Modernist-inspiration: structure meets nature

When Jenny and Russell Brooking drive home after work, their spirits lift as they crest the hill leading to their property.

A verdant grove of 27 alders is planted either side of the driveway and they emerge from the green shade into their own private world, a sunny open site on top of a ridge overlooking New Plymouth with green hills and bush below, the Tasman Sea in the far distance and Mt Taranaki to the south.

Smooth green lawns surround the house and there are more trees planted in the same formal grid as the alders as well as large drifts of grasses, flaxes and other perennials.

Marking the entrance to the house is a large fountain along with a grove of white flowering cherries (Prunus 'Tai-haku') underplanted with massed gardenias. 

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Signalling the front entrance is this water feature backed by a wall of corten steel, the warm reddish tones continued in the foliage of the clipped dwarf heavenly bamboo (Nandina 'Gulf Stream') planted on either side. Mondo grass softens the steps.

Jenny and Russell Brooking are keen gardeners who spend as much time as they can in their one hectare New Plymouth garden. Mason, their cavoodle, also enjoys the grounds.

From the shade of the Italian alders, the garden opens into a sunny, flat space overlooking the city.

Mt Taranaki rises dramatically to the south of the Paul Francis-designed house, which also has expansive views of New Plymouth and the sea beyond.

Potted bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) surround the northern terrace.

A grid of Melia azedarach trees at the southern end of the house is surrounded by a clipped hedge of Camellia 'Ariel's Song'.

A line of statuesque urns lines the entrance path with the flower spikes of Yucca 'Ivory Tower' about to bloom.

Yucca with clipped heavenly bamboo at its base adds structure and sculptural form alongside one of the paved courtyards, counterbalanced by the graceful movement of variegated Miscanthus grasses lining the entry path.

Coprosma 'Cappuccino' forms a low hedge on the eastern side of the garden.

The red tones continue in the blooms of potted Poor Knights lily.

Miniature arum lily Zantedeschia 'Elfin'.

Dietes grandiflora.

Arthropodium cirratum.

Aristea major.

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Local landscape designer Michael Mansvelt of Plantation designed the Brookings' garden in 2003, taking his inspiration from the architecture of the long, low, L-shaped house designed by Jenny's brother Paul Francis. 

Michael admired the work of the great American landscape architect Dan Kiley, particularly the Miller Garden he designed in the 1950s. 

Considered an icon of Modernist garden design, Kiley used large groups of plants to articulate spaces and elements. 

When Jenny and Russell approached Michael to design their garden, he saw an opportunity to create his own take on Kiley's masterpiece.

Mt Taranaki rises dramatically to the south of the house, which also has expansive views of New Plymouth and the sea beyond.
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Mt Taranaki rises dramatically to the south of the house, which also has expansive views of New Plymouth and the sea beyond.

"I thought this was a modernist style house so tried to talk them into taking that approach with the landscaping of the property," the designer explains.

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"Jenny and Russell already had a plan drawn up with planted mounds to give interest to the flat site. But to me, the flatness was its chief attraction. A flat site in Taranaki is very unusual. I started drawing up grids, and showed them a sketch plan of how I thought the garden would work. They said go for it, and didn't change a thing."

Michael changed their original plans for the one hectare property completely, Jenny recalls.

Potted bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) surround the northern terrace.
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Potted bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) surround the northern terrace.

"We had already started our landscaping and it wasn't until I met Michael that I realised we hadn't really connected with our first designer. I asked him to come and visit, and we discussed the things that were important to me. He was great and could see where we were coming from and listened to what we wanted in our garden."

Michael, a passionate plantsman who originally trained in horticulture, likes to use a wide plant palette in his gardens.

As well as the grids of trees, he created large blocks of flowering perennials, interspersing them with flaxes and grasses to create textural contrast. 

A grid of Melia azedarach trees at the southern end of the house is surrounded 
by a clipped hedge of Camellia 'Ariel's ...
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A grid of Melia azedarach trees at the southern end of the house is surrounded by a clipped hedge of Camellia 'Ariel's Song'.

For the first grid at the top of the driveway he opted for Italian alders (Alnus glutinosa), a deciduous species selected for its wind tolerance and the beautiful catkins it produces in spring.

The trees are planted at 3m spacings with their lower branches removed so that you can see tantalising glimpses of the garden and house beyond.

Large blocks of low planting beneath the trees ensure that the grid formation of their vertical trunks is clearly visible.

Yucca and clipped heavenly bamboo add structure and sculptural form alongside one of the paved courtyards, ...
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Yucca and clipped heavenly bamboo add structure and sculptural form alongside one of the paved courtyards, counterbalanced by the graceful variegated Miscanthus grasses lining the entry path.

Beneath the grid of alders are planted a variety of different plants as groundcovers, chosen for their ability to grow in shade, and their textural and seasonal variations.

In spring, star jasmine fill the air with their scent, naturalising bluebells send their soft spikes up through the ivy and the hosta unfurl their lush green leaves.

Then in autumn, purple flowering liriope comes into bloom followed in winter by the orange tubular flowers of clivia, adding a vibrant contrast to the bare branches of the trees above.

Miniature arum lily Zantedeschia 'Elfin'.
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Miniature arum lily Zantedeschia 'Elfin'.

Russell's favourite plant in the garden is the mass planted star jasmine under the alders, says Jenny. 

"As a groundcover it is amazing... the fragrance as you walk down the driveway. It has been worth the years of waiting for the ground to be fully covered in that area."

More grids of trees are planted along the western boundary, both to define different outdoor areas and to emphasise the rhythms of the architecture, marrying the house with the garden. 

From the alder grove, to ensure the eye is taken directly to the front entrance as you turn towards the house, Michael used variegated maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus'). These are planted along the wide path leading from driveway to front door.

From spring to autumn, the tall sage green and cream striped leaves of this deciduous east Asian grass move in the wind, like a graceful chorus line welcoming you to the house. 

In front of the grasses are planted white flowering Yucca filamentosa 'Ivory Tower' and the iris-like Dietes grandiflora which has mauve and white blooms in spring.

Both have similar form and foliage to the miscanthus and the effect all three create together is romantic and soft; a striking juxtaposition to the rectilinear, clean lines of the architecture.

"I love walking up to the front door when the yuccas are in flower prior to Christmas – they make a real statement," Jenny enthuses.

The long broad lines of the grasses and perennials also establish a strong sense of progression along the entry path, emphasised by the positioning of tall urns on either side.

"You need to exaggerate scale to create a little interest when nothing is in flower," says Michael.

Introducing focal points such as the urns and the water feature opposite the front door also ensures there is always plenty of interest in this garden.

The fountain with its brimming central bowl adds that extra sensory quality that only water can bring to a garden. 

Planting here again is a reflection of the designer's diverse palette with wide blocks of clipped dwarf Chinese heavenly bamboo (Nandina 'Gulf Stream') edging the path, black mondo grass and miniature white arum lilies (Zantedeschia) either side of the fountain.

On the opposite side of the house at the southern end of the terrace is a small courtyard planted with another grid, this time Indian bead trees (Melia azedarach) and surrounded on three sides by a clipped camellia hedge.

Two Buddha heads on plinths placed asymmetrically on a floor of white limestone chip complete this exquisitely simple composition.

The white flowering melias were planted for their wind tolerance, says Michael.

"We have heinous issues with wind. Melia are very strong trees. I like to choose trees that have a number of good qualities and melia have flowers, autumn colour and beautiful yellow berries. Because of the wind, the grid lines are not quite as perfect as I would like; some of the trees are on a slight lean."

Camellia 'Ariel's Song' used here for the hedge is one of Michael's favourite plants.

"I just love it for its colourful new growth, and the flower is a little sweet bowl about the size of your thumb. The wax-eyes and tui go crazy over it. It is just the prettiest hedge you can grow and the flowers are fragrant also," he says. 

"I like to have seasonal contrasts in my gardens. I used weeping pears and flowering cherries as well in this garden because they're deciduous in winter then provide spring blossom and autumn colour. I love the bluebells popping up in spring and camellias flowering in winter; the new red growth of the nandina leaves in spring followed by berries in winter."

For the Brookings, it was important that the garden should enhance the house and setting, says Jenny. 

"We had plenty of room to play with. The indoor-outdoor flow in the house is from almost every room so this was a huge ask – that we could be in the garden everywhere."

Jenny and Russell installed the garden themselves, not an easy task with such a diverse range of plants and the precise geometry of the gridded trees.

"Russell spent hours working out the grid for planting the trees," says Jenny. "We used truckloads of mulch and a lot of liquid fertiliser. It was previously a farm paddock. There was very little irrigation for planting new beds as we are on tank water."

Fourteen years later, how has the garden stood the test of time?

"The garden still looks amazing. Although we have replanted some areas, most of it is original. We had a few areas that didn't work well. Often with things like grasses, there is a limit as to how long they look good. There was an area we replanted in gardenia and as much as we fed and watered them, they just didn't like where they were," Jenny says.

"The growth in the trees and hedges gives us good shelter and privacy, and looks stunning all year round. We added a port wine magnolia hedge to the edge of our outdoor living area, which is now closed in as our summer room. I just love it when you open the windows or walk around that area – the fragrance is divine!"

The couple are both keen gardeners, finding it very therapeutic.

"After a stressful day at work, it's always great to get into the garden and fresh air," says Jenny. 

"We spend a lot of time in the garden, as much as we can with both of us working full-time. Russell has some weeks when he has a lot of hedges to trim to keep things tidy. I would love to spend more time out there, but with work, grandchildren and weather, it sometimes gets a little neglected. A great day at home is one where I can spend the whole day in the garden just pottering. I love it." 

 - NZ Gardener

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