Garden of the Week: Historic South Island homestead
Sarah Ayton is an accomplished cook, consummate hostess and keen gardener.
So it is little surprise that alongside the ornamental beds in her sprawling country garden at Teddington on the shores of Lyttelton Harbour are substantial vegetable beds and orchards, enough to keep Sarah, husband Philip King and a legion of guests in fruit and vegetables pretty much all year round.
Today, perhaps, though, all this fecundity is in danger of becoming overwhelming. Sarah and Philip are expecting friends for dinner.
The flowers, picked in the cool of the morning, are sitting in buckets of water in the wash house awaiting arrangement. The beans, too, have been picked, the lettuce leaves plucked and quinces are simmering on the stovetop, while in the oven tomatoes are slow-roasting. But where are the potatoes?
"Bother. I'll have to go and dig some up," Sarah says with a smile. "It's why," she explains, fetching a colander and garden fork, "I don't really grow very many anymore. I used to grow enough for a whole year almost, but then I just got sick of preparing dinner and finding no potatoes in the larder and having to go and dig them."
Between the farm's old single men's quarters and the coach stables (now tool and implement sheds), the much-reduced potato patch shares the large bed with runner beans, sweet corn, raspberries, globe artichokes, rhubarb and corn.
Beech hedges and a mighty netting fence of sweetpeas now drying and past their best surround it. Tomatoes tumble out of a small glasshouse, the vines heavy with dozens of small red globes.
"I can hardly keep up with them," Sarah says. The colander is soon full with small pinkish potatoes, an old variety Sarah was given in the Chatham Islands 15 years ago when she took her mother back to her birthplace. "They are absolutely delicious," she says. "They have white flesh with a tiny rim of pink just under the skin."
Being of an organised nature, among the neat trugs of garden gloves, drying onions and the like in her garden shed (the former cookhouse), Sarah has a well-thumbed notebook, full of to-do and to-buy lists, and names of plants. She can tell you something about almost everything in the garden: why she grows it, when it was planted, what's good about it, where she got the seed or plant from…
The slender beans growing in one of the five raised beds closer to the house are dwarf French 'Garden Filet', and even after eating them regularly for three months she has not tired of them.
"Wonderful variety," she explains. The pumpkins are 'Musquee de Provence', an old French variety she first came across while staying in France. As was a mild, flattened Italian variety of onion, 'Borettana'.
Neat brick paths separate the raised beds; a feijoa hedge keeps out the draughts, and behind, a towering century-old macrocarpa hedge stops the southerly in its tracks. Between the two are two of the secrets to the garden's glowing good health.
The first is a wall of pea straw, which Sarah buys in by the truckload and spreads liberally around the garden – but not on the vegetable beds for she believes it harbours slugs. The second are nine large compost bins. The historic Loudon farm is 920 hectares, which means there is no shortage of cow, sheep, horse and chicken manure to help turn all the garden's weeds, clippings and other debris into rich sweet compost.
A scattering of fruit trees spread down the gentle grassy slope by the raised beds: apricots, plums, nectarines, peaches, loquat, medlar, lemons, lime, mulberry and guava. Some, such as an old fig with dew drop-shaped fruit which grow sideways and is "utterly sweet and delicious," predate the couple's ownership of the property, which was first farmed when leased from Maori in the 1840s. (See how to grow figs in New Zealand.)
"We bought it nearly 21 years ago," Sarah says, "but only moved here nearly four years ago after renovating and extending the homestead which is nearly 150 years old." (The renovations included a long-desired, old-fashioned, ventilated cool safe built into the outside wall of her pantry for storing fruit and vegetables.)
During their 20-year ownership, thousands of trees have been planted around the farmhouse. "Every year we plant hundreds of exotic species," Sarah says. As well, substantial numbers of native plants have gone in along the waterways. In the late 1970s, amid fears of acid-rain killing European forests, seeds of tree species were sent to the Forest Research Institute in Rangiora for safekeeping. Sarah and Philip were offered the ash and hornbeam trees. The hundreds they planted in the 1990s now form a small forest just beyond the mature oak forest established by the farm's second owners, brothers Charles and Laurence Wilson.
The brothers were the sons of William Wilson (aka Cabbage Wilson), Christchurch's first nurseryman. Sarah believes it is because of Wilson senior that the property has so many fine plantings around the homestead, including rhododendron, oaks, lindens, plane trees, fir, ash, and a mighty feijoa with a drip-line diameter of about eight metres. She suspects, too, that the old kowhais there were either left standing or planted at his behest.
The old pipfruit and nut orchard below the homestead dates either from the Wilsons' reign, from 1895 to 1920, or from the Gray family who owned the property for more than 75 years, from 1920 to 1996. Although gaps dot the rows, Sarah is able to appreciate the planning in the plantings. "Every pear is a different type," she says, "There are early, mid and late varieties, and large and small." As with the apples, she hasn't got around to identifying all the old and unfamiliar varieties… yet.
Little remains of the garden's early layout, but the couple were intrigued to discover when putting in a new lawn that it was on the site of the old carriageway which looped around the front of the house.
After extending the homestead – a mission complicated and lengthened by the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 – Sarah called in friend and landscape architect Robert Watson for advice. "I knew what I wanted generally," she says, "but the land rises away quite steeply at the southeast corner of the house and I was not convinced our ideas were the best way to deal with it."
Robert designed a double row of retaining walls. Dividing the terraces is a gently curving shingle path over which hops and grapes grow; flag irises flourish in the shingle patio down by the library, and above, lavender and the pale-yellow flowered santolina are prettily alternating.
While the wide herbaceous border at the other side of the house is quite traditional in its plants and colour palette, above the new paths Sarah has chosen bold swathe plantings: red-stemmed dogwoods, Ceanothus 'Yankee Point', phlomis, Plumbago auriculata and false plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), Artemisia absinthium and Viburnum 'Mariesii'.
It is here, too, on the sunny banks that she grows most of her herbs and her citrus trees. And where a 'Black Boy' peach tree's branches are drooping under the weight of this year's bumper crop. Sarah spies it and looks a tad exasperated. "To tell you the truth, I am almost totally overwhelmed this year with produce," she confides.
Nonetheless, she bends down to pick up windfalls, for she knows there are plenty of people who will be pleased to have them. Very little goes to waste at Loudon.
- NZ Gardener