedding five years ago. A huge marquee set up on the lawn housed their guests and Candy Lane's dance troupe, who put on a jazzy show inspired by the musical Chicago.
Perhaps surprisingly, entertaining didn't factor into the brief Graham and his former partner gave architect Richard Priest before the house was built 15 years ago. "My children [Jericho and Brock] were only wee ones so we wanted it to be a safe, family-friendly home where they would always like to be."
Graham banned glues and other toxic materials and employed the advice of environmental consultant Reinhard Kanuka-Fuchs on the dangers of electromagnetic fields. As a result, most electrical cables are under the floorboards and power points in the bedrooms aren't near the bedheads.
Now in their 20s, Graham's children and Louise's son Josh have "mostly" moved out but still can't resist the lure of home. It's not surprising - the four-bedroom house has a 25m pool, sheltered courtyard, spacious deck and 2500sqm of immaculate gardens. "They still love to be here, so we achieved what we set out to I guess," says Graham. "Occasionally they even bounce on the tramp."
Inside, the large galley kitchen is the central focus for both indoor and outdoor living areas. "It was important to us that the kitchen be the heart of the home because that's where we spend a lot of time together," says Graham.
"It works even now - when Louise is cooking we just sit around the breakfast bar and whenever we have dinner parties or functions they always start in the kitchen."
Although they had no complaints about the design of the house, the interior hadn't been updated since the house was built in 1997 and needed refreshing. Major renovations, completed at the beginning of 2012, have given the home the modern, airy look the couple wanted.
With input from their interior designer Ann Motion, the red, blue and green walls were repainted in neutral tones and the polished rimu and matai floors sanded back and oiled for a more relaxed feel. Even the pool floor was changed from bright green to a neutral tone that matches the sandstone tiles in the courtyard. "We lived with a lot of bright colours and, much as we loved it, it just felt a bit dated. We wanted to bring it back into this era," says Graham. Now, colour is injected via furnishings, art and plants.
Their green, lush garden had a few changes too, after an old willow tree that had dominated the tranquil pond area toppled over. "It created an unbelievable opportunity for us to change that area and, in succession, other areas of the garden as well," says Graham. A few palm trees were uprooted and replanted near the pond, reinvigorating the space.
The entire garden, in fact, is a showcase for New Zealand native and subtropical plants such as the palm trees that feature strongly throughout the property, particularly nikau and Phoenix reclinata. "We wanted to show how great our native trees are and how well they fit with other species from the Pacific - that's where the Pasifika, subtropical, neo-native concept came from," says Graham.
Succulents in terracotta pots line the edge of the deck and bromeliads, dragon trees, cycads and many kinds of palms form what Graham refers to as their "private paradise".
And it certainly is private - backdropped by remnants of the original native bush, the garden borders have been cleverly planned so you can barely see the tops of neighbouring houses. Instead, the eye is drawn towards the sea in the distance. "The privacy aspect was important to us just in terms of having our own relaxing and peaceful environment," says Graham. "That goes into the business too. We like to call our staff 'private paradisers' and this is our version here."
Graham's career in landscaping started after a chance meeting with Auckland landscape architect Andrew Geddes, for whom he did contract work in the early 1980s. Natural Habitats was established soon after. "I always loved the outdoors and design of all sorts. Ultimately, though, it's the chance to influence how we treat our environment that's most important to me." With that in mind, the couple set up a beehive near the driveway in an effort to help counter the declining bee population - a cause promoted by the Urban Trees for Bees programme.
The couple's keen interest in the environment, and their strong connection to the outdoors, carry through into the house: there are plants in almost every room. Even the artwork has a connection to the environment in some way - be it a painting of the view from their bach on Great Barrier Island or the sculpture hanging in the entranceway of a trumpet, with vines instead of musical notes flowing from its bell.
"When you bring the outdoors in, you bring a bit of life into a house," says Graham. Not that there's any shortage of that - the Clearys are already looking forward to their next party. "Our home is our heart. It's our paradise. Why wouldn't we share it?"For more images click on the "photo gallery" link above.