Inner-city Auckland garden that feels like a private island retreat
The distinctive sound of oystercatchers breaks the silence as they head across the waters of Auckland's Cox's Bay. Just a few steps away, the sea glitters in the sunlight, flat and calm. Creating a garden worthy of such an exceptional location is no mean feat but Suzanne Timpson was undaunted by the challenge when she and Bret Gower bought the harbourside property 11 years ago.
"Then, the site had barely a plant in and was covered in metres of concrete," she recalls. "So our vision for the garden was a response to that – to fill it with lush greenery, mainly natives."
Suzanne had wanted the landscape design to express the same strength and simplicity as the house about to be built on the site. Designed by the Auckland practice Stevens Lawson, the dramatic black stained timber house went on to win the Home of the Year award in 2007.
"I felt the building had this Zen quality that we should take into the garden; a certain formality along with lots of green and a variety of plants that would flower during different times of the year," she says.
Finding a landscape designer who could create such a garden was crucial. Construction of the house was well underway, with the main garden structures including swimming pool, paving and terraces completed before they found Patrick Stokes, a New Zealander who had lived and worked for several years in Kyoto.
In that time, he developed a strong empathy with Japanese landscape design, so much so that he had given up his original intention of becoming an architect, instead immersing himself in the study of Japanese gardens.
"Studying gardens was meant to be an adventurous way to learn more of the Japanese culture and simultaneously prepare myself for a career in architecture," Patrick explains. "Instead, it changed my knowledge of the environment so much that I decided to consider buildings and gardens as equal in value. Gardens can have as many details as a building, but the garden also has another dimension. Its development is alive, ongoing and beyond our full control."
Patrick is particularly attracted by the emphasis in Japanese gardens on seasonality and natural landscapes. He also appreciates the sensitivity of the Japanese to the wider environment, and their belief that gardens should develop slowly. The instant gardens of which many in the West are so fond, are anathema to this designer.
And so it was with this garden. In constant dialogue with both client and architect, Patrick's design concept took almost a year to be fully realised. In part, this was due to his desire to see the house as it developed so that he could draw inspiration from the architecture. "A key idea is that the garden is a living architecture that complements the built architecture," he says. "There should be a simplicity to the garden, a complexity in the union… a balance."
Suzanne enjoyed this long creative process. She and the designer would continually spark different ideas off each other, she says. "I completely adored working with Patrick. Yes he has strong ideas, but he was good at listening and taking on board any reservations I might have about his ideas and then coming back to me with some really creative solution. Somehow we were a really great combination, what we would arrive at together."
Patrick's final concept for the garden was based on the idea of an idealised journey from the forest to the sea. "The house has a long terracotta avenue (central hallway) with two very different landscapes at either end: suburbia and a street on one side, the sea and openness on the other," he says. "We saw the house as a journey from one to the other – from land to sea."
Just as traditional Japanese stroll gardens are based on the wider natural landscape, only on a much-reduced scale, so this garden is a stylised version of the natural landscape surrounding Auckland. On the street side of the house the "forest" became a series of mounds planted with a mix of natives. These include pigeonwood (Hedycarya arborea), kowhai (Sophora) and lancewood (Pseudopanax ferox) as "canopy" trees, with rewarewa (Knightia excelsa) and kauri (Agathis australis) as the "sentinels".
As Patrick points out, "The design of the house lent itself to my concept. As there were no windows at the front, light would not be an issue if we planted big trees."
The designer was very much in accord with his client on the use of mainly native plants in the garden. "If we can create our gardens with endemic plants then we are at least working with nature's intentions," he says. "However, a full native garden is hard to create in an urban setting. In this garden they are essentially natives living an urban life as opposed to living in the bush."
There's no lawn on the street side of the house. Instead, continuing the forest metaphor, the mounds are covered with native groundcovers (Muehlenbeckia axillaris and Mazus radicans), grasses, sedges and ground ferns. At different times of year, carefully selected exotic plants add colour to the garden.
In spring, the dark red flowers of Magnolia 'Vulcan' near the front door are vivid against the background of black timber. Swathes of white flowering rain lilies (Zephyranthes candida) produce a similar effect in late summer.
"The backbone or structure of the garden is native with exotic highlights that sit with the style. They tend to elevate the garden. The key is not to move too far in that direction with too much colour," the designer explains.
Suzanne was delighted when Patrick suggested adding touches of seasonal colour. "I grew up near Eden Gardens. I love how there are lots natives but bursts of colour throughout the year with the rhododendrons and other plants. It was like a revelation to me when I first saw that. I enjoy going into my own garden and discover a new surprise every now and then."
Courtyards on either side of the house continue the garden's journey. Here the aim was to create jungle-like areas. One of the key plants here is one of Suzanne's favourites, the bamboo palm Chamaedorea oblongata. The shady courtyards offer the perfect conditions for this small clumping palm, and its bright orange stems and teal green seed pods light up the spaces beautifully.
"I really love seeing the bamboo palms in the courtyards," she enthuses. "I can see them when I walk down the hallway on one side and from my office on the other. They are so pleasing; tropical but delicate."
For Patrick the palms also provided an important textural link between the courtyards and the rest of the garden. "If you lack flowers, the next ingredient is texture," he says.
As you approach the seaward side of the property both house and garden open to the wide expanse of sea, mudflats and sky. Here everything is designed to draw the eye to the water: flat green lawn, stepping stone path, azure swimming pool surrounded by a moat of bright green Griselinia littoralis and the long battened timber wall protecting its eastern side.
The only vertical element interrupting the harbour panorama is a graceful pohutukawa standing on the cliff edge. "The tree had been cut down by the previous owner," recalls Suzanne. "Two suckers survived and we let them grow. I love the way that pohutukawa frames the view of the water."
Patrick was as careful with his selection of hard materials as he was with plants, particularly the stone paths linking the front and back gardens.
"I always try to use stone in all my gardens because it is a permanent material yet it adds an organic touch. Here I used two types of stone (South Island schist and an Indonesian sandstone) to give variety and a more natural appearance. Stone really sets the tone for a garden. I worked with a Japanese stone craftsman who laid the paths here."
Despite now being based in Germany, Patrick still returns to New Zealand regularly for design projects. During these trips he always visits Suzanne's garden.
"I would arrive home to find foliage lying on the path and Patrick beavering away madly in the garden," she recalls. "I love that he is so passionate about the garden. And he can make it look so immaculate; everything is done by hand. He would take his time, stand back and look to make sure things were right. So it's always a bit of a mystery how he still manages to get a lot done in a short amount of time."
It's clear that both designer and owner are still as enthusiastic about this garden as they were more than a decade ago when it was first conceived.
"It's been a privilege to work with Patrick and create a garden here," she says. "We were really lucky there were no existing trees and plants that we felt we should keep. It was a blank canvas that allowed us to create our own vision."
- NZ Gardener