Constant change inspires landscaper

HANDS ON: Kerei Thompson, whose company  Bark looks after the grounds of Government House, among other prestigious properties.
HANDS ON: Kerei Thompson, whose company Bark looks after the grounds of Government House, among other prestigious properties.

Landscape gardener Kerei Thompson is in the business of creating constantly evolving masterpieces, by keeping gardens at some of New Zealand's most exclusive locations well manicured for discerning clients.

His company, Bark, tends the grounds of Government House and looks after admired gardens at private schools, hospitals and private properties, including Auckland's Ayrlies garden which was featured on BBC's Gardens of the World.

Bark recently won two gold awards at the 2012 Landscaping New Zealand Distinction Awards in the large project management category for its work on the grounds of prestigious Auckland apartment complex The Pines and at Government House, a contract it has held for about 17 years since not long after Thompson started the company.

"Gardening has become quite simplified over the years. People think of gardening as mowing the lawns and weeding. What we do is more garden management. Gardens are expected to look good today, but also look good in 20 years," Thompson said, explaining that Bark's approach to planting had to be long term and the position of each shrub was well thought out.

Showing The Dominion Post around Government House, he pointed out a pohutukawa tree that had several Chatham Island forget-me-nots planted near its base.

"‘In 10 years' time, the pohutukawa will be three or four times that size and the Chatham Island forget-me-nots won't be able to grow there. It will be too dry for them, so they'll need to be moved. We have to adapt to changes, which is what keeps it exciting and means it's always changing," Thompson said. "I know that from the team that's what we all really enjoy - that it doesn't stop."

The landscaping industry has undergone significant changes since Thompson started out, moving away from an apprenticeship model and with councils outsourcing work. Thompson trained through a local body that began to outsource its gardening work to contractors, and he took the opportunity to start his own business.

Finding suitable staff is a big challenge because people need to have passion, the green thumb skills or a willingness to be trained, an attitude appropriate for dealing with high-profile clients and resilience to work outdoors in all weather.

Obtaining some plants can be tough, with many specialist nurseries having shut down in recent years as demand has dwindled.

Today the company employs 47 people nationwide, with about a third of its work in the capital, a third in Auckland and the remainder split between Christchurch and Hawke's Bay - regions it has only entered in the past three years. More than half of its work is in public properties and the rest is caring for the gardens of private individuals.

"People have gardens for two reasons. For a property like [Government House], a lot of it is around the appearance as you enter a property - that's probably a shared reason for all of our clients, but also some of them are really passionate about the gardens they have created. We need to make sure we always share that passion without forgetting it's not our vision but the clients' that we need to bring to the garden."