Leafy Nelson garden is at its best in autumn
A hammock is not usually a symbol of industriousness – it's usually the opposite.
But in the case of Michael Edwardes' hammock, set between a larch and a silver birch, every strand is coated in a lovely thick lichen: proof that he's been far too busy creating his incredible garden to have time for dreaming.
It's 25 years since Michael began work on Quail Crossing, his 2ha property near Upper Moutere, north-west of Nelson. Back then, it was more wasteland than oasis: some raw paddocks, a patch of flax swamp, a garnish of gorse and scrub.
Today it is an intriguing oasis - photographed for this feature in both autumn and summer - with twisting paths, arched bridges, dense plantings and generous vistas.
The first step in the garden's transformation began when Michael's brother Lance, who owns the neighbouring property, suggested they flood the low-lying boggy paddock between their homes to create a lake.
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Using the local Moutere clay, they built up banks, recycling the spoil to create humps and contours to add visual interest to the surrounding flatlands. Then they waited as water flowed in and filled the lake.
Michael recalls the weeks afterwards as a nervous vigil, worrying that the stopbank might collapse. "Every time there was a heavy rain I rushed out to check there was nothing trickling over the top. But Lance had designed it well."
With the watery centrepiece established, he started planting trees, mostly pin oaks, liquidambars and silver birches in the early phase, getting the "bones" right.
He didn't have a master plan; rather, he took his cue from his house. A 1920s school classroom that he'd had transported from Nelson and renovated, it cried out for an unfussy garden with a touch of romance.
"You need your house and garden to be connected, to really flow," says Michael, who owns a giftware importing business in Nelson.
"An English gardener once said 'the garden should be curtseying to the house', and I agree."
In any case, he is instinctively inclined towards relaxed and informal. "I don't like geometric gardens, with straight lines and perfect lawns. To me they always seem soulless. This is all meant to seem natural."
Faced with tricky conditions – those heavy Moutere clay soils turned out to be tough going – he persevered only with plants that clearly enjoyed the place. "I love blue poppies, for instance, but they just don't grow here. But irises and maples flourish."
As do rhododendrons, of which he has hundreds. In fact, Quail Crossing is to be featured in the New Zealand Rhododendron Society conference next year.
Various pockets of the garden are liberally seeded with hellebores, bluebells and daffodils, as well as more exotic plantings such as the camellia-like shrub Calycanthus 'Hartlage Wine', the North American wildflower Stokesia laevis 'Blue Danube', double bloodroot and bog orchids.
It's a peaceful garden. Paths twist and turn, and almost lose their way in the densely planted sections before emerging into open space. Water is a constant. Away from the lake, trails circulate beside swampy, slow-moving channels shaded by mature trees and fringed with ferns, hostas, primulas, iris and other bog-loving plants.
"The gardens I really like aren't the famous ones," says Michael, who was raised in India and educated in England, then globetrotted for several years before settling down in Nelson.
"It's the private gardens, particularly in France, the ones that don't just do what everybody else does, that are much more interesting."
There's certainly a sense of play about Quail Crossing. Wandering the place you encounter random wrought-iron gates-to-nowhere, an arched bridge painted to match the bluebells, a pair of chapel-like turreted sanctuaries secreted among the plantings, which he describes as "garden whimsies" made from leftover materials.
In that same serendipitous spirit, there are self-seeded plants scattered everywhere, which he enjoys and encourages. Meantime, those trees he planted 25 years ago have grown prodigiously, despite the heavy soil.
One redwood in particular has taken off. "And I remember on the label it said, 'You will never see this as a mature specimen in your lifetime.'"
Against those successes, he is currently struggling with a mite that is killing all his willows, as well as a paper wasp invasion. "But that's the way of gardening: it's two steps forward, one step back. It's like business, you have to be tenacious, to keep going."
You can bet he won't be throwing in the towel – or surrendering to the siren call of that hammock. "It's a lot of hard work, this garden, but whenever I get fed up I just think how lucky I am to be able to do this. I like to have a project."
Favourite autumn trees: Maples, maples and more maples.
The thing I've learned about gardening is: Start with tough trees (silver birch, liquidambars, oaks). These will give you dappled shade so you can add more tender plants.
My best tip for other gardeners: Settle on plants that work in your soil and climate, then plant them in multiples rather than "lollipop" hundreds of different plants. I probably have around 30 Rhododendron 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno' dotted around the garden, and it looks lovely and cohesive when they all flower.
Favourite overseas gardens: Jardin de Berchigranges on the French/German border – such a thoughtful garden with original structures and sensitive planting. Also Jardin d'Atmosphère du Petit Bordeaux and Le Jardin de la Pellerine, both in the Loire Valley.
I love this region because: It's warm and sunny most of the time and you get four clear seasons and just enough rain.
- NZ House & Garden