How a new garden design has eased the pain of what's been lost

The raised vegetable beds are an early favourite in Diana Madgin's new garden.
Dean Kozanic

The raised vegetable beds are an early favourite in Diana Madgin's new garden.

"I think the answer lies in the soil"  was the comic line in an old BBC radio show when the farmer offers his wisdom as the universal solution to all problems.  As a child, I thought his rustic accent hysterically funny, but it wasn't until I was a grown-up gardener that these words rang true.


I've written before of the heavy clay in my Heathcote garden.  Clay needs plenty of gypsum to break it down, so I put generous handfuls in the bottom of a big hole and lots of compost in with each plant.  You do need more water than for solid clay, because compost does dry out and clay holds water, but good loam builds up remarkably quickly.

I wanted a garden design to both complement the architecture and to make the garden seem bigger.  Rob Watson's plan was aesthetically exciting, and he encouraged  me to express my own ideas within his framework. 

From red-zoned River Rd I had brought hundreds of plants and a broken heart, and Rob was a sensitive listener and  comfortable to work with, even though his knowledge is vastly more than my own.

Retrieved pavers have been used to create the impression of distance.
Dean Kozanic

Retrieved pavers have been used to create the impression of distance.

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I love my raised vegetable beds. About 45 centimetres deep, 180cm wide and 280cm long, constructed in untreated macrocarpa lined with black polythene, the four beds form a pleasing design when viewed from the house.

Each bed is edged with a flat sitting frame, comfortable and convenient for weeding and picking; don't make them so wide that you can't reach to the middle.  Fill the beds with  compost mixed with plenty of rotted stuff, zoo-poo, mushroom, horse and cow manure - so long as it's well aged.  Don't fill them with soil: it sinks and compacts. 

Plant cuttings are free and grow well when liberated into good soil.  Save your money for a good design and a skilled builder for the raised beds, wide shallow steps where needed, archways and trellis for climbers.

My gardener, Chris, dug up all the pavers from my mother's abandoned garden in Dallington.  He could see that the formal design of our new house could be enhanced with  formal paths in the garden. 

I was overwhelmed at the time over the loss of my Mum, but he stacked them all at our house site, and when we finally established the bones of the garden, he set them into the lawn in a straight line that takes the eye along the side of the house and disappears down the slope into the back garden creating an impression of distance.

Along this northwest side of the house, beneath its wide eaves, the clay foundation is impregnable, so big tree pots are filled with Ilicium anisatum (false anise), an  evergreen that grows to 6 metres with fragrant  bark and flowers.

The soil at the front of the house has been deeply disturbed for in-bound pipes and cables.  As well, it has a wickedly high water table so the deep roots of the magnolia succumbed to mould as did the tree peony. 

But I did find a bloke at the last Ellerslie Flower Show to shift the big round boulders from my neighbour's Japanese-style garden on River Rd  and dump them, yi-ching style, onto the front garden, where I built a fulsome display of  herbaceous plants and trees around those rocks right out to the footpath.  All those plants love damp feet or are shallow-rooted enough to thrive, and having no fence keeps me in touch with the neighbours when I'm gardening in the front.

The best garden feature, in my book, is the farm gate to the street.  On the Southland farm where I grew up in the 1950s, all the fence posts were totara. 

Builder Paul Hall took my old farm gate to pieces and re-constructed it using seasoned totara, rimu, and some West Australia jarrah.  He painted the original sliding bolt black and added a black chain.  Our farm was called "Browngate" -  and so is my garden.

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