A garden in the Te Mata foothills designed to celebrate its heritage
In the foothills surrounding the peak, there are also pa sites and other earthworks associated with the local Ngati Kahungunu tribe.
A singular garden in the limestone foothills of Te Mata is designed to celebrate its rich botanical and cultural heritage.
Many landscape designers view gardens from a relatively singular viewpoint, guided by the site itself and the client brief when creating their concepts, with little reference to the wider context. Philip Smith has a very different attitude. For the designer and his practice O2 Landscapes, understanding the cultural and botanical history of a region is a vital aspect of their site analysis. In this garden, installed in 2010 in the limestone foothills of Te Mata in the Hawkes Bay, they were fortunate to find clients who were as committed to this holistic design practice as they were.
Soaring 399m above the Heretaunga Plains (you can see Mt Ruapehu on a clear day), Te Mata Peak has a rich cultural and botanical history with some plants only found on the peak – many of them rare or endangered. A critically endangered local variety of the native daphne ( Pimelea mimosa) was of particular interest to both designer and clients, with 77 specimens initially planted in various spots around the garden and more through the years to help ensure the survival of this unique local in its native habitat.
In the foothills surrounding the peak, there are also pa sites and other earthworks associated with the local Ngati Kahungunu tribe. Pre-European kumara pits still exist on the north side of the garden site. Drawing these different strands together into one cohesive landscape was a welcome challenge for the landscape designer.
Philip’s aim was to create a connection between the site’s “cultural vernacular” and ecological heritage to the contemporary architecture of the house and the lifestyle of its inhabitants. “We have continually been sold external fantasies in our gardens – subtropical, formal, cottage,” he asserts. “But it is important to sell people dreams based on the reality of their own landscapes and culture.”
Part of that reality is that we have an incredibly diverse range of exotic as well as native species growing in this country. Both have their place, he believes.
With an experienced and passionate gardener as his client, Philip created an integrated evergreen native, exotic shrub and perennial border on the sheltered, eastern side of the house. Here, amidst 11 tonne of limestone boulders carefully positioned to stabilise the steep banks, are planted many Te Mata natives with a mix of exotic perennials that are well adapted to the very dry summer conditions in the Hawkes Bay.
Integrating flower gardens with evergreen native structure is a great way to “tell the stories of our plants, within a setup that delivers seasonal change and colour,” says Philips. The native species that form the evergreen structural “islands” here include Melicytus obovatus,
Melicytus crassifolius and Olearia nummulariifolia. The designer has these shaped in loosely formal, undulating cloud-like plant forms as often seen in the work of Belgian naturalistic landscape architect Jacques Wirtz.
Planted among the natives are exotic trees and perennials such as bearded iris; the lilac flowering Russian Sage ( Perovskia atriplicifolia); a South African bulb
Bobartia indica which has reed-like, dark green foliage; and the Mediterranean sea squill Urginea maritima.
Philip had found it difficult to locate the less commonly grown exotic bulbs and perennials during the installation stage. “Plants such as the Mediterranean sea squill are one of countless perennial or bulb species that are now ignored by the landscape industry in favour of static, safe compositions,” he says. “Thankfully, we were able to buy material from Bev McConnell’s wonderful Auckland garden, Ayrlies.”
He bemoans the current trend in landscape design for using only a few plant species that are known to be good “all round performers”, insisting that this has led to less plant species being available as smaller specialist nurseries close down due to lack of demand. “Dynamism is undervalued in landscape design.”
Not so his clients who are very happy with the garden, particularly the eastern border. In the seven years since its installation, it has become more naturalised they say. “The irises, euphorbias, Marlborough rock daisies along with the phlomis and Russian sage are all still the happy backbone perennials. Most of them are seeding and multiplying at will. And the structure provided by the varieties of Melicytus has been retained. However, the Melicytus here have remained very low and shrubby compared to their growth in the more forgiving – and irrigated – areas of the garden. They are regularly clipped in these areas and not at all on the eastern bank.”
Not all the native evergreens have survived though, they report. “The wonderful Olearia nummularifolia have declined in number, steadily succumbing to a sooty mould that we have been unable to control. However, their place has been readily filled with the vigorous growth of Hebe stricta var. macroura. It is clipped severely once a year and bounces back with beauty. It also seeds in the gravel and between the limestone rocks.”
On the northern side of the garden is a terrace, its paving continuing the garden’s connection to the local limestone geology. However, this time it’s a reconstituted limestone and concrete paver produced by local manufacturer Hawkes Bay Paving Company. Although initially keen to work hard limestone, Philip was persuaded by his clients to investigate this material and was impressed by its finish and the manufacturer’s attention to detail. The pavers were each individually cut to distinct forms (previously designed on a small-scale template), and the surfaces ground to achieve the exact surface required.
The pavers were each individually cut to distinct forms and the surfaces ground to achieve the exact surface required.
“The garden has developed more to its own liking than to our direction. We are comfortable with that as it seems to be right for this landscape.”
For the layout of the pavers, rather than follow the conventional geometries used in outdoor paving, O2 Landscapes came up with their own “form grammar”. This was partly inspired by designs of Greek architect Dimitris Pikionis near the Acropolis and also aerial surveys of archaeological sites at Porangahau in the southern Hawkes Bay. Coincidentally their clients had lived at Porangahau for many years before building the house at Te Mata, further strengthening the connection.
“The paving represents a method of working that we feel very strongly about – the application of vernacular form into design,” says Philip. “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.”
Around the paved terrace, rather than introduce another flower border, Philip created a meadow zone using native species such as meadow rice grass ( Microlaena stipoides). The meadow is a reference to the modified landscape of native and exotic pasture species of the region – “a dry land aesthetic that characterises many eastern parts of New Zealand,” Philip explains. “I am interested in things that are between nature and the modified landscape. And I wanted to keep the western side of the garden extremely simple.”
The meadow acts as an intermediary zone between open lawn areas and more native shrub plantings in the alcoves between the three galleries of the Stevens Lawson-designed house.
The design of these gardens were generated strongly by the architecture, as was the central courtyard planted with nikau and the motor court at the entrance which has crepe myrtle trees planted formally against the orange corten steel wall.
Working with architects like Stevens Lawson who
Planted around the deck are Melicytus obovatus and flaxes that are native to Te Mata Peak along with Hebe stricta var. macroura and Olearia nummularifolia x coriacea. The red-leafed trees in the background are European hornbeams ( Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’).
On the more exposed western and northwestern sides of the house, Philip created a meadow zone incorporating native grasses such as Dichelachne crinita and Microlaena stipoides as well as the critically endangered Te Mata species of daphne ( Pimelea mimosa).
The approach to the house is simple so that the building merges with the grassy hills that surround it.
Blue star ( Amsonia tabernaemontana).
Cream-coloured bearded iris.