Garden of the week: Tropical courtyard is a little taste of Bali

The courtyard at Marion and Graham Aitken's home works like a living room, with its water feature, built-in sofa and ...
JANE USSHER

The courtyard at Marion and Graham Aitken's home works like a living room, with its water feature, built-in sofa and fireplace.

For Marion and Graham Aitken, the evening routine is sacrosanct. Every night after Graham returns from work they hop into the spa set into the lush greenery of their Auckland garden and spend 20 minutes downloading the day. "Being in the spa forces you to relax – to stop going at 90 miles per hour," explains Marion.

This courtyard garden, with its tropical touches, not only inspires such moments of mindfulness, it has become a social hub where the Aitkens love to entertain. 

When the couple bought their Remuera townhouse nine years ago, they did so because the Brent Hulena design ticked the boxes. They liked its no-fuss contemporary nature, with plastered walls and a clay-tiled roof reminiscent of the Mediterranean – fitting, because Graham's family business has imported food products from Europe since 1944. With six children between them, the Aitkens also knew the home's two living areas would come in useful. 

A baby cycad and its more mature relation bookend the water feature; they are slow-growing, sculptural plants that need ...
JANE USSHER

A baby cycad and its more mature relation bookend the water feature; they are slow-growing, sculptural plants that need very little attention.

The courtyard, however, was dated and messy with a mismatch of floor surfaces and haphazard planting. "It wasn't a very usable space," says Marion. So they called in landscape designer Mark Read of Natural Habitats to build them a "little Bali". Happily, the garden already contained a number of significant trees in keeping with the island theme. These included bangalow, washingtonia and queen palms. 

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Marion Aitken with Daisy, a bichon/shih tzu cross.
JANE USSHER

Marion Aitken with Daisy, a bichon/shih tzu cross.

Simplifying the materials was a given: the outdoor surfaces were a conglomeration of crazy paving, ceramic tile and gravel. Instead of lifting them, new wide-plank Vitex decking was laid over the top. Not only did this unify the space but it raised the floor level by 100mm, which gave a more seamless flow between inside and out. A rectangular patch of artificial turf is set into the decking to bring a soothing greenness.

Mark planned two focal points. First, an outdoor fireplace of honeycombed basalt was built in the zone that led off the dining room. Marion bought a square table with a black granite top to furnish this space. "We love to eat our dinner here," she says.

The other point of focus is a vertical bank of planting with a water feature. This was built along the eastern flank of the garden, in an area that leads from the kitchen. Artificial rock was used to retain the slope and to disguise an ugly wall on this street-side boundary.

The team planted the feature in "jungle" fashion, using a mix of natives such as griselinia and asplenium and cyathea ferns, as well as exotics such as monstera, heliconia, strelitzia and cycads. Other planting in this easy-care courtyard includes an assortment of bromeliads – both green and red varieties – that fringe the fireplace and are dotted around the entrance garden.  

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Upcycling existing structures within the garden was a priority. A curved concrete retaining wall that ran along the eastern and northern edges of the courtyard was repurposed in three ways: the stairs to the spa were built directly over the top of it; the water feature was set into it; and, in one area, it was turned into the base of an outdoor couch. This alfresco bench seat is the perfect place to stretch out on a lazy Sunday afternoon. "If he has half an hour spare, Graham loves to come and read his book here on the weekend," says Marion.

The transformation of this compact courtyard makes it feel more spacious and the Aitkens now use it as a third living room. At night, when the palms are lit from below, the water in the rock pool ripples in the breeze and the flames of the fire leap into the dark, the garden is a sanctuary from the everyday. 

Bifold doors link the kitchen with the courtyard; the stairs on the right lead up to the spa pool – a much-used, but ...
JANE USSHER

Bifold doors link the kitchen with the courtyard; the stairs on the right lead up to the spa pool – a much-used, but discreetly tucked-away element of the garden.

Q&A

Climate: We seldom get frosts and we are very sheltered from the wind. The north-facing garden is an all-day suntrap.

Most significant plant in the garden: The one that gets the most comments is the three-pronged bangalow palm near the spa pool and water feature. It throws such beautiful dappled light onto the water.  

The outdoor sofa was built on top of an existing retaining wall.
JANE USSHER

The outdoor sofa was built on top of an existing retaining wall.

Best tip for other gardeners: Renovating a courtyard is a major undertaking. It pays to go to the professionals who have all the contacts and a lot of great ideas.

The thing I've learned about gardening over the years is: Although gardens take a lot of work and planning, the results are worth it. So very rewarding.

Favourite season in the garden: Summer, of course! But, then again, in winter, when the clivia and bird of paradise start to put on their bright orange show, it's hard not to love the garden.

Custom-made artificial rock was used to construct the water feature; as it ages, and plants and lichen grow over the ...
JANE USSHER

Custom-made artificial rock was used to construct the water feature; as it ages, and plants and lichen grow over the surfaces, it blends into the landscape; xerophytes such as bromeliads were used as they can grow in conditions that offer little water and soil.

Watering the garden: We have sprinklers on a nightly timer.

Favourite new plant: I love the miniature red bromeliads as well as the one outside the kitchen window that I look at while cooking – a vriesea bromeliad that has a lovely purple centre.

Do you propagate any of your own plants? Some of the grasses regrow easily, so they are useful for filling in any gaps.

A low dark-stained timber wall edges the permeable pumice gravel path leading to the rear of the house.
JANE USSHER

A low dark-stained timber wall edges the permeable pumice gravel path leading to the rear of the house.

 

 - NZ House & Garden

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