Garden of the Week: Artist Nancy Tichborne's tiny Akaroa plot

The 20m by 10m front yard is a so-called "beautiful muddle".

The 20m by 10m front yard is a so-called "beautiful muddle".

Three years ago watercolourist Nancy Tichborne left her 20-year-old, four-hectare Garden of National Significance in French Farm near Akaroa for a property 98 percent smaller in Rue Balguerie, one of Akaroa township's prettiest streets.  "It's Zimmer frame distance from the shops and cafés," she says.

Having worked on it continually since she moved in with her husband,Bryan, Nancy considers the pocket-size plot at the front of their cottage not so much a work in progress but rather an eternally changing, eternally fascinating canvas.

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Botanical watercolorist and keen gardener Nancy Tichborne

Botanical watercolorist and keen gardener Nancy Tichborne

When they took over the garden, she had two mighty Phoenix palms removed. 

In their place, she planted a 'Billington' plum, and an Albizia julibrissin that lost a limb in a recent storm. Its trunk bears a long scar, and with some of its bright green leaves already beginning to yellow, Nancy suspects it's dying.

However, she's not upset by the loss of a such fine tree in a prominent position – she says it doesn't worry her. Instead, she finds its new form sans limb even more attractive than it was before.

Self-seeding is welcomed.

Self-seeding is welcomed.

Moreover, she's thrilled at the chance to deliberate over what she could plant in its place if and when it does bite the dust.

"This is a garden to give me pleasure, and for me, pleasure is anticipatory – it's dreaming about what I'm going to do that's pleasing," she says. "I'll dream about my garden till my dying day. I'll always change it."

Although Nancy has designed many gardens professionally, she didn't have a plan for this one. 

A favourite Oamaru stone sculpture, Our Family, watches over the garden.

A favourite Oamaru stone sculpture, Our Family, watches over the garden.

"It's completely undesigned," she says happily. "I put a tree in because I love it. I can poke in some plants just because I feel like it."

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The paths are made from pavers, so they can be easily moved as the mood strikes or the plants dictate. 

They meander carelessly through the plot, which is about 20 metres by 10. Nancy doesn't care to find out its exact dimensions. Size is irrelevant to this, her "beautiful muddle," where "plants can do their thing" and Nancy can be adjudicator supreme. 

Viscaria elegans and Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snowflake'.

Viscaria elegans and Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snowflake'.

"I might think, 'Oh, that's wonderful, I love it but I might try something different next time.'"

Planting on a whim? "Absolutely," she replies. 

"I never thought I'd garden like that. When designing gardens, I was interested in voids and focal points. Everything was a third this, a third that. I really, really wanted gardens that were good compositions, like paintings."

Nancy Tichborne's is on an ongoing search to find a red-flowering plant to tie in the colour of the roof of her 1970s home.

Nancy Tichborne's is on an ongoing search to find a red-flowering plant to tie in the colour of the roof of her 1970s home.

Now it's the detail that fascinates her, she says. "As in a big pebble next to a flat paving slab; spiky grass; a touch of colour; that one exquisite spot of garden. I can think, 'I've planned it well, I've accomplished a lovely thing.'"

The apparent wildness of the garden is deceptive. Plants might be going to seed and bursting across the path in a disorderly manner, but look closely and what you'll notice is how cultivated it really is.

The soil is rich and full of organic matter, thanks to Nancy's ongoing passion for composting. She reveals with pride her specially constructed compost bins built on a concrete pad, with a gutter and container to catch the liquid, her potent compost tea.

Papaver somniferum and Dahlia 'Hot Cakes'.

Papaver somniferum and Dahlia 'Hot Cakes'.

Then there's the almost complete lack of weeds. Nancy took to heart the advice of one of her Irish gardening counterparts. "Helen Dillon said to me, 'Never walk past a weed' – and I don't."

She relishes surprise and the unexpected. "I don't want to be bored. I'm not afraid of colour."

No one could accuse her of that. The garden is a carnival of it. A swathe of sunny orange Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica) is sandwiched between clouds of white pyrethrum and white and pink gaura. Turquoise, spring-flowering Ixia viridiflora has been spread throughout the beds; purple Linaria purpurea has self-seeded willy-nilly; and the deep pink of the dahlias' large shaggy heads is repeated in the ombré petals of a pincushion gazania. 

The pavers are moved as the mood strikes or the plants dictate.

The pavers are moved as the mood strikes or the plants dictate.

Red and pink pelargoniums and geraniums jostle at the edge of the verandah.

A purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) is both a sombre sentinel at the edge of the garden and an excellent foil for the pale gold and apricot blooms of the fragrant rambling rose 'Ghislaine de Feligonde' growing next to it. 

A scrophularia's variegated leaves are wilting in the midday sun, its tiny flowers a haze of brown. ("You can tell it's of the mint family by its square stem," says Nancy, always ready to share her knowledge.)

Roses 'Bright as a Button' and 'Eyes for You'.

Roses 'Bright as a Button' and 'Eyes for You'.

Below it grows a brilliant red dianthus that she pauses to admire. "I may dot it around, or maybe not," she muses. 

"Before, I had a disciplined colour schemes. The only thing I want now is a bit of red to go with the roof. It ties the whole garden together."

Finding the right red is a process of trial and error. 

A bedding salvia with an almost brick-red plume is to be banished from the garden, dismissed as "too hybridised, too dwarf and too chunky." On the other hand, the geum 'Mrs J. Bradshaw' has been given the thumbs up. "Now that's a good red – and it self-seeds readily." 

Self-seeding is welcomed by Nancy, bringing as it does delightful and unexpected combinations of colour and form.

She enthuses at the carpet of self-sown violas.

"These are fantastic. They started flowering in late winter and are still going now. And look at that dearest little nemesia. I think it looks exquisite tucked in around there."

A clutch of pink and yellow antirrhinums haven't made the grade.

"I won't have that plant in my garden again," says Nancy. "It's too clumpy, not at all graceful. And probably not that dahlia, either," she continues, her eyes darting to a small dark-leaved bush.

Although she finds its small, pale-yellow single flowers attractive enough, they need regular deadheading, and, well, she does "like plants that die attractively". 

Her choice of plants in this garden is catholic. 

There's no theory or agenda, common plants are just as welcome as the rare. "Really, it's just what I may see, or read about, or someone may give me. I buy them online, at roadside stalls, from nurseries…"

Akaroa has a small garden centre, which Nancy has exhausted, but not before some good scores, including a trio of lilies that came in a pot simply marked "Lilies".

It's hard to say whether it was the variety or Nancy's husbandry, but the three original plants have multiplied extravagantly and the front garden now sports dark red, pink and white lilies of inordinate height, stem girth and bloom count. 

She says she can't be blind to international trends. 

"I love to see new ideas. Sometimes one aspect might trigger something."

Giving a public talk at about the same time as she took over the garden, Nancy announced that she had four, and only four, rules for her new garden: no lawns, no hedges, no prickles and no steps.

"And I've really only broken one," she says. "And that's the no prickles rule. What are you to do? If someone gives you a rose you've never seen before and it's the prickliest thing in existence, of course you put up with it."

She says she generally tries to go for thornless roses, but that said, she has introduced two thorny roses into the garden, which she loves passionately.

'Bright as a Button' and 'Eyes for You' are Rosa persica hybrids with a delicate fragrance and distinctive blooms that have splodges of a darker pink at the base of each pretty petal.

A friend from French Farm that Nancy just had to have in her new garden is the large iris 'Dusky Challenger'. With its "indigo taffeta petals", it's considered by many to be the most beautiful iris in the world, she says. 

Does she miss the garden at French Farm? "Of course I miss it," she says. "I loved it passionately. It would be very odd if I didn't miss it."

She takes heart in the fact that it has been adopted by another keen gardener, whose vision she wholeheartedly approves of.

"Jendy Brooks is taking it in a new direction," she says, "in ways I wish I'd thought of."

The biggest problem Nancy's had in her new garden has involved the soil. Many plants, roses among them, have either not thrived or died.

Nancy blames it on the "old soil". She believes the garden was once an orchard, then neglected for many years.

As a result, the ground is now riddled with rotting roots, a host, she thinks, for the toxic honey fungus, which attacks and kills the roots of many wooded and perennial plants. "Well, that's my amateur opinion." 

But that's okay, she says, "I love problems" – whether they involve battling fungi, redirecting wandering tourists who stumble bewitched into her garden, or finding the perfect place for the gorgeous silver-white Stachys byzantina 'Bella Grigio'. 

When Nancy spotted the stachys at the Taranaki Garden Festival, she knew she had to have it. She's planted it near a white hydrangea, but the hydrangea blooms are too creamy, and there's a clash that the artist in her really cannot abide.

So she thinks it might go into something she's planning for the side of the house – a romantic sunken garden. It's something that's going to involve a whole lot more of that wonderful dreaming. 

 - NZ Gardener

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