Award-winning landscape architect creates her dream garden
Sally Brown wouldn't want to live without colour, which is why she carefully planned a garden to supply her with it in abundance.
The windows of her quirky cottage look out over flowerbeds planted in a wheel of pink, purple, blue, red, green, orange, yellow and white that is ever changing and always interesting.
"I don't think a garden should have only a single season when it looks good," Sally, 32, explains the philosophy behind the creation of her rainbow garden.
"So I designed the wheel to have plants flowering in each of the colours at all times of the year. And since you view a garden mostly from inside the house, mine is also designed with that in mind."
There is some history surrounding Sally's property, which lies in Blueskin Bay, north of Dunedin. Back in the 1960s, the cottage was constructed around an old tram. When Sally was growing up, her family lived right next door and they grew close to the Polish woman, Adi Sipoecz, who owned it then.
"Adi was a lovely person. She was like our third grandmother," Sally recalls. "And I'm really lucky because 20 or 30 years ago she planted lots of trees and rhododendrons here."
Sally's family eventually bought the property after Adi's death and six years ago, when Sally returned from her OE in Britain, she decided she wanted to live there. "By then the house was run down and the garden so overgrown you couldn't see from one side to the other," she recalls. "I moved through it with a chainsaw and digger. That digger was my best friend for the first couple of years."
When it came to deciding what to do with her flat, free-draining acre-and-a-half, Sally was blessed with more resources than the average gardener. Not only is she a professional landscape architect (her pink garden was an award-winner at the 2014 Ellerslie Flower Show) but, with her parents, she runs the family business Blueskin Nurseries & Cafe. And right beside her garden is the five acres where they do their growing. That means she can indulge her love of plants as much and as often as she likes.
"It's probably why I have such a variety of plants. If they don't come through the garden centre then we grow them next door. And since I do the ordering, I can get what I want!"
There are no mass plantings of single species in Sally's garden. She is a fan of diversity and richness, and it shows. Not surprisingly, she long ago lost count of the number of different plants that she has growing.
And there are no strict rules about what should go where – a philosophy she thinks more of us should share. "Everyone is so reserved about putting different combinations of plants together," she points out. "Rather than being adventurous, people tend to plant lots of the same thing."
Sally loves the old-fashioned flowers that our grandparents grew, such as salvias, sedum, alliums and primulas. And while reluctant to choose favourites, she admits to being a David Austin rose nut. She is also particularly passionate about her paeonies and is fond of white flowers such as tulips and snowdrops that brighten up the shadier corners.
"In winter it can get very cold but there is still a lot of colour here from hellebores, violas and the polyanthus which flowers for nine months a year," she explains. "There's also colour in the foliage – I have pink hebes in the pink garden and in the yellow garden, there are conifer topiaries."
At the centre of the colour wheel is Sally's "gin garden", a circle of topiary balls ('Frankie's Folly' pittosporum which she says holds its shape really well) with a table and chairs where she likes to sit to enjoy a cool drink on summer evenings.
Beyond that is an English beech hedge that Sally planted three years ago to act as a boundary to her flower garden, and she makes clear she is just getting started. "In a flat area you've got to create spaces," she explains. "At the moment, only a third of the garden is landscaped so this is just my first little footprint."
The area behind the hedge is destined to be a woodland garden with large trees and lots of bulbs, which will be far lower maintenance than the beautiful but demanding flowers. "They are intensive and hard work," admits Sally. "I'm always dead-heading, cutting back and feeding. My delphiniums are amazing. They're taller than me so have to be staked. I spend a lot of time clipping the balls and hedges, the roses need to be sprayed for aphids and in hot, dry summers I have to do some watering. Then every autumn I have a really big tidy up."
Sally has planted hundreds of bulbs, but thanks to the free-draining soil she doesn't have to bother lifting them, instead just topping them up with more each year. "I call it naked gardening," she says. "You're putting in all these bulbs and you can't see where you've been, but if you don't do it then you'll regret it later. You've got to think six months ahead in a garden. If you don't plant your lilies in June then you simply won't have them flowering by Christmas."
The garden has been designed for cutting as well as colour, and no what matter the season Sally's friends know she will arrive at dinner parties and birthday celebrations with a freshly picked bouquet in her hand. She always has two or three vases of blooms in her own house, does the displays for the Blueskin cafe and even created a special garden to supply the flowers for a close friend's wedding.
In winter, the taller perennials die back and Sally says that's when you can really see the bones of her garden. "The balls and shapes look amazing when they're covered in frost. There are plenty of upright, structural things and lots of pots. I love terracotta and have what I call my pot graveyard. If they've got a chip or crack in them I'll bring them home from the garden centre and plant them up. They may not last forever but they serve a purpose for a little while."
As well as visiting gardens on her travels, Sally has drawn inspiration from a favourite book, Gardenalia by Sally Coulthard. "It's me to a tee," she says. "I love finding preloved junk and using it creatively as features throughout the garden."
Beside her vegetable garden and home nursery, there are old porcelain washbasins that have been plumbed in so Sally can give her soil-covered hands a rinse. She has concrete tubs full of herbs and a couple of friendly gnomes – one of them even featured in her Ellerslie Flower Show design. "Gardening is a form of art," she believes. "Even if you don't love plants you can look at my garden and still appreciate it has been created as a picture."
Her ingenuity extends to the pathways. The vegetable garden, which has tripled in size this year, has a path made of peach stones. "That's an idea I got from a garden I visited in South Africa." She had talked a South Island nursery into saving what was left of their peach pits once the seed had been extracted – and now plans to use them on more of the pathways. "It's part of that resourcefulness, using things that would only have been thrown away."
Running Blueskin Nurseries is a busy job, and Sally doesn't have a lot of spare time but she tries to set aside a half-day every week for her own garden. In the evenings after work she finds it therapeutic to be out there until sundown. "People ask me how I fit it in but if you really want to do something then you'll do it."
Sally recalls that she has been happiest with her hands in the soil ever since she was a child. Little wonder then, that at 18, she decided to study landscape design at Lincoln University. "It's my life and I always knew it was what I was destined to do," she recalls. "It's a pretty exciting career to be in. You're constantly learning and challenging yourself."
Sally believes that though she'll never know everything about plants, there is still great pleasure to be derived from them. "I enjoy being able to pass on what I've learnt to my customers," she explains. "Gardening is all about sharing knowledge."
She also believes no one should be afraid to unleash their imagination in the garden. This includes having fun experimenting with colour and a wide range of different plants – even though things may not always turn out as planned. "I always say there is no such thing as a good gardener. We all have our failures and don't know how things are going to grow in certain situations, so it's always a matter of trial and error."
She does have one rule though: if a plant isn't doing well, it gets two years in that spot before she moves it. It took her three years to clear the ground and create her colour wheel structure. There are now so many hard-to-find precious treasures in her collection that the propagators from the nursery next door come over to raid her flowerbeds for cuttings.
And for Sally, the unique planting combinations create an effect that is never dull, no matter what the time of year. "I like the change and variety of something new. It's always exciting," she says of her beloved space. "What I love so much is when I go away for a day or two and then come back and see what's flowering."
- NZ Gardener