Surprises unfold around every corner in this original Central Otago garden.
A design professor’s lucky meeting with a farmer in an airport lounge led to the creation of an original country garden
Imagine a green, hilly and seemingly endless landscape, a sky that’s clear and blue and wide, with clouds so close you could almost touch them. This is the view from Marjorie Hay’s bedroom, on the top floor of a remote country property near Lawrence in Central Otago. Even after living here for 28 years, she says, it’s breathtaking. “It’s the top of paradise here.”
When Marjorie and husband Mark took over the 800ha family farm in Tuapeka West, she was eight months pregnant and the garden was non-existent. Now there’s a country garden so perfectly pitched to its surroundings, you’d think it had always been here: swathes of lawn contained within mixed native and exotic shelter belts, vegetables, a woodland area with daffodils and some tricky stuff with topiary. There’s even a tussocksoftened sauna shed with views to the distant mountains, positioned so you can admire their icy grandeur while poaching in warm water.
Marjorie’s country garden has a natural flow, with surprises around each corner and always that magnificent view. “I love my life here,” she says.
Yet she readily admits she knew nothing about gardening when she and Mark married. She did have one huge advantage: as a professor at Rhode Island School of Design, with her own business in Boston, Marjorie had a good eye.
How did she end up in New Zealand? Love bloomed in an airport transit lounge. The US professor was en route to Christchurch to teach design for six weeks; the Mainland sheep farmer, with a broken leg, was going to a wedding but his ride was late.
Mark sat next to Marjorie and the rest is a love story that includes Marjorie’s visit to his farm the following week, a year of writing letters (“That’s how old we are!”) and happily ever after. “Pretty old-fashioned,” she says.
As for learning about gardening: “I discovered Maggie Barry’s TV show on Friday nights after I’d put the kids to bed. She got me inspired. I didn’t look at a lot of gardens but I got hold of lots of gardening books. And Mark was very supportive… we make a good team.” Marjorie says she quickly became addicted “though I still don’t have the terminology down”.
Mark’s sister Barb Wilkins, who has a great garden on the Otago harbour (NZ House & Garden, November 2016), brought cuttings and advice. And Mark’s mother paid for local landscape architect Sue Mort to draw up a 10-year plan for the garden. “That was so cool,” says Marjorie. “I’m a graphic designer, so I can understand structure.”
Inspired, she completed the work well ahead of time. “It’s changed a bit over the years but at least I had a vision.”
One of the first things they did was to cut a hole through the monolithic Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) hedge – only to discover another green wall. Mark’s grandfather had planted a double hedge as insurance against the dreaded wind because where you have views, there will always be wind. >
It’s not just wind they battle. “We can get big snow. A few years ago, snow crushed the woolshed; it was like a blanket lying across the top. Normally we get half a dozen snowfalls a year and we get a few frosts too,” says Marjorie.
Standing firm in the face of wind and snow is a design feature that separates paddock from lawn – a curved row of Thuja occidentalis ‘Pyramidalis’. She chose her “soldiers”, as she likes to think of them, for their ease of care, except after using these exclamation points all over the garden she discovered they were the wrong variety. These chaps need a close shave twice a year.
Next came a woodland garden to remind her of childhood holidays in an Ohio log cabin. She started with 33 silver birches in honour of her father Judson Millhon who, before he became a doctor, could have played pro basketball. His singlet number: 33. Then she kept on planting oaks, maples, copper beech and gums, for the autumn colours and to remember people and pets. “Mark is really into birds, so we planted natives too.” Those trees have grown faster than she would have thought and her new delight is tweaking them, limbing them up and thinning them out to reveal living sculptures.
Now she and Mark, keen supporters of the Farm Forestry Association, are extending their tree planting beyond the garden gate, in selected blocks throughout the farm. “Now I’m doing sketches and I know how things grow.”
Gardening is just one creative outlet for Marjorie – she also has a ceramics studio near the farmhouse. Because money was always an issue, Marjorie had to be clever and use natural materials. “I love our home,” she says. “I’m always trying to make things look better.”
Wherever you look in the garden you’ll see her artful flourishes – a small driftwood tree dominated by ancient macrocarpa. Down at the bottom of Mark’s driving range, there’s a tower created from deer antlers donated by a friendly hunter.
Ceramic figures on poles pop up among the foliage. Every gate is different; some rescued, some designed by Marjorie.
Her favourite colour, red, appears on two Cape Cod-style chairs that remind her of home, and on the gate to the fenced, former vege garden that now shelters four clipped Irish yews and a zig-zag of box hedging. Her newer fenced vege garden is swathed in every device imaginable to thwart hungry rabbits.
The most intriguing area is a tunnel created by a farm worker with a chainsaw, who carved out a passage between the two macrocarpa hedges. “It’s so cool. I never thought of it.”
Gardening shouldn’t be a chore and if it feels like it, stop – that’s the best advice she got from her mother-in-law.
“A lot of people think it’s work but I love to do it.” Marjorie says this garden is the best thing she’s ever done, apart from being a mother. >
Son Isaac, 27, is very interested in the farm. Daughter Olivia, 25, always loved farming life but has other interests right now, says her mother.
The nicest thing anyone has said about her garden? “That I was an inspiration.”
Her design advice is to keep it simple, she says. Less really is more, so don’t have too many plants. Have structure and control things. It’s worked for her.
THESE PAGES Marjorie and Mark Hay absorbed a farm paddock into their home garden at Tuapeka West after levelling an ancient shelter belt; this area is now referred to as the Great Lawn, a velvety green space framed by raised curved beds of mainly natives whose wavy form and colour depict the elements of earth (brown), fire (red), water (blue) and air (white).
THIS PAGE “The Tunnel of Trees”, a hidden treasure revealed by chainsaw-wielding farm worker Simon Cook; Mark made the gate one Mother’s Day.