'I could have only native plants, but that would be like listening to the Beatles every night'

Andrew Middleton among cannas and salvias in his Waikanae Beach garden.
JULIAN MATTHEWS

Andrew Middleton among cannas and salvias in his Waikanae Beach garden.

Living with the sea nearby and nothing but sand underfoot can be a tough environment for plants. However it doesn't mean a richly diverse garden is out of reach. Andrew Middleton's garden at Waikanae Beach on the Kapiti Coast is a prime example of what can be achieved. Within its small confines there's an amazing range of plants, a reflection of Andrew's broad tastes and fascination with all aspects of the plant world. 

"I could have filled the garden with only natives, and I have no problem with anyone who does that," says Andrew. "But for me that wouldn't provide enough variety. It would be like listening to the Beatles music every night, whereas I enjoy hearing such diverse sounds as Bizet, Joni Mitchell and The Grateful Dead."

Andrew, who grew up in England, has an impressive horticultural background. He started at Birmingham Botanic Gardens at 15, doing a study year to see if horticulture might appeal as a career. 

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Salvia discolor.
JULIAN MATTHEWS

Salvia discolor.

Not the least put off by the basic tasks he was assigned, such as sieving the waste coke from the glasshouse boilers by hand then spreading it over the lawns in winter, he went on to an apprenticeship.

Once qualified, he began his life of travel. "I wrote to botanic gardens in Europe and was soon off to Munich Botanic Gardens, where I spent seven years," he recalls. He started out working in the orchid house, moved on to the main display garden, the fernery, then the arboretum. "It really opened my eyes to there being so many different plants."

Different horticultural work followed, in England and New Zealand, interspersed with long periods of travel in Central and South America. 

Brunsvigia gregaria.
JULIAN MATTHEWS

Brunsvigia gregaria.

Shorter excursions to exotic locations continue today. It's always a thrill when they include opportunities to see dramatic plants in their natural environment, such as a hillside of tree aloes in South Africa and the 8m high flower spikes of Puya raimondii in South America.

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Some areas of his garden have had lots of mulch added over the years. This was to improve the water-holding capabilities and fertility of the sand. 

In earlier times, a truckload of twig mulch from NZ Composting would be spread around much of the garden every year. This has been reduced in recent times; as the plants have filled out, there's much less room for spreading mulch.

Haemanthus coccineus.
JULIAN MATTHEWS

Haemanthus coccineus.

Andrew has a compost heap into which the leftovers from the vegetable garden, and the leafy prunings go, as well as dry leaf matter to ensure the mix doesn't get soggy. He buys a trailer-load of ready-made compost from time to time to mix with his own. After a storm, he heads to the beach to gather seaweed which also goes into the compost

He feeds the garden, but aims to be plant specific. Hibiscus are fed with blood and bone twice a year while palms are given a slow-release fertiliser three times annually. When planting trees or shrubs, he makes the hole twice the size of the root ball. A generous amount of compost is mixed with the sand from the hole; this goes back under and around the new plant.

Some parts of the garden, mostly the banked areas, have been left in their original state. This is because the pure sand is ideal for the aloes and rare bulbs which Andrew is fond of. Among the latter are moraeas, babianas, brunsvigias and haemanthus.

The short-stemmed, big crimson flowers with dazzling golden stamens of Haemanthus coccineus make a stunning show tucked up against a west facing wall of the house and Brunsvigia gregaria is an autumn delight in the sunniest and driest part of the garden.

Salvias are favourites and they thrive, flowering profusely. Some, such as Salvia 'Amistad', continue year round. Others, including the long-stemmed, butter yellow Salvia madrensis; the chartreuse and deep blue Salvia mexicana; and dark red Salvia confertiflora light up the garden in autumn.

Having in-depth knowledge of plant origin and history adds to the pleasures of the garden. "It makes you appreciate the plants on a different level," says Andrew as he tells of researching Lilium mackliniae. Turning to one of his numerous horticultural reference books one evening, he learnt the lily was discovered by famous plant hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward and was named for his second wife, Jean, whose maiden name was Macklin.

 - NZ Gardener

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