Undaunted by the squalls of our capital city, one garden designer created her own outdoor sanctuary.
A courtyard sanctuary in Wellington.
Creating an elegant courtyard garden in Wellington is a coup – especially for someone who hates gardening in the wind. The capital city is defined by its blustery squalls, though on a good day it’s hard to beat this place for stunning views of harbourside and hills. As for accessible flat ground around the house, it’s a luxury for a greenfingered Wellingtonian. But if anyone could pull it off, it’s garden designer Sarah Caughley.
When Sarah first moved to Wellington, it took her a while to accept that she wasn’t living in the country anymore, and that, though the house had a charming country feel, it came with next to no garden.
Sarah was raised on a farm in Okareka near Rotorua, where she used to “run around the paddocks all day like a sheepdog”. She had worked in garden centres before she married Richard and moved to the city. Energetic and creative, she pined for a project – until their three children came along and she started enjoying city life. And once the feverish clamour of babyhood calmed to a dull roar, she went back to work in a garden centre. There she learned which plants were suitable for the capital’s climate, and a two-year course in landscape design taught her how to use them.
Ten years or so after moving to the house in Wadestown, Sarah finally found the time to get serious about her section. They bought the neighbouring property so they could remove a massive clay bank that loomed over one side of the house: this involved trucking 160 loads of clay up a steep slope in a narrow street in a major gear- grinding exercise. Sarah planted the newly built raised garden and its paved terrace, but this exercise ended abruptly when her vegetables took flight in the wind: gusts of 120kph sent even the outdoor furniture skittling. That bulky old bank had at least provided some shelter; in its absence the wind whipped around unchecked.
Undaunted, Sarah grew a windbreak below the terrace, using a foolproof selection of wind-tolerant plants such as karo, ngaio, lonicera, English and Portuguese laurel, Viburnum japonicum, the griselinias littoralis and lucida,
corokia and Coprosma repens, lots of miniature toetoe ( Chionochloa flavicans) and rengarenga lilies ( Arthropodium
cirratum). Tecomanthe speciosa weaves between the branches, filling in the gaps. (Take care to plant everything securely in the ground, Sarah cautions, to avoid wind-rock.) Once they all began to thrive, she had another go at the terrace.
The original idea for an edible parterre was shelved because of the wind and the wind-chill factor. Growing all her own food – the most intensive form of gardening, which requires daily attendance – proved impossible when the wind chased her back indoors.
Instead, Sarah has surrounded her fountain with plumptious cubes of Corokia virgata ‘Geenty’s Green’. The raised boundary beds house topiaried shrubs, tree ferns and flax, large standard acmenas, the occasional rose, hydrangeas, lavender and buxus, siren-red pelargoniums, and a fenceline shrouded in climbers. And beside the house, shabby chic containers of buxus and succulents, and a hedge of bulletproof Indian
Not one to coddle, she swears by choosing the right plants for the place. Clay and rock? She takes what she gets and deals with it.
hawthorn ( Rhaphiolepis indica) soften the junction where weatherboard meets paving.
Around the other side of the house, a soft carpet of lawn surrounded by buxus-edged beds is presided over by a splendid old cabbage tree and an Irish yew Sarah planted the year her daughter Rachael was born. The plum is a favourite: she rescued it from the diggers and dragged it around the house to its new spot here opposite the dining room window. A 100-year-old white-flowering
Camellia japonica and a Magnolia soulangeana, which she inherited with the house, have earned Sarah’s respect and affection. But perhaps her favourite part of the garden is a patch of wild grass nodding in the breeze, a little touch of country she can’t live without.
Sarah describes herself as a frugal gardener. “I try to be economical,” she says. “I’d rather spend the money going somewhere warm in the winter.” She trawls the sick bays in garden centres and nurseries, looking for patients she can nurse back to health (don’t be afraid to unravel the roots, is her tip). Lavender, rosemary and hydrangeas are all grown from cuttings. She grows succulents for containers and groundcover because they’re biddable. Patience is a big money saver, too, says Sarah. Buy small plants and wait for them to grow instead of going for an instant effect with larger, more expensive plants.
Not one to coddle, she swears by choosing the right plant for the place. Clay and rock? She takes what she gets and deals with it, without using imported soil. There’s no
Any plant needing care and attention is not in this garden – there are no fussy annuals or perennials.
need to feed or fertilise, she says, because plants don’t need a lot. But the one thing that will help a Wellington garden to flourish is organic mulch laid on thick.
Sarah doesn’t toil in her garden for hours, either; this is a deliberately easy-care garden. With a garden design business called Reviresco (I will grow green – her father’s family motto), a busy household of adult kids who come and go, and a weekend property in Otaki, time is tight. Any plant needing care and attention is not in this garden – there are no fussy annuals or perennials. A whip-around once every three weeks or so keeps the garden in trim – in two hours she can “fix the whole blooming garden” with loppers, secateurs and a nifty tool that deals to taprooted weeds (Vita Sackville-West’s favourite, apparently). She throws non-invasive weeds to the back of beds – free mulch.
When her children were small, Sarah helped set up garden tours as a fundraiser for Wadestown school charities. She’s still involved: she enjoys the people contact and well-informed feedback. And thanks to her skill, visitors to her garden find a place that never looks windblown despite the elements. It’s a charming, slightly out of control, romantic country garden in town, where boundaries and fences disappear among the greenery, fulfilling Sarah’s aim of creating a wondrous picture on a big canvas.
The crooked plum tree, potted succulent and glossyLigularia reniformis make an artful installation in the original side garden.
Sarah deliberately screens fences for a more spacious feel.
The windy front end, now a study in layered planting.
Before the trees grew into a shelterbelt at the far end, plants and furniture were bowled like skittles.
Aeonium arboreum ‘Schwarzkopf’.
Abutilon x hybridum. ‘Nabob’.