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

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...

The ap­proach to the house is sim­ple so that the build­ing merges with the grassy hills that sur­round it.

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...

Blue star ( Am­so­nia taber­nae­mon­tana).

Iris un­guic­u­laris.

Phlomis fru­ti­cosa.

Cream-coloured bearded iris.

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