Are the best gardens grown or inherited? Would you prefer to add your personal touches to evolve someone else’s vision, or a blank canvas to create something entirely your own?
There’s obviously no right answer and not everyone has the opportunity to start from scratch. But for Bruce Batten, finding a bare section to transform into his garden vision was an essential part of his return to New Zealand, with his wife Sharon, after decades living in the UK.
The couple eventually found their perfect blank canvas on half a hectare of land surrounding a brand new modern home in the small settlement of Ōhau, 7km out of Levin in the prime growing region of Horowhenua.
Though Bruce was born and raised in the region, he wasn’t set on settling back there. He and Sharon, a native of Northern Ireland, spent some time house-sitting around the country on their arrival in New Zealand, weighing up their options of where to put down roots. During a visit to Bruce’s brother in Foxton, the couple ventured out to look at properties around the region and hit the jackpot.
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“I never thought I’d end up living in Ōhau, but this property was exactly what we were looking for,” says Bruce, who is a qualified landscape gardener and garden designer. “I had decided that when we came to retire back in New Zealand, I wanted to build the garden of my dreams and this site had everything that would allow me to do that. I knew I wanted something that had a slope and would be quite difficult to work at.
“When we were looking at this place, I immediately knew what I wanted to do with the garden. Within the first few days we were here. I had mapped the whole thing out with spray paint; where the retaining wall would go, the pond, all of that. It was all already in my head.”
For Sharon, who’s just as committed a contributor to the garden vision but jokingly describes herself as “the lackey”, the section’s sweeping views were as important as the plan, reminding her of her family home on the north coast of Northern Ireland. The Ōhau property looks toward the Tararua Ranges on the east and Kāpiti Island to the west.
“We came past it one evening just as the sun was setting over Kāpiti Island and we just thought, ‘Yes’,” she says. “It would be crazy to move somewhere like New Zealand and not live somewhere where you can see the beautiful surroundings.”
It’s all a far cry from the couple’s life in suburban Belfast, though even there they created beautiful gardens in their different homes, albeit rather more hemmed in. “My parents were extremely keen gardeners. They had a garden in Levin that everybody admired and would stop to look at when they passed. I guess that rubbed off on me,” says Bruce, though it wasn’t until his late 50s that gardening became more than a hobby.
After a successful 30-year career in broadcasting with the BBC as a producer and director, Bruce opted to take a voluntary redundancy package in the mid-2000s and went back to school to study horticulture and landscape design. He then owned and operated a landscape gardening business with a partner for several years before moving into teaching horticulture and horticultural history, which is another passion.
Eventually though, despite their love of Northern Ireland, the Belfast winters started to feel longer and drearier. Soon enough, retirement and the move to New Zealand beckoned.
The couple have been in their Ōhau home for six years now and clearly have a different idea of “retirement” to many people, putting in an average of six hours in the garden on most days.
They have transformed that half-hectare blank canvas into a thriving New Wave Perennial garden in the style of famed Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, which has been “bloody hard” at times, says Sharon, and the work is ongoing as they continue to add new areas to the plan.
The foundation of this New Wave garden is beds filled with a range of different perennials, often mixing spear-leafed decorative grasses with denser broad-leafed evergreens that can be shaped.
Among those are other different, seasonal perennials which might include daffodils, irises, astilbes, rudbeckia and alliums.
“From spring right through till the end of autumn, in among these permanent perennials you have different things constantly coming up. As they die back, they are replaced by something else coming through so that provides you with all these colours and the garden is always changing,” Bruce says.
Even in winter the tree circle down the slope offers dramatic colour contrast with white-stemmed silver birches and coral-barked dogwood.
Despite the couple’s garden experience and credentials, there has had to be some trial and error as they adapt to New Zealand – and Horowhenua – growing conditions.
“We did find some things that were bulletproof in the UK didn’t work here at all,” says Sharon, citing the “thorn in our side” that is the 35 or so ‘Eve Price’ viburnums planted as a hedge along the driveway underneath evergreen ash trees.
“They’re great in the UK – trouble-free and flowering in winter. We thought they’d be perfect,” she says. Alas, after the first year, the local thrip population also found them perfect. Bruce and Sharon have been locked in a pitched battle with them ever since.
“I’d never heard of thrips. It’s not a common pest in Northern Ireland at all. We’ve tried all sorts of things, but nothing has really worked,” Sharon says, adding they’re now seeking advice from Manawatū’s Crosshill Gardens in hope of a solution.
The lack of shade on their Ōhau property has also meant Bruce has had to review his love of shade-loving plants such as Brunnera macrophylla and rodgersia. Where box and laurel varieties would often be used for shaped perennials in the UK, Bruce has opted for the likes of the Pittosporum ‘Fankies Follie’, Corokia ‘Leprechaun’ and Syzygium australe ‘Tom Thumb’.
“We’ve had to adapt and learn lots of things we’d never heard of before,” says Bruce. “We’ve had to learn a whole new palette of plants. I spent a lot of time just going around garden centres looking at things.”
They’ve also been known to tap New Zealand’s garden community for help when they need it. Trying to source a favourite pink candle-flowered plant, Persicaria affinis ‘Darjeeling Red’, Bruce reached out to NZ Gardener to ask its readers for help.
A bag of cuttings soon arrived from Ashburton gardener (and one of the magazine’s regular columnists) Alan Trott, which now form a beautiful border around one of Bruce and Sharon’s beds.
Though creating the garden has been hard work, and though it is still developing, the couple believe they are finally, after six years, in a more moderate phase where it needs less intensive care.
“Most people who have started a garden from scratch say the first four or five years are the hardest, and that’s probably right on the money,” says Bruce. “Those first four years were relentless because you’re trying to develop new areas while keeping the ones you’ve done looking tidy. We were really tired all the time.”
“Now,” adds Sharon, ‘’we can at least go off and have a holiday and explore the country and come back knowing the garden is still going to look good.”
For both Sharon and Bruce, the effort has been worth it to create a garden that realises the vision Bruce had for the site as soon as he saw it, and that stands out from the crowd.
“I wanted a modern type of garden for a modern house, and I wanted to do something that was a bit different from the average New Zealand garden,” Bruce says. “I love it when you visit those gardens where you can see that somebody has sat down and really thought the whole thing through. That’s what I wanted to do.
“I wanted something that was bigger than anything I had ever done before. I wanted that challenge and to really extend myself with all the ideas I loved about modernist gardens. And while it started with that vision, creating it has become a genuine partnership between Sharon and me.”
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