Garden of the week: Subtropical Gisborne garden

PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE PAUL MCCREDIE

At Simon and Carolyn Mills’ Gisborne home, a path behind the pool leads through a lush canopy with (left) bangalow and Mt Lewis palms.

Fourteen-year-old bangalow palms, 6-7m tall, have been planted in north-south rows.

Amaryllis.

Simon and Carolyn Mills with Labradors Otis and Ted.

Simon describes the part of the garden beneath their bedroom window as: “a nice wake up view”; the king palms have acorus grass (Japanese sweet flag) at their bases.

Carolyn planted two queen palms close together for impact; hung between them is a solar-lit grape trimmings ball.

This water feature near the house’s entrance canopy has jelly palms (Butia capitata) to its left and, to the right, kentia palms and Chatham Island nikau inside a buxus border.

Ligularia japonicum ‘Giganteum’ (aka tractor seat plant) enjoys semi-shade.

Queen palms lead past the the living room with its window seat to the potager garden, which provides flowers for Carolyn’s floristry business.

Gisborne architect Chris Shaw (of Pacific Modern Architecture) created a design to fit the Scott original.

The pool house ceiling is lined with Meranti plywood.

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Simon Mills used to hate gardening but after he bought a couple of queen palms he changed his mind. The Gisborne orchardist, who says that fishing was always his preferred spare-time activity, couldn't believe it when he found himself thinking, "I quite like these." 

A love of gardening had snuck up on Simon and suddenly he was hooked. Just like a fish. He bought a book on palms, wanted more of them and then it struck him: "I've become a gardener." 

Inspired by this new-found enthusiasm, Simon and his wife Carolyn decided to extend their orchard business to include a subtropical plant nursery, and their garden has become a showcase for it. Fortunately, they have had Mother Nature on their side from the beginning. Warmth-loving plants thrive here – it's one of the sunniest places in New Zealand. A drive through the region reveals rows of trees dripping with citrus fruit.  

The couple have come a long way since Simon's family bakery business was sold in 1992 and they threw themselves into a rather different venture – a 12ha citrus and avocado orchard they bought at Waerenga-a-hika, a tiny settlement between Gisborne and Opotiki.

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This water feature near the house’s entrance canopy has jelly palms (Butia capitata) to its left and, to the right, ...
PAUL MCCREDIE

This water feature near the house’s entrance canopy has jelly palms (Butia capitata) to its left and, to the right, kentia palms and Chatham Island nikau inside a buxus border.

Luckily, horticultural know-how was on hand. "Carolyn's father, Casey Higgins, used to manage one of Wattie's citrus farms. It was 48ha of tangelos, oranges and grapefruit," says Simon. "Then, after Carolyn's mum Adrienne passed away, he came and lived with us and helped us to get established." They grew all sorts of things, says Carolyn: "Onions, melons and sweet corn… That's what you do when you are starting off, isn't it?" 

Simon recalls the effort they put into juggling a new lifestyle, a house in need of a makeover (designed by celebrated New Zealand architect John Scott and built in 1976) and a large, undeveloped garden. "It was a time of little kids and hard work and that's very character-building you know." 

Though they made many changes, they didn't interfere with the Scott design they've enjoyed so much. "He was light years ahead of his contemporaries," says Simon. With the help of Carolyn's landscape designer brother Nigel, they mapped out an idea of where they wanted to take the property in five-year stages.  

Simon and Carolyn Mills.
PAUL MCCREDIE

Simon and Carolyn Mills.

First they got rid of a roundabout at the front that didn't work, replacing it with a concrete parking pad. The carport was relocated around the back. "People used to arrive and never knew what door to come to, so we built a large canopy at the entrance to reinforce the arrival point," says Simon.

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More recently, they've rebuilt the swimming pool, which had collapsed in an earthquake a few years ago, and added a pool house next to it.

Gisborne architect Chris Shaw, also a John Scott enthusiast, came up with a design for the pool house that was sympathetic to the existing architecture. "We took the original roof tiles off the old carport and put them on the pool house so that it looks as if they have always been there," says Simon. 

Carolyn planted two queen palms close together for impact; hung between them is a solar-lit grape trimmings ball.
PAUL MCCREDIE

Carolyn planted two queen palms close together for impact; hung between them is a solar-lit grape trimmings ball.

Meanwhile, as changes were made to the house; they sold part of their orchard business ("because you can't do everything") and beavered away on creating a garden suited to the building and the climate. After discovering how well palms and anything subtropical grew, Carolyn and Simon were spurred on to develop their plant nursery. For inspiration and to gather ideas, they made scouting tours of subtropical gardens such as Totara Waters and Landsendt, both in Auckland.

As word spread about Location Palms, clients also began to ask for advice on landscaping and so they further extended the business to offer this service too.

"Simon is good at the design side of gardening," says Carolyn as we follow a curving path lined with tall, fronded Mt Lewis palms (Archontophoenix purpurea), cluster palms (Chamaedorea costaricana) and chambeyronia palms and macrozamia cycads. 

"He has an artistic eye and he's also very handy when it comes to building paths and structures. I fill in the bits." 

Beneath this canopy thrives an exotic mix of bromeliads, papyrus, cycads and smaller palms: Phoenix roebelenii (pygmy date palm) and Chamaerops humilis (European fan palm) as well as dazzling bromeliads, mondo grass and spiky aloes. 

Simon refers to Carolyn as the "bird of paradise queen" because she is so fond of the South African native also known as strelitzia, but she could equally well be the bromeliad queen as she nurtures so many varieties. "You can find one for every part of the garden, whether it's shade, semi-shade or full sun. They quickly bulk up to fill in a space." 

Amaryllis make a spectacular show.
PAUL MCCREDIE

Amaryllis make a spectacular show.

Behind the house, a neatly hedged potager and flower garden, broken up by buxus verges, gravelled paths and a wisteria-clad pergola, was one of the first areas to be developed and is still a place Carolyn enjoys. It's here in the potager garden that she sources flowers for her floral art business. 

A rugby field-sized front lawn remains a favourite area for family fun. "Our girls, Erin and Morgan, always enjoyed it when they were little," says Simon, "and now our chocolate Labradors, Otis, Ted [named after former All Blacks coach Graham Henry] and Carla love to run around here." 

When they tire of orchard and nursery, the family escape to their holiday house at Makorori Beach. It's a work-free (and garden-free) space, where Simon can hoist his surfboard and go out and catch a wave or grab a rod and reel in a fish for dinner. 

Gisborne architect Chris Shaw (of Pacific Modern Architecture) created a design to fit the Scott original.
PAUL MCCREDIE

Gisborne architect Chris Shaw (of Pacific Modern Architecture) created a design to fit the Scott original.

The rest of the family set the table, cut up slices of lemon, make salads, pour long cold drinks and wait for their fisherman to bring home his catch.  

Q&A:

Climate: Hot dry summers; wet but mostly frost-free in winter. (Simon)

Soil type: Highly fertile light silt loam. (Simon)

Hours per week in the garden: About eight hours. (Carolyn)

Watering the garden: October through to March we have sprinklers and hoses going most days. (Carolyn)

Most significant plant in the garden: Strelitzia juncea. (Carolyn)

Favourite new plant: Papyrus planted in a large pot in the pond. (Carolyn)

Best tip for other gardeners: Choose four or five species as core plantings and repeat-plant them. (Simon)

The thing I've learned about gardening over the years is: Make a plan and finish one area at a time. (Simon)

Simon and Carolyn Mills

 - NZ House & Garden

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