Chainsaws and bonfires clear the way for the restoration of a North Canterbury garden.
A ruthless cull involving chainsaws and bonfires was the first step in the makeover of a North Canterbury garden
When Anita Todd suffered a life-changing stroke 10 years ago, pottering in her in-laws’ rose-filled North Canterbury garden helped her regain her strength. “I lost the ability to do a lot myself and I needed to get my body working again.”
At the time she and her husband Richard were living in a cottage on the Hawarden property. When Anita came home from hospital she was in a wheelchair, her sight had been affected and she’d lost movement on her left side. “Richard was wonderful,” says Anita. He’d bring her into the garden and find a task she could manage. “Sometimes it was just weeding what was in front of me or trimming one little shrub, but it was the best way to rehabilitate.”
It seems fitting that after Richard’s parents died and the garden, Saddlewood, needed nursing back to health, Anita and Richard moved in and took on the job. “This garden gave me something before I even lived here and I appreciate that,” Anita says.
Saddlewood was established in the 60s by an admirer of English formal gardens. Richard’s parents, Warwick and Adrienne, took it one step further, says Anita. “They did a beautiful job of it while they were well.” But as they got older, the one hectare garden got away on them. >
“We needed to clear the shrubs and trees that had grown too close to the house, open up the garden and let it breathe again,” says Anita.
Richard says Anita’s the gardener: “I’m just the guy in the background who comes and does all the heavy stuff.” So his first job was to cut the fences and drive his tractor onto the lawn to drag away trees and shrubs that were well past their use-by date. “We had bonfire after bonfire,” recalls Anita, of the months spent on the end of a chainsaw and hedge clippers.
Did they worry they were being too brutal? Not really, says Anita. “There’s nothing like bringing new light in and feeding the soil to give a huge boost to the garden – before you know it things have a really established look.”
In North Canterbury, they’re used to wild winds creating gaps in the garden and watching it rejuvenate again. “We have these terrifying gales, where you wake the next morning and find you’re minus a couple of trees. You can’t do anything about that hole in the garden. It’s surprising how things come away again. You’re almost treated to a new era in that part of the garden.” >
‘There’s nothing like bringing new light in and feeding the soil to give a huge boost to the garden’
As well as wind, the garden needs to cope with extreme heat (in summer the temperature heads into the 30s) and two or three heavy snowfalls each winter. If snow is forecast, Anita ties shrubs and braces tree branches to protect them from splitting under the weight of frozen snow and, after a heavy fall, the couple wrap up warm and head out to the garden to whack the snow off the branches to prevent further damage.
Hard frosts are welcome though. “I like the way it razes everything down and tidies everything up. It gets rid of a lot of pests too.”
Anita has about 100 roses – they don’t mind the freezing conditions and she doesn’t fuss over them. “I start my pruning early and I don’t worry too much about reading the pruning guide books. I just do what feels right and think about what shape and form looks good.”
In fact, years ago she read about a trial carried out in Kew Gardens where they pruned roses with hedge clippers. “They proved that you could get away with it, so I did that one year in our previous garden, when our daughter Belinda was a baby and I was busy.” >
She doesn’t spray. “We have flocks of waxeyes – there were about 70 on the lawn yesterday. They come and clean up our roses beautifully and the ladybirds help too.”
One banksia rose started flowering last winter and was still flowering in June this year. “I do love banksia because it’s not prickly and you can train it up a tree.”
Once the great tidy-up was complete, Anita and Richard worked area by area, adding hardy new hybrids and establishing swathes of the existing plants. “There weren’t that many groupings; there tended to be one of everything. It’s nice to have generous groups of the same colour to really show it off well.”
The garden already had plenty of colour, so Anita added loads of white. “You can still be quite bold with white. You have to make sure you’ve got a lot of contrast with silvers and different types of greenery as well as white.”
She beefed up the garden’s structure with pittosporums. ‘Stevens Island’ grows well in North Canterbury and the round Pittosporum ‘Golf Ball’ and ‘Little Burger’ are good for creating entry points or leading to a path.
Anita says they don’t spend a huge amount of time in the garden, as they both work and have outside interests. “It’s a hobby, not something I feel forced to do.” >
Gardening has to fit around the demands of the farm, where they raise deer for velvet. Anita teaches part-time; even 10 years after her stroke she thinks full-time work might be too much. “I don’t know if you ever fully recover.” She’s also helping organise the Hurunui Garden Festival, where 21 gardens including their own will be open to the public. Richard has stepped down from search and rescue duties after 25 years but is still a volunteer firefighter and active on the local community trust.
Now that the garden’s looking trim again, the couple are wondering what’s next. “With country gardens you can seize a bit of adjacent paddock,” says Richard, who’s wondering about adding a few more deciduous trees, a bit more woodland perhaps. “I’d quite like to go a wee bit further. There’s room to do it.”
THIS PAGE A seat with a view of the pond; the soil is quite limey, which is not ideal for rhododendrons, so Anita has been encouraged by the one in the foreground, which is flowering well after being mulched with plenty of pine needles.OPPOSITE (clockwise from top) After Anita’s stroke, she began working on this garden, removing coloured plants and bringing it back to the green and white palette favoured by the original owner. Ducks nest among the yellow irises in the spring-fed pond. The longflowering banksia rose climbs a tree; in the foreground is a collection of hostas.
THIS PAGE Visitors to the garden admire the mown strips down the driveway; Richard, the ever-practical farmer, explains that he mows the roadside, so he does one strip down the driveway on the way there and one on the way back. OPPOSITE (from top) Anita thought the Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ was looking sick and fed it Epsom salts, before realising it was supposed to have golden foliage; she’s planting several varieties of daphne in this woodland area as well as about 300 bluebell bulbs she was given: “I’m looking forward to seeing them pop up,” she says. Anita likes the way the trees in the paddocks draw the eye out into the distance; as she didn’t plant the garden, she doesn’t know the names of a lot of the roses.