Te Mata garden, Hawke’s Bay

Limestone landscapes are close to our heart. They are characterised by beautiful geological formations and interesting plant ecologies, both of which often imbue them with a subtle, otherworldly nature. We have intensively studied such landscapes, and their plant communities, at Kawhia (on the western coast of the Waikato) and northwest Nelson. Accordingly, the opportunity to make a garden on this site in the limestone foothills of Te Mata Peak was very exciting. Te Mata Peak is a special place; near its top, a network of spectacular cliffs and soft hillsides supports a distinctive range of plant species, including species found nowhere other than on the Peak itself. In addition to this, the foothills upon which the house of our clients sits bear the marks of a long history of human occupation.

The plants of Te Mata Peak play a significant role in the design of the garden. Perhaps the most important of these is the critically endangered Te Mata ‘native daphne’ (the recently described Pimelea mimosa); a plant recently described as being in serious danger of extinction. Fortunately for it, a local group is committed to replanting it on the Peak, off seed from plants that were collected more than 40 years ago. Pimelea mimosa grows amongst shrubs and grasses in a very small number of sites on the limestone faces of Te Mata cliffs.

Within the garden, we have planted 77 specimens of it in various spots. It is establishing very well, and we intend to plant even more plants in the future, to help establish an ‘insurance’ population of this unique local native on the foothills of its native habitat. Another endemic local species that is planted in large quantities (within revegetation plantings on the streetfront) is the Te Mata Peak Snow Tussock (Chionochloa flavicans f. temata).

We have held an interest for some time in the trialling of native grasses which have the character of pasture grasses (as opposed to the usual perception of a native grass as bearing a tussock form). The dry hills of this area are a habitat within which native species have been able to endure within pasture, due to their ability to survive in unimproved soil. We have utilised such species extensively (including meadow rice grass, Microlaena stipoides); especially for the purpose of meadow zones, which act as an alternative to garden edging (as they are an intermediate transition between lawn and garden).

An East Coast Hebe (H. stricta var. macroura), which Oratia Native Plant Nursery collected from the vicinity of Napier, is planted in association with Microlaena stipoides, at the top of the southeastern slope. Its compact, spreading form and attractive foliage make it one of the finest Hebe species that we have used in plantings.

During the design process, it was important to us to investigate possibilities related to the local limestone geology. Our early thoughts centred around potentially working hard limestone (either locally-sourced or from Otorohanga) similar to Arts and Crafts style stonework. However, the clients came across a locally-produced reconstituted limestone concrete paver (produced by Hawkes Bay Paving Company Ltd.), and suggested looking into this material. Products made in this manner do not normally appeal to us, but the process of finishing (scabbling) and attention to detail applied by the manufacturers make this a very worthwhile, interesting material. A change in material often necessitates a change in approach, and the use of this ‘hybrid’ material (neither purely artificial nor natural) led us to pursue new thoughts.

We researched further, and came across two distinct influences that informed the final design. Firstly, we coincidentally discovered the paving designed by Dimitris Pikionis opposite the Athens Acropolis (whilst reading through the recipients of the Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens; a scheme run by the inspirational Italian institute, Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche). Pikionis utilised a profound understanding of Greek artistic traditions and vernacular landscape forms, and Japanese aesthetics, to formulate his own ‘form grammar’; thereby creating a remarkable piece of landscape design which was both progressive and rooted in local tradition.

Pikionis’ example inspired us to look into establishing our own ‘form grammar’ for the paving on this site. The second influence upon our eventual patterns was a document prepared by the Department of Conservation, which concerned aerial surveys of archaeological sites at Porangahau in the southern Hawkes Bay (pre-European Māori settlement). The aerial surveys provided beautiful abstract compositions, with their own sense of order; which is distinct from the comparatively strict geometric order traditionally applied to European colonial settlement patterns. They are the result of a very direct response to settling within the landscape. Our clients also lived and worked at Porangahau for many years, so there is an intimate connection for them to the application of patterns derived from that area. Additional information and images on the development of the paving are included in an essay on archaeological form, within the ‘Essays’ section of the website.

The paving represents a method of working that we feel very strongly about; the application of vernacular form into design. The eventual design needed to walk a line between faithful representation of the forms and patterns from Porangahau, and the abstraction of certain areas of the paving, so that the overall scheme was cohesive. Our work with Michael Shepherd was integral in determining the finishing methods for the paving surface, as Michael has a highly developed perspective on artistic process. All sides of the pavers were cut to distinct forms (previously designed on a small-scale template), and the surfaces were additionally ground to achieve the exact surface that we required.

On the southeastern side of the property, the ‘integrated’ native/flower border is designed as a series of pseudo-formal islands (of native shrubs), which provides the structure for flowering perennials and shrubs that are well adapted to the extremely dry conditions that occur in Hawkes Bay summers.

The native species that form the structural ‘islands’ include Melicytus obovatus, Melicytus crassifolius, and an unnamed form of Melicytus from limestone areas of northwest Nelson. These will be pruned to orderly forms, but not trimmed in the manner of hedges. The result will be undulating cloud-like plant forms, which provide a loose manner of formality. A native scented Clematis, C. forsteri, which is often associated with limestone areas (and is found on Te Mata Peak), is planted to wind through these shrubs and provide seasonal interest.

Amongst these ‘islands’, perennial species will emerge from spring through to autumn. Amongst these perennials, Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) sends up lilac spires that intensify throughout summer, to a vibrant dark purple colour. Bearded irises are planted in the lower section of the border, whilst the dwarf grey Euphorbia ‘Copton Ash’ creeps through plantings. A remarkable evergreen South African bulb, Bobartia indica, creates a differing sense of structure with its reed-like, dark green foliage. A large expanse of the white-flowered Sedum ‘Stardust’ provides enduring interest in autumn and early winter, with its brown seedheads.

A plant that we have been fortunate to acquire is the Mediterranean sea squill, Urginea maritima; which is one of countless perennial or bulb species that are now ignored by the landscape industry in favour of static, safe compositions. Thankfully, we were able to buy material from Bev McConnell’s wonderful Auckland garden, Ayrlies. A significant number of Marlborough rock daisies (Pachystegia insignis and P. insignis x rufa) are planted on the driest sections of the border, and associated with these is a very interesting leafless shrub, Muehlenbeckia ephedroides. This peculiar species is naturally uncommon, and develops a network of spidery, iridescent purple-grey stems, which lend a dynamism to the slope. Our material was sourced by a local nursery from a significant local population at Te Awanga.

Featured native plants

Species / Variety