Jefferswood on Camerons Rd is a carefully planned habitat for wildlife, Maike van der Heide discovers.
A pair of tui flit noisily among the tender spring leaves of a willow tree. Below, ducks swim happily in a pond surrounded by lush flax and native grasses, the birds splashing away as another duck soars in for a swift and ungraceful landing.
A wooden bench overlooking the pond and underneath a willow is bathed in dappled sunlight. It is no surprise that this seat is where Sandra and Jeff Sewell like to sit with a glass of wine after a day's work.
“Many an evening is spent beside the pond watching swallows swoop on insects above the pond and the antics of the various residents,” says Sandra.
Nestled between the green hills of Okaramio, the four hectares of Jefferswood on Camerons Rd was not just designed to please humans. In fact, it was carefully planned to serve as a habitat for the wildlife of the valley, “a sanctuary for all residents", as Sandra puts it.
Hundreds of trees and thousands of native plants were chosen for their ability to feed and shelter birds and insects.
“There are dozens of tui and many bellbirds on the property because they have food, safety, water and many trees to lark about in,” says Sandra.
“Wood pigeons have returned to the valley. Many years ago there were flocks of them, but a loss of food sources and safety meant they disappeared.”
Phacelia, alyssum and borage under a grove of crabapple trees were planted to attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies or as a winter haven for bumblebees. The pond is a source of water for the birds and a habitat for whistling tree frogs and green frogs, wild ducks and dragon flies.
Hundreds of kowhai and flaxes keep the birds “fat and happy”, supplemented by sugar water in a hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window of Sandra and Jeff's mud brick home.
Watching the birds gather to feed is one of the joys of the garden for Sandra and Jeff: “We enjoy seeing the birds and insects and nature at work,” says Sandra.
To ensure the birds' safety, the couple actively trap wild cats and poison rats and possums.
Work is ongoing, but far less intense than when planting first began after the couple bought Jefferswood back in 1998. The land was bare, except for three old scraggly totara - two male, one female - which somehow escaped the logging gangs long ago. Sandra was told by a tree expert they would probably not survive, but they defied the odds and all three are now flourishing.
With 2.4 hectares of land dedicated to garden and 1.6 to grazing cattle, Sandra and Jeff sat down with a piece of paper and planned their approach.
They started with a shelter belt, then began filling in the space. Sandra often used cuttings - “nothing too fussy” - and battled the weeds and grass.
She also began planting her beloved oak trees, creating a small arboretum. Each oak is carefully labelled with a cattle tag with both its Latin and common name. Today, Sandra's garden features 17 types of oak, 70 trees in total.
The oaks also do their bit for the native fauna. The ducks adore the acorns, says Sandra, and the trees' “miniscule” flowers are loved by bees.
“Because oak trees generally retain their leaves until the new buds burst forth in spring, they provide shelter in the winter for small insects and birds,” adds Sandra.
Close to the house and sheltering the vegetable garden are large hedges of green beech and copper beech, inspired by the couple's many trips to England. Jeff is a sheep scanner, and the couple have spent the past 20 winters in Britain for work.
The hedges are as visually appealing as they are helpful in sustaining bird and insect life.
“Because these trees also retain their leaves, many, many small birds roost in them in winter until the leaves fall off in the spring,” she says.
“These small birds are great at keeping down aphid and white fly populations, but can be a menace to the silverbeet.”
After years of hard work establishing the garden, the Sewells have found the native gardens no longer require weeding as native seedlings grow where unwanted species once did.
The lawns need occasional mowing and the oak trees are pruned by Sandra or contractors, but most of the Sewells' labour now goes into their four large rotational organic vegetable plots and orchard.
Companion planting and crop rotation means the garden is always providing plenty for the Sewells to eat and give away. Besides the range of vegetables, including the recently harvested artichoke, there are herbs and calendula. There is an asparagus patch, currants, gooseberries and espaliered apple, pear and fig.
In the now blossoming orchard, free-range chickens and one particularly vocal rooster scratch happily in crushed mussel shells scattered underneath the trees. Sandra also raises a couple of free range pigs each year.
The Sewells aim is to be self-sustainable, and their Moutere clay house, which took four years to build, reflects this.
Hot water is heated by solar panels. The house is naturally cool in summer and warm in winter.
A huge veranda protects the golden-coloured walls from Okaramio's high rainfall. Before the house was built, Sandra estimates she and Jeff spent another six years collecting the materials for their home.
“As agricultural contractors we were like magpies, collecting materials from farms across Marlborough to use in the construction, milling timber, sourcing stone, collecting old power poles.”
Now, the couple welcome guests to their home and garden both as a bed-and-breakfast and for garden tours, the proceeds of which are put back into the community.
Sandra enjoys being able to support the community this way, but gets just as much enjoyment from giving friends fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs from the garden, or gifting a bunch of freshly picked flowers.
She also hopes to inspire people to do their bit to enhance biodiversity and habitat by controlling cats, planting nectar rich plants and using as much of the waste they generate as they can. She laments the lack of use of Marlborough's abundant sunshine by many of the new houses built in the area in the past 10 years for solar heating.
“We are living this on a large scale, but it is achievable no matter the scale for anyone who cares about where they live.”
The Marlborough Express