Garden of the week: Award-winning landscape in Queenstown
The story of Robyn and Peter Ireland's property near Queenstown is one of transformation of land and lives. Just as this couple ended nearly 40 years of corporate life in Australia with an abrupt change of lifestyle, the 3.5ha of scrubland overlooking the Shotover River would be crafted into an award-winning landscape.
The Irelands stumbled on the site while on holiday in 2010. Some of the landscaping had been done – a rough driveway cutting neatly down through the hills, a few fruit trees planted on the lower slopes. The fruit trees were dying, however, as rabbits had ring-barked their trunks, and the view was barely visible through the metre-high grasses. Surrounding the steep site was prickly rosehip, masses of broom, old man's beard and willow trees near the end of their lives.
But Robyn and Peter soaked up the sun and admired the view – a stunning panorama looking out over the Shotover and up to Coronet Peak. "It was an easy decision," says Peter.
Dunedin-born and bred, Peter Ireland trained as an accountant and for the past 25 years worked as finance director and chief operating officer at two of the largest corporate law firms in Sydney. "I'd seen so many colleagues burn out," he says. "It was a hell of a lifestyle – long work hours, many nights away around the world. I wanted to get out early, before it affected my health."
Robyn, originally from Greymouth, had spent the last 20 years working at an investment bank in Sydney. She and Peter met while studying in Dunedin, married young and worked hard all their lives. This next chapter would bring the couple even closer, but both laugh at the idea of retirement being easier. "A lifestyle block means no lifestyle," says Peter.
Although they enlisted landscape architect Joe Nutting of Southern Landmarx to do the bulk of the work, Peter and Robyn have taken on the ongoing maintenance and planting themselves. "We joke that this is boot camp," says Peter. "Since arriving here I've lost 12kg – back to my pre-corporate weight."
The irony is that, having lived in town houses for the bulk of their married life, Peter and Robyn had only had very small gardens. They learned fast.
Southern Landmarx won three gold awards for the garden in 2016, but the company's co-owner Joe takes his hat off to Robyn and Peter. "You couldn't create a garden like this without owners who love it and who are willing to work in it," says Joe. "It's unbelievable what they've taken on, and what they've learned."
The scientific names of the many New Zealand natives spill off their tongues. In the oasis of the rabbit-proof-fenced vegetable plot is an entire raised bed where the couple nurture native seedlings, all propagated by hand. As you walk the property's many paths, they point out the hybrids of coprosma or hebe, explaining which is more frost-tolerant or hardy in the intense Wakatipu summers.
"I never knew anything could absorb you to such an extent," says Peter. "Our problem is that the garden has almost become too personal." He admits their career backgrounds have carried over into an almost obsessive attention to detail around the garden.
Robyn chuckles as she opens the door to the garden shed. Inside, a whiteboard has each item in the vegetable garden listed, with the date of planting and harvesting alongside. "Wait until you see the computer spreadsheet of the garden maintenance regime!"
Natives abound. Five years since landscaping and planting began, the native shrubland has taken hold and the beautifully crafted water feature now looks more akin to a natural stream. With extensive irrigation, the toetoe, flax, beech, hebe and big red tussocks are now firmly established, some corners soon to be forest.
"They say natives are low-maintenance," says Peter. "But that's rubbish." They never stop working, he says, pruning toetoe flowers, flax heads and cabbage trees or simply pulling out weeds from between the tussocks.
And they don't stop even at the boundaries of the property. As if the mass of lawn mowing, weed-eating, weeding and planting across the massive area of this steep section were not enough, Robyn and Peter took on even more. Below them the Department of Conservation river flats are covered in a morass of introduced weeds. With DOC permission they started work – first spraying, then chainsawing, sometimes bringing in the digger and finally composting and planting their many newly propagated natives.
The outlook from the house is stunning. But Peter and Robyn are equally enthusiastic about the views from the corners of their magnificent garden. As we wander the contours Robyn points out this seat or that, each offering a different aspect at various times of the day. "This is our morning spot, under the cherry tree," she says. "Here's where we bring a bottle of wine in the evening."
Not only have the Irelands completely transformed the land, it's clear that the land has also transformed them.
Climate: The block is sheltered and north facing, but has quite an extreme microclimate with snow and frosts down to -9°C, followed by usually very dry and hot summers with temperatures over 30°C.
Soil type: Principally sand, stone and rocks – we often would remove a bucket of stones per hole when planting to be replaced by soil we brought in. Higher up, the land is a little better, having been
A deer farm in a prior life: Otherwise it is basically a former riverbed.
Watering the garden: The landscapers installed a 12-station automated irrigation system at the start of the build: micro-sprays for the glasshouse and garden beds, drip-line for the broader garden, and lawn sprays for two areas close to the house. We have extended that system as the plantings have increased.
Best tip for other gardeners: Albeit we are new to this scale of gardening, accept that you will have plant losses and general failures of planting from year to year. Do not take the failures personally as we did – and still do, depending on the plant.
Robyn and Peter Ireland
- NZ House & Garden