Pukehinau, Wellington

Over the last decade, we have had multiple opportunities to work in Wellington – most frequently on projects with the authors of this impressive building, Parsonson Architects. Aside from the characteristics usually associated with our capital city (notably steep terrain and buffeting winds), one of the major differences that I notice between Auckland and Wellington is the birdlife that has been encouraged by visionary initiatives in many parts of the city.

We therefore start this account of one of our Wellington projects with a story that the clients told me during one visit to see the garden’s progress – about an episode in which a pair of rare native parrots (kākā) stopped by to use bird feeders that our clients had set up amidst the garden.

The presence of visiting kākā has much to do with the proximity of Zealandia to this residence (comprising 2 apartments) overlooking the harbour, and attests to Wellington’s environmental progress over the last two decades – a period in which kākā have flourished, and become a common sight wheeling above the city.

It also relates well to the original name for this part of town, Pukehinau (‘hill of the hinau’), due to the affinity that kākā have for hinau trees – which is an important food source for kākā (especially during breeding) in places where large specimens of hinau endure. The comparatively exposed aspect, and rapid growth rate required at the base of this tall building, steered us towards a regionally rare native tree, Hoheria angustifolia (or hungere), as the main grove enfolding the house.

In this part of the country, hungere normally grows in swamp habitats, but this versatile, narrow-growing, white-flowered tree (with a character somewhat akin to a birch) is well adapted to a variety of conditions, including windy hillside habitats.

A major driver in the design of this garden was to work with a range of intense greens that are in tune with the kinds of ecosystems that develop in many of the surrounding hills. One of the most vibrant tones within Wellington’s native plant communities is offered by Hebe parviflora – the bright, pale green shrub on the righthand side of the image above (showing the view looking down on the mosaic of foliage in the lower garden).

In addition to locally-occurring shrubs such as Hebe parviflora, Metrosideros perforata and Metrosideros colensoi, the structure of the garden is established by a number of exotic flowering species; foremost amongst which is the scented Osmanthus x burkwoodii (the dark green shrubs in the above image).

A feature of the garden is the use of climbing hydrangeas in many parts of the garden for clothing fences and banks. An evergreen species, Pileostegia viburnoides (shown above, right, in flower), is one of the best self-attaching climbers that we have trialled in the last decade, and this species plays a valuable role in blurring the boundary on one side of the site, whilst Decumaria sinensis and Hydrangea quelpartensis occupy a similar role further up.

Seasonal change is integrated into the predominantly evergreen structure in a naturalistic manner with flowering species such as Hydrangea paniculata f. velutina – with the additional benefit of the provision of nectar for invertebrates like the yellow admiral butterfly visiting the inflorescences in the photo above (left).

The winter garden space that Parsonson Architects designed for the upper floor of the building is surrounded by narrow sheets of an innovative, locally-produced architectural mesh called Kaynemail. These vertical bands provide partial screening and shelter for this terrace, which can be fully shut off from the elements when conditions dictate, or opened up on fine days.

Planters surrounding the winter garden required species that can survive exposure to high levels of wind and insolation, and we therefore specified a simple rolling canopy of Muehlenbeckia astonii (which endures on steep faces with shallow soil facing Cook Strait, on Wellington’s South Coast) and a cliff-growing hebe from Stephens Island (called Hebe stenophylla var. oliveri) that we have found to be a fine plant for restricted root environments, with Acaena microphylla planted at their base.

The southern side of the house provided an entirely different set of conditions, given the shade cast by the building towering above it. A remarkable Himalayan species rhododendron with mahogany-coloured, peeling bark (Rhododendron nuttallii var. stellata), contributes largely to the character of this area – as it does within the wooded zone surrounding our studio 500km to the north – with an evergreen Chinese perennial’s arching stems (Disporopsis longifolia) offering a sense of movement on the ground plane.

The frequently ignored design problem of where to hang clothing required a distinctly urban response in this project, given the visibility of the small walled terrace earmarked for this purpose. Working in tandem with Craig Burt from Parsonson Architects, we designed a series of brackets based on a metal screen that the architects had specified for the opposing side of the terrace.

The most satisfying part of this design for us (aside from the fact that it is regularly used) is the way in which each cable loops back on a diagonal to join with a horizontal rod that we specified on top of the wall – establishing a dynamic relationship between its various parts.

Note : All photographs of this garden have been taken by David Straight. They may not be reproduced without permission from O2 Landscapes and the photographer.