Century-old man-made lakes are a playground for the sixth generation to enjoy this garden.
Six generations of the same family have enjoyed this historic garden, and each has left their mark on it
When Robyn Tanner wakes to the sunrise filtering through century-old trees, mirrored in glassy lakes, she often thinks about her garden’s creators. “They had a farm to run, but they created this beautiful place. It’s quite extraordinary. I’m amazed at their vision and foresight and the fact that they actually did it.”
The land has been in Robyn’s late husband’s family since 1881, when they bought a swathe of swamp and kahikatea. Early photos show gangs of men, swamp up to their chests, digging huge ditches to drain the land. Robyn’s been told that Robert Tanner decided the garden around the farmhouse looked a little plain. So in 1914
he engaged Alfred Buxton, a celebrated garden designer of the times. He designed a series of sinuous ponds, five stone bridges (all slightly different), a fernery and his trademark stone-pillared loggia. In the 30s, Alfred Buxton returned, adding a rock cascade in the largest lake. The Tanner men did much of the construction themselves. Even in this earthquake-prone part of the country, the bridges and cascade still stand firm after many decades.
Robyn’s grandchildren now live next door, the sixth generation to roam the property and puddle around in its lakes. Robyn is adding her own layer to the history of the garden. “I’ve refined it so it’s not so much hard work.” >
Robyn has simplified, replacing annuals with perennials and looking for easy-care plants like the irises that grow by the bridges. “It’s more of a park now,” she says. “I’m not a gardener. But I don’t mind cleaning up. It looks magical when the lawns are mown and it’s all swept and I can go out and enjoy it.”
Less enjoyable is maintaining the lakes. “They’re the bane of my life.” The man-made lakes are concrete-bottomed and over Robyn’s head in parts. “But they’re difficult to keep clean. It’s nigh-on impossible to empty them – the last time they were emptied was 30 years ago.” In autumn, Robyn sweeps them out every day, hopping right in and dragging out debris with a rake.
These days Robyn has time to devote to the property, but for many years the garden was on the back-burner. Her husband David died unexpectedly in 1987, when their three daughters were school-aged. Robyn, a farmer’s daughter from the Wairarapa, took over running the sheep and cropping farm, with the help of her in-laws who lived next door.
The links with the next generation continue. All the girls had their weddings on the farm, and Kathryn, who has a horticulture degree, helps in the garden. “Kathryn is very good at pruning and has lots of good ideas about what to plant,” says Robyn.
Grandsons from Auckland hop on a plane during school holidays “when they want a bit of farm life”, says Robyn. “They love this place – they’ve got tree huts and ladders up the trees.” When Robyn has a clean-up, she can usually find a willing grandson to come along behind her picking up the piles of garden waste.
Two years ago Robyn decided the old tennis court had to go. Built in the 20s, it was cracked and full of weeds. “It was an eyesore.” A family working bee was organised to dig up the concrete and pull down the rusty old fencing. “It really helped my vision of making it more like a park,” says Robyn.
The garden is fringed by a canopy of trees – chestnuts, elms, lindens, London planes, hinoki cypress, cedars, a copper beech, karaka, a huge sequoiadendron and evergreen holm oaks. Alfred Buxton also planted Chusan palms (Trachycarpus fortunei), which were popular in Victorian times and have seeded freely.
Some of the older trees were dangerous and had to be removed, and an arborist comes every two years. >
‘They had a farm to run, but they created this beautiful place. It’s quite extraordinary’
THIS PAGE Robyn’s grandsons William, 15, and Harry, 12, (manning the oars) are the sixth generation of Tanners to live at Lansdale; they’re pictured here on one of the century-old lakes with Jack Russell Molly; the lake is edged with arum lilies, hostas and gunnera, these days considered a noxious weed, but kept contained. OPPOSITE (from top) One of the five bridges, which are all slightly different in design and covered in ficus; Japanese irises in different colours grow beside all the bridges; they’ve been a great success, says Robyn, as they multiply well and all she needs to do is cut them back after flowering. Robyn, left, and her daughter Kathryn, who lives on the farm and helps with the garden.