Gully garden, Parnell

One of the owners of this house in a shady gully in Parnell, Auckland, had already developed a very good garden containing many interesting plant species present at the point that we became involved. The structure of the garden consisted of a collection of species of Magnolia, Lonicera, Malus, Fagus and other traditional garden trees and shrubs. Many of these are more typical of southern gardens than in Auckland, where sub-tropicals and Mediterranean style plantings have dominated gardens for the last 15 years.

Inheriting such a good framework is a gift to a landscape designer, and often provides the template for achieving a better result than if one were given carte blanche. It was our job to sort out one substantial problem area that had never worked, and provide the garden with a total planting scheme to complement the existing planting. The problem area was a sloping lawn at the bottom of the property that our client had hoped would develop into a grassed clearing (similar to an area she had seen in another garden). Unfortunately, the grass did not thrive in semi-shade on Parnell clay, and the area never achieved the effect that our client had intended.

Due to the slope of the area to be developed, we planned drystone retaining walls to provide a level area for the courtyard. The stone that we used is a rough hewn cut of Hinuera stone, which comes in random lengths (60cm to 1.2m long). The walls consist of regular courses of Hinuera stone sections, which were cut to irregular lengths. On the corners of the walls, we used a larger module of stone as quoin stones, to visually resolve the change in direction. The courtyard is edged in the same stone as the walls, also in irregular lengths. One of the major reasons that we used this type of stone is that it rapidly develops moss, providing the area with a patina of age after just a few months. The paving material for the courtyard is crushed limestone, which compacts to behave in a similar manner to impermeable surfaces, but still drains. We specified this as the light colour of the limestone reflects light in what could have been a dark space.

An unusual feature of the design was an extension of the material that we used in the stone walls, which is used in a different manner. The idea for this arrangement of stones was derived from something that Philip saw whilst living in Germany. Outside the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (a building designed by the post-modern English architect James Stirling), Philip photographed a group of cut stones sitting in rough grass directly adjacent to the building.

It was unresolved whether this group of stones was a deliberate artistic installation, or simply left-over building materials from the building (which is clad in a cream stone similar to Hinuera stone). The ambiguity of the grouping of stones was intriguing, and a nice reminder of the nature of the material from which the building was constructed. They were obviously deliberately placed there because the building was finished in the early 80s, and Philip visited the art gallery in 2001. In a similar way, the arrangement of the cuboid stones presents the materials from which the structure of the garden area is constructed in a different format, and is an ambiguous presence in the courtyard.

The most significant feature of the courtyard space is a solution to a practical issue; the necessity for a clothesline in the area with access to the most light (which was also one of the most visible areas of the courtyard). The solution was to turn the clothesline into a sculpture, rather than hiding it (which was the alternative). We designed a wrought iron clothesline based on the form of a native tree (Phyllocladus toatoa), whose leaf-like ‘cladodes’ are shown in the sketch below.

The other major “hard” element of the design is a water feature that is (like the clothesline) based on the botanical form of a native tree. The critically endangered Metrosideros bartlettii (a white-flowered relative of pohutukawa and northern rata) usually starts out life as an epiphyte (on tree ferns or small trees). It then sends roots down to the ground (similar to the northern rata (Metrosideros robusta). At the top of one retaining wall, we planted a Metrosideros bartlettii on top of ponga logs (which will eventually rot away), and then installed a very subtle water feature into the wall.

A series of thin copper pipes snake over the wall (like aerial roots) and feed water into a basin at the base of the wall. An unexpected advantage of the form of this water feature is that a series of small pipes (the water splits off from a manifold which is hidden at the top of the wall) delivers a noise like a natural stream, rather than the splashing noise that water features often provide.

The planting in the lower garden is based on a framework of native ecology, with exotic woodland species added in for seasonal interest and scent. A significant feature of the planting is a large sheet of a delicate, silver-leaved northern fern, Lastreopsis microsora, which sets the tone for the lower garden.

Endangered species planted in the lower garden include the Bay of Plenty forget-me-not, Myosotis petiolata var. petiolata and the creeping Northland fern, Christella dentata.

Prominent amongst the exotic woodland species are several forms and species of Corydalis, including the scarce cream-flowered Corydalis ochroleuca and the sky blue-flowered Corydalis flexuosa. Another feature of the woodland area is several species of the aroid family, most notably from the genus Arisaema (commonly known as cobra lilies). Along with the striking Arisaema sikokianum (pictured in flower), there are specimens of Arisaema candidissimum, Arisaema ringens and Arisaema ciliatum var. liubaense. Directly on the edge of the limestone courtyard, the South American bulb Phadranassa cinerea regularly throws out its nodding red and green flowers.

Like other gardens that we are involved with, the plantings at Parnell form part of our experimentation into the idea of ‘integrated’ native gardens. At one time of year, it is the flowers of the Magnolias or Malus which are the main attraction, whilst at other times, it is the naturalistic associations of the native plantings. Bulbs are used extensively (forming the main points of interest in spring), whilst spires of the lilac-flowered perennial Thalictrum rochebrunianum wave above the planting throughout summer.

Recent work on the garden has consisted of replanting a large area which was previously covered with Agapanthus and Japanese Anemone. This garden is filled with native shrubs, bearded irises, and many specimens of Clematis from the “Viticella” group (Clematis that thrive in Auckland’s humid climate).

Featured native plants

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