Garden of the week: Coastal Taranaki garden's constant battle with the sea

The boulders in Claire and Paddy Baker's coastal Taranaki garden were dug up by road workers, who were then persuaded by ...
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

The boulders in Claire and Paddy Baker's coastal Taranaki garden were dug up by road workers, who were then persuaded by the promise of chocolate cake to drop them off.

Seasoned gardeners welcome change. Trees lose their leaves, flowers emerge and weeds inevitably pop up. But at Claire and Paddy Baker's 4000sqm property on the Taranaki coast, change is extreme – and sometimes not particularly welcome. 

At Warea, the sea erodes and distorts the landscape as it chooses. Steps that once accessed the beach have been swept away and flower beds have had to be moved closer to the house. "This garden has seen a lot," says Claire. 

Patience, she finds, is invaluable. "A storm will roll in, there will be branches down, things flattened, but then you tidy up and a few days later it's all fine again."

Sea water often laps over the edge of the garden, causing salt burn to the grass and flowers. But again, Claire maintains: "It all grows back and you wouldn't know that a couple of months ago it was ruined."

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There were once steps leading down to the sea, but they were swept away, along with some of the boulders and driftwood.
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

There were once steps leading down to the sea, but they were swept away, along with some of the boulders and driftwood.

Not that she simply sits back and allows Mother Nature to ring the changes.

Claire recently transformed an area of land with a disintegrated water tank on it into a thriving tropical patch. Another part, dubbed the "secret garden" by Claire's grandchildren because it was "where all the fairies were", was once a shady path but is now a sunny enclave. "The shade plants just had to deal with getting a bit more sun." 

Over the years, she's worked on making the garden easier to care for, moving it from cottage style to hard-wearing coastal.

Driftwood collected from the beach among gazanias and boulders.
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

Driftwood collected from the beach among gazanias and boulders.

"No garden is actually easy-care, but I can leave this one for a little while and it won't fall apart." Flaxes, daylilies and agapanthus dot the landscape. "Most people call agapanthus weeds, but I think they're beautiful. They've all got their place," she says. Mass planting means there are fewer weeds to deal with.

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Coping with problems as they arise has become routine for Claire, whose first thought when she set eyes on the place was: "Oh, well, that's a challenge." In 36 years, that hasn't changed.

She was initially apprehensive about a location so close to the sea; with two young daughters, she saw potential danger. But this pair of retired dairy farmers have learned how to work with what they've got, often through trial and error.  

Claire paved the area under the table herself.
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

Claire paved the area under the table herself.

Pohutukawa trees and plants with shiny or silvery leaves have turned out to be survivors and pohutukawa also offer the right amount of shelter from a sea breeze. "But don't let them get too leggy," says Claire. "You have to keep them at the right height otherwise the breeze will come through the bottom."

Boulders scattered around the land are also something to keep an eye on, lest one is in fact a slumbering bull seal.

Boris, one such bull seal, made himself at home in the garden a couple of weeks before Claire's daughter was due to get married there and couldn't be persuaded to move. After destroying a gate and rummaging through Claire's tool shed, he vacated just in time for the approaching nuptials. 

The seaside "front garden" is across the road from her house: "It's actually public property, I just maintain it."
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

The seaside "front garden" is across the road from her house: "It's actually public property, I just maintain it."

It's not hard to see why he enjoyed this spot. Just beyond the edge of the Bakers' front lawn, the garden flows down to the ocean so there's an ever-changing view dotted with surfers. 

Claire says sitting on one of the sun-warmed concrete benches in the evening with a beer or a gin and tonic is "just the thing". Against a backdrop of crashing waves, she is perfectly placed to watch the sea and try to predict what it will bring on next. 

Q&A:

The cast-iron bathtub seat was given to Claire by Paddy, four people were needed to carry it all the way down to the ...
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

The cast-iron bathtub seat was given to Claire by Paddy, four people were needed to carry it all the way down to the seaside part of the garden; they decided it looked better back at the house, "so back up the hill we went".

Hours spent in the garden: It takes all day just to mow it, but on an average day, if the weather is nice, I'll be out there for three or four hours. 

I don't have a big vege garden: Because I have so much of the other garden to take care of. I'd love one, and if Paddy was a gardener then maybe we would, but at the moment I only grow the basics – silverbeet, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce and beans, and that's actually enough for us. 

Best gardening tool: My hands! I have a little hook that I use to get around plants and under weeds, but manpower, or girlpower I suppose, would be my best tool. 

Claire Baker in what was once the "secret garden".
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

Claire Baker in what was once the "secret garden".

Biggest lesson learned: Garden to the conditions. I tried to grow a lot of roses when the garden was more open but because I couldn't water them and they weren't protected they had to go. I've got to be content with what I've got and I am, this garden suits me. 

Claire Baker 

Looking out from the kitchen around the back of the house is a part of the garden filled with flaxes, daylilies, salvias ...
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

Looking out from the kitchen around the back of the house is a part of the garden filled with flaxes, daylilies, salvias and alstroemeria.

The path leads right around the house: "Tough and drought-resistant plants are planted all around here," says Claire.
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

The path leads right around the house: "Tough and drought-resistant plants are planted all around here," says Claire.

An old tank used to sit in this relatively new section of the garden: "It's grown so much, I'm thrilled," says Claire.
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

An old tank used to sit in this relatively new section of the garden: "It's grown so much, I'm thrilled," says Claire.

Acanthus mollis and calla lilies have been planted in what was the secret garden in the place of old trees.
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

Acanthus mollis and calla lilies have been planted in what was the secret garden in the place of old trees.

A pohutukawa hedge provides excellent shelter at the front entrance.
JANE DOVE JUNEAU

A pohutukawa hedge provides excellent shelter at the front entrance.

 - NZ House & Garden

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