It's beside the railway line, but this Christchurch garden is a 'little haven'
Christchurch landscape designer Sandi MacRae is a true child of nature. She was raised in a nursery of the leafy variety – her parents the owners of the city's Woodland Nursery. Hers was a green world, filled with plants and gardens.
"That was my upbringing. Almost every Sunday afternoon we would go to the botanic gardens. My parents would say things like, 'Isn't the Metasequoia glyptostroboides looking beautiful?' and my brother and I would roll our eyes at each other."
Spare time was spent in the even greater outdoors tramping, a pastime Sandi still pursues with a passion.
"When I get out in those beautiful environments, that's my sense of place," says Sandi, whose philosophy is to create that same sense of place for people in their gardens. "I'm really passionate about connecting people with nature through plants and outdoor spaces."
An award-winner and judge at the Ellerslie International Flower Show, Sandi is also on the board of the Canterbury Horticultural Society and has been involved with Friends of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens and the city's annual children's garden show.
She refers to her own patch in Strowan as her "little haven". When she bought the property 10 years ago, the small backyard was mainly yellow stone chip and lawn.
"It's been fun reinventing it," says Sandi, who has created a mainly green courtyard garden, its tranquillity only broken by the occasional roar of a train going past. The railway line along the back fence doesn't bother Sandi in the slightest. In fact, she's missing the trains at the moment. "There haven't been many since the Kaikoura quake. There's something reassuring about the trains going past on schedule. When they stop it generally means something is wrong."
Sandi has used spherical shapes mixed with grasses to achieve a relaxed harmony in her garden. "I love the round form," she says. Clipped balls of buxus, Coprosma acerosa and muehlenbeckia, circular leaves of Ligularia reniformis and wire orbs sit among grasses and bamboos.
Graminoids (grass-like plants) give a garden both upright elegance and movement, whether riffling in the breeze or bending as drips of rain fall off the ends. "They keep a garden alive. Gardens that are too structured don't have that movement," says Sandi.
Sandi's favourite grass is miscanthus (silver grass). "I've put it in pots and it's fabulous. At the end of winter, I cut them down almost to ground level and in spring you can almost see it growing before your eyes." She also has an array of sedges ("as many forms as I can get"), including Cyperus papyrus, which resemble feather dusters when young, and the sculptural Cyperus alternifolius (umbrella plant).
The garden is mostly green and white, with splashes of blue in salvias and liriopes, and clouds of grey coprosma giving a wispy ghostliness. "I tend to put white cosmos through the garden in spring. Because the garden is quite dense it stretches up to the light on long stems and looks really beautiful."
Tiled paving adds structure and provides areas for seating, although Sandi is just as happy perched on an upturned bucket. "Sunday afternoon sitting on a bucket in the sun trimming my orbs. That's me in my happy place."
Edible plants grow happily among natives and ornamentals. Feijoas share the fence line with michelias and the driveway is lined with loosely espaliered figs and quirky-limbed Juniperus chinensis 'Kaizuka'. Prickly gooseberries and strawberries thrive among the shrubs, and tomatoes grow on willow frames.
Sandi used to share her plot with thousands of bees until an anaphylactic shock forced her to part with her hive. "I loved my bees. They were my friends. They would crawl on my arms when I gardened." One day, she was stung on the head when a rogue colony tried to break into the hive. "I basically got caught in a bee war." Luckily her partner Murray Strong was there. Her last coherent words before the ambulance arrived were: "I don't want to be a wimp but I'm really not feeling good."
Sandi, whose MacRae Landscape Design team is based at Terra Viva Home & Garden, started out working for her father before getting a job with landscape architect John Marsh, who she says was inspirational.
Proportion and flow are fundamental to good garden design, she says, and planting is the final flourish. "It's important to create practical outdoor living spaces that feel good. Often we do a 'day in the life' exercise to work out how people live in the space and how it can be better," says Sandi.
"My job is such a privilege. It often comes at the end of a hard building project for people, then we get to design this beautiful garden that we want them to love."
Most significant plant in the garden: Miscanthus grasses. I love them for their movement in spring and summer, stiff dormant structure of winter and plumes of autumn.
Favorite new plant: Blechnum penna-marina (native alpine water fern). This little ground cover is my "it" plant of the moment.
Most used part of the garden: The patio and dining setting. We can set it up formally for la-de-da dinners or just spill outside at the end of the day with a glass of wine.
My best edible crops: Feijoas and figs. Nothing beats the pleasure of my partner creating some gourmet wonder with these, or having enough to give away. Thinly sliced figs on a slightly warmed pastry base with salted caramel and raspberry topping… a winner.
- NZ House & Garden