Garden of the week: Clifftop Banks Peninsula

A corrugated iron mountain goat stands sentinel at the peak of the hebe hill at Fishermans Bay Garden.
JULIET NICHOLAS

A corrugated iron mountain goat stands sentinel at the peak of the hebe hill at Fishermans Bay Garden.

If green fingers come in many shamrock shades, from the smashed-avocado digits of weekend dilly-dalliers to the deep myrtle mitts of passionate potterers, then Jill Simpson's viridescent phalanges are off the spectrum. Not only does she habitually wear holes in her gardening gloves, Jill has even worn the epidermal ridges right off her emerald extremities.

That's no exaggeration. After many a long day grafting at Fishermans Bay, the coastal garden she has wrought from wind-swept paddocks on the eastern periphery of Banks Peninsula, the touch-screen recognition software on her cellphone no longer recognises the thumbprint of its rightful owner.

Modern technology can only do so much for this dawn-to-dusk gardener, who often pops out in the morning to pull a few weeds and then isn't seen again all day.

Richard and Jill Simpson relax on a macrocarpa seat at the edge of the spring-fed fern gully.
JULIET NICHOLAS

Richard and Jill Simpson relax on a macrocarpa seat at the edge of the spring-fed fern gully.

Husband Richard is forced to teeter at the brow of the hill and strain his ear for the voices of Kim Hill or Kathryn Ryan or Jesse Mulligan, as Jill's transistor radio – always tuned into Radio New Zealand National – offers the only audible clue as to the whereabouts of his wife. She has a matching pair of compact transistors, just in case one topples over a rock wall or tumbles into the bowels of her steeply banked perennial borders

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When Jill and Richard bought their 300ha farm 18 years ago, the original century-old house came with a small cottage garden sheltered behind a very large stand of weather-beaten macrocarpa. 

In the intervening years, much has changed as she's expanded her planting, with her children joking that if it weren't for the precipitous cliffs at the bottom of the hill, she'd garden all the way to the sea.

They weren't far wrong - over the years she has inched ever closer to the scarp, claiming another sheep paddock for poppies and wading into the natural wetland below.

Jill’s hebes have never been clipped – they grow naturally into tidy topiaries; the large white-flowered species in the ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

Jill’s hebes have never been clipped – they grow naturally into tidy topiaries; the large white-flowered species in the foreground is Hebe glaucophylla, with smaller balls of Hebe ‘Sutherlandii’ behind.

The Simpsons live 150m above sea level, at the end of a vertiginous gravel roller coaster.

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Visitors to Fishermans Bay climb into the clouds, past the Hinewai Reserve, where locals have called a truce with the gorse as native forest regenerates, through sheep paddocks at the edge of a diorama of turquoise sky and sea.

Day-tripping cruise boat passengers are gobsmacked into silence by the views (or possibly by their white knuckles). So when a local tourist guide asked if perhaps they could take a shortcut and land a helicopter in Jill's daffodil paddock, Richard had the grass mown and a gate installed within the week. 

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Where the tourist guide could see a helipad, Jill could see an opportunity to extend her already rather large garden.

"I'm just heading out that gate," she told Richard last autumn. Armed with a knapsack of herbicide, she sprayed off the grass, raked through a little mulch then seeded it with "millions" of dusky purple opium poppies.

"I wondered how long it would take you," Richard sighed.

Native astelias relish the dry, exposed conditions and Jill has amassed quite a collection, including Astelia nivicola, ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

Native astelias relish the dry, exposed conditions and Jill has amassed quite a collection, including Astelia nivicola, seen here with its shredded tin-foil foliage, plus bronze-streaked ‘Alpine Ruby’ and ‘Red Devil’, strappy Astelia banksii and the giant jagged Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’.

But it was a good-natured quibble, for he has been a willing accomplice in the garden's creation, lending Jill his farm digger and front-end loader, acquiring pea straw bales, hauling about boulders and offering his chainsaw acumen as required.

Her other new project, a whole hillside of zigzagging perennial borders (above) in the style of Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, is nearing completion.

It's a decadent and eclectic design, with native corokia, flax and chionochloa rubbing shoulders with exotic Miscanthus gracilis 'Zebrina' grasses, starry asters, jester-hatted monardas, Sanguisorba officinalis, floaty thalictrums, fragrant phlox and misty plumes of Verbena bonariensis.  

This rusty orb, sculpted by Sharon Earl of Hawarden, is a folly with a function, offering a snug sitting spot for ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

This rusty orb, sculpted by Sharon Earl of Hawarden, is a folly with a function, offering a snug sitting spot for visitors who need a breather on the hike back up the hill.

Jill already had lovely borders of old-fashioned roses and perennials behind the house but they were straight and narrow and she hankered for something curvaceous and serpentine, like the generous borders at Larnach Castle in Otago. So she ordered two truckloads of railway sleepers and set to work with Richard's two-wheeled wool-sack barrow, lugging them, one by one, down the hill to create access. "I broke the barrow on day two." 

Gardening is a fairly solitary occupation, says Jill, so it's a pleasure to share her home – even the weeds – with local and international visitors through the New Zealand Gardens Trust.

"This a big garden for one person to look after and it's never going to be weed-free. That's just the way it is. If people can't take me as I am, I'd rather shut our gates."

An early feature of the garden was this native rengarenga walk; Jill’s paths have grown more generous at her grandson’s ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

An early feature of the garden was this native rengarenga walk; Jill’s paths have grown more generous at her grandson’s insistence: “He dug the first section for me then stood back and suggested that I’d probably regret it if we didn’t widen them, so we did.”

And, as the season winds down, she's found a fresh challenge: the Simpsons are the new owners of the historic Madeira Hotel in Akaroa.

The roof leaks and the rooms are a bit run down, says Jill, but it's already proving to be "jolly good fun". It's a family affair, with Jill's son Winston behind the bar, Richard doing the books and Jill freshening up the dated decor, starting with some potted bay trees for the cafe courtyard. Like the garden at Fishermans Bay, it seems the old pub's in a very safe pair of hands. 

Q&A with gardener Jill Simpson

Jill’s vision for the zigzag garden has taken eight years to realise: “It’s a huge area and it would have been ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

Jill’s vision for the zigzag garden has taken eight years to realise: “It’s a huge area and it would have been overwhelming to plant it all at once so I did it a little bit at a time”; Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ is in the foreground with Salvia ‘Amethyst’ on the other side of the path.

My best tip for other gardeners: When you wear out your gardening gloves, don't throw them away. Cut off any undamaged finger sleeves and, before you put on a new pair, slip these over your index fingers (like thimbles) to make your new gloves last longer. 

 Most used tool: I'm forever moving plants around and rearranging them so my small, light, stainless steel spade is invaluable. These used to be sold as "women's spades".

My favourite season in the garden: Funnily enough, it's not spring or summer but autumn, because all the hard work has been done and the late perennials are in full bloom and you can ease up a bit and let the garden start to run down.

Jill combines natives with exotics; here Kiwi cabbage trees tower beside tippy-toed Canary Island tree echiums (Echium ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

Jill combines natives with exotics; here Kiwi cabbage trees tower beside tippy-toed Canary Island tree echiums (Echium pininana)

Is the garden open to the public? Yes, by appointment. You can find our details the NZ Gardens Trust  or Fishermans Bay Garden.

 

The zigzag hillside garden was planted in bold drifts inspired by the work of Dutch perennial maestro Piet Oudolf: ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

The zigzag hillside garden was planted in bold drifts inspired by the work of Dutch perennial maestro Piet Oudolf: “Except my borders are Piet Oudolf with native toetoes, flaxes and chionochloa,” jokes Jill.

Jill and Richard flung netting over a frame to stop rabbits nibbling their salad crops, but now that their vege patch ...
JULIET NICHOLAS

Jill and Richard flung netting over a frame to stop rabbits nibbling their salad crops, but now that their vege patch has a rabbit-proof fence, only the brassicas need netting to keep white butterflies at bay.

Hebe x franciscana ‘Blue Gem’ is very hardy.
JULIET NICHOLAS

Hebe x franciscana ‘Blue Gem’ is very hardy.

Jill and Richard Simpson's Fishermans Bay Garden on Banks Peninsula is open to visitors by appointment.
JULIET NICHOLAS

Jill and Richard Simpson's Fishermans Bay Garden on Banks Peninsula is open to visitors by appointment.

 - NZ House & Garden

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