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Enter the garden of Eden

A site on the edge of Auckland’s tallest volcano is one of two dozen top landscape creations being opened to visitors.

This section on the slopes of Mt Eden was landscaped by designer Trish Bartleet. Photo/David White

Life is busy. That’s why I like the idea that when things get too much, help is near at hand. So when the lawn-mowing man offered to give the hedge a light trim, I thought, “Sure, why not?”.

Well, my father always said, “Ask a question and the book shall open”, so the book’s now opened – and so has the boundary between us and our neighbour. Well, not totally open. There are tall brown twigs through which the children can peer and discuss the ins and outs of tree huts and holes with their friends next door.

Landscape designer Trish Bartleet. Photo/David White

The way my balding hedge leaves me feeling exposed and slightly uncomfortable explains some of the admiration I have for people who open their gardens to the public as fund-raisers. The work that goes into bringing gardens into their prime is huge, as are the hearts of those happy to share their homes for a good cause.

The Auckland Garden DesignFest is such an event, with top landscapers in the region putting selected creations on show subject to the willingness of the homeowners. Twenty-five gardens are being opened, ranging from the crisp and formal to tropical havens and kitchen gardens.

The event is unlike a flower show, where exhibits are timed for maximum impact. This an opportunity to see impressive examples of gardens that are at the mercy of the same challenges – unruly hedge trimmers, rebounding basketballs, water constraints, snails and other garden bugs – that we all contend with.

The gardens range in age from less than a year to over a decade old, showing visitors how landscaping matures and what challenges can arise as time passes. A featured garden by one of our most respected landscape designers, Trish Bartleet, is also a testament to the enduring relationship between designer and client.

The garden, perched on the side of Mt Eden, with views spreading beyond the city, has been a work in progress for 13 years. Arguably, the garden is older than that. It has been built around a beautiful villa and contains magnolias and camellias that may date back to when the house was built a century ago.

Even the steps to the front door are original: grand curving sweeps that climb elegantly to the veranda that wraps around the front of the house. The steps are reached by a new (13-year-old) path with series of levels and generous landings that make the climb from the street below less steep.

It was important to the property owners that the new entrance not detract from the layers and softness of the garden’s existing planting. They also wanted structure and form bought into the design.

Hillside Crescent address garden. Photo/David White

The result is a ribboning Teucrium fruiticans hedge that undulates through the garden, still managing to look good a dozen years on.

This is the sort of garden plant I would recommend, and its use in the Mt Eden setting is a good example of ideas that can be stolen from such events. The wide landings and dynamic plantings offer a practical solution to a difficult entrance and, with views along the way, make the journey a pleasure rather than like going to boot camp.

Although most of the front garden is taken up with the approach, Bartleet has made further use of the this part of the section by suspending a swimming pool over otherwise unusable land. Hidden by hedges from the street below, it overlooks the harbour and makes the most of the northeastern sun. The walls around this area are softened by beautifully maintained patterned ivy, making what could be a hard and imposing space more suited to its house and garden.

What is most surprising is that the garden proper has none of the signature indoor-outdoor flow that is most popular in contemporary garden design. This is not possible with just a narrow gap between the house and a 2m stone wall.

To deal with this, the owners and Bartleet have created a series of paths that weave into the garden through beds of perennials and natives to a level lawn that sits like a stage, once again capturing the view as well as providing some utility to what would otherwise be a limited site.

The materials change, but are linked to the original garden. Brick, which would be impractical for the paths, is used for the risers, leaving the tread clean and flat.

Photo/David White

Above the lawn sits the final level, featuring a tiny summer house that services a Tuscan-style outdoor room with a fireplace and dining table. It is here that the section meets Mt Eden’s slopes, disappearing into the reserve from where kereru and tui make frequent swoops into the garden.

For all this, the garden is still not finished. Parts of the slope are being turned into a productive garden, rhododendrons have been added to the border between the garden and the mountain, and hebes and Indian hawthorn, which become woody with age, are pruned hard or replaced.

This is only one of the 25 featured gardens that make the Auckland Garden DesignFest not just a good day out and an opportunity to support charities like Garden to Table and KidsCan, but a chance to see landscape creations you might otherwise only get to imagine from the pages of a book or magazine.

As for my home garden, I have a few weekends ahead of filling a skip with sticks shorn from the hedge and planning and undertaking new and exciting projects. After all, even the best gardens are never finished.

Send questions to: goodtogrow@xwd.co.nz