Garden of the week: Canterbury classic English garden

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Ornamental pear trees, underplanted with clipped escalonia hedging and taxus (yew)balls, lead to Kevan and Rachel Macpherson’s folly, modelled on Prince Charles’ summer house at Highgrove.

Rachel looked through Country Life magazines for ideas on creating an English-style facade for the house.

A pair of thujas and ‘Sally Holmes’ roses flank the recycled brick path while a wedding cake tree (Cornus controversa) with distinctive layered branches gives shade in the far corner.

Rachel and Kevan with their most-used garden tool – a rake: “The only downside of lots of trees is the ever-increasing amount of leaves in autumn,” says Rachel.

An over-sized seat at the end of the path deliberately distorts the scale, says Kevan, who cuts the macrocarpa hedges twice a year.

Harriet’s playhouse is the focal point of a herb garden edged with Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ and featuring topiaried Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) in the foreground and standard bay trees.

After 20 years, the closely-clipped macrocarpa hedges are striking but Kevan is concerned they are starting to show signs of cypress canker.

The hedged London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolia) that line the tennis court are great for catching bad shots.

Kevan made the concrete pillars along the wisteria walk using old doors as boxing to achieve the decorative relief.

A walled pond, flanked by olive trees, screens the front terrace while buxus, black ophiopogon and corokia soften the path to the lawn and tennis court.

‘Iceberg’ and standard ‘Windrush’ roses add to the English feel of the terrace; the fireplace makes it a year-round gathering place.

The salt water pool, walls and summer house were constructed from concrete tilt panels which Kevan poured on site and craned into position.

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The first thing Kevan and Rachel Macpherson did after buying a 4ha block of land in North Canterbury was build a pair of impressive pillars at the entrance. For a while they stood strangely alone, bar a bird bath and small caravan sitting in the middle of a paddock of lucerne.

For nearly two and a half years, the Macphersons lived in the caravan with their small son, Tom, while they built their house and planned a garden.

The bird bath was a gift from Kevan's mother. "I put it out there as my focal point and to give a sense of scale," he says. As for the pillars: "It's important to start as you mean to go on." 

“The only downside of lots of trees is the ever-increasing amount of leaves in autumn,” says Rachel.
JULIET NICHOLAS

“The only downside of lots of trees is the ever-increasing amount of leaves in autumn,” says Rachel.

Twenty years on, and the pillars announce an expansive Ohoka garden, defined by hedges, studded with trees and with a picturesque English-style house at its heart. 

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Kevan spent several years in England in the 1980s after being awarded a scholarship to Brooksby Agricultural College in Leicestershire. He came home with an appreciation of England's landscape and gardens, and an English bride.

"I lured Rachel out here by promising to buy her a horse." The "horse" didn't materialise until her 40th birthday party, when Kevan presented her with a steed on wheels he had made out of scrap metal and timber. But from the beginning, he set out to make his wife "a little slice of England" down under.

A few years after they settled in New Zealand, Kevan turned from farming to landscaping, naming his business Macpherson and Son the day Tom was born. "People assumed I was the son. Then they'd ask, 'How old is your son?' and I'd say, 'Well, he's six but he's been driving the digger since he was three.'"

‘Iceberg’ and standard ‘Windrush’ roses add to the English feel of the terrace; the fireplace makes it a year-round ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

‘Iceberg’ and standard ‘Windrush’ roses add to the English feel of the terrace; the fireplace makes it a year-round gathering place.

While Tom was undergoing his apprenticeship in the sandpit in the caravan days, his parents were planting trees. They started with a shelter belt of fast-growing Pinus radiata after their awning was ripped off in a feisty Canterbury nor'wester. The pines were joined by an arboretum of exotic seedlings.

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Rachel propagated hedging plants and laid down the bones of the garden while Kevan helped build the house, which they moved into the day their daughter Harriet was born.

The Macphersons were soon cutting out the pines that were dominating the garden. "We've made lots of mistakes. Sometimes clients say, 'I just want to do it once and do it right,' but gardens aren't like that. Things are always evolving," says Kevan.

After 20 years, the closely-clipped macrocarpa hedges are striking but Kevan is concerned they are starting to show ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

After 20 years, the closely-clipped macrocarpa hedges are striking but Kevan is concerned they are starting to show signs of cypress canker.

The pine belt is now a rhododendron walk and Rachel's deep herbaceous borders are being transformed into shrubberies. "It was all getting too itsy-bitsy," she says. Not to mention labour-intensive. "I made the mistake of filling spaces with cheap leftovers from plant sales, which are often virtually weeds."

The English garden is acquiring an increasingly Kiwi twist, including the addition of native bush and a pond. "As I've got older, I've appreciated our natives more," says Kevan, a keen tramper. "The bellbirds are starting to come back."

Kevan, his wife and clients say, never stops. "He puts the hours in," says Rachel. "He's always happy to do things. I just ask and it happens." ("It's Rachel's garden. I just do what I'm told," he says.) 

A walled pond, flanked by olive trees, screens the front terrace while buxus, black ophiopogon and corokia soften the ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

A walled pond, flanked by olive trees, screens the front terrace while buxus, black ophiopogon and corokia soften the path to the lawn and tennis court.

Four weeks before the Ohoka Garden Tour, she mentioned that a raised potager would be nice. "I was thinking sometime in the future, but Kevan went straight out and by the tour I had a raised brick vege garden." Over the years, they have added numerous outbuildings including a pool complex, chook house and "Prince Charles' folly" – a Virginia creeper-clad summer house inspired by HRH's book about Highgrove. 

"I'm lucky that I'm in lots of people's gardens and I steal ideas," says Kevan, who admires the great European landscapers such as England's Capability Brown. "Those old landscapers would move whole hillsides and make lakes by hand. They tackled bigger projects than we do today."

If Kevan has a mantra it's "do it yesterday", especially when it comes to planting trees. 

A pair of thujas and ‘Sally Holmes’ roses flank the recycled brick path while a wedding cake tree (Cornus controversa) ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

A pair of thujas and ‘Sally Holmes’ roses flank the recycled brick path while a wedding cake tree (Cornus controversa) with distinctive layered branches gives shade in the far corner.

"Trees are what is going to save the world, and Canterbury has lost a lot through subdivision and intensive farming. Some people are reluctant to spend $100 on a tree but are happy to put that in their petrol tank which lasts a week." 

The Macphersons' own carbon contribution includes several acres of macrocarpas. Two years ago, a storm felled an entire paddock of the 18-year-old trees, ripping them out by their roots.

"We've had our challenges with nature," says Kevan. But that comes with the territory in a country garden and this family is ready to take her on with their sleeves rolled up.

Q&A:

Soil type: Waimakariri River silt. This side of Ohoka is good at growing stones. (Kevan)

Hours spent in the garden: I try to do eight hours a week all year round. (Rachel)

Watering the garden: We irrigate sparingly and let the lawns brown off in hot summers. (Kevan)

Favourite plant: The Turkey oak (Quercus cerris). It doesn't have autumn colours, but I love the form. (Kevan) 

Favourite plant combination: Hellebores under rhododendrons. I used to think rhodos were granny plants but now I love them. They're good value all year round and the hellebores flower when nothing else is happening in the garden. (Rachel)

Our best edible crop: We plant a dozen tomato plants in the greenhouse every year and they keep us going for months. (Rachel)

Rachel and Kevan Macpherson 

 - NZ House & Garden

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