Garden of the week: Art meets nature in Matakana's secret garden gallery

Matakana Sculptural Habitat

Gardens are always evolving, their shape and character changing to meet the needs of their owners and accommodate the gradual maturation of trees and plants. The Matakana Sculptural Habitat, 45 minutes north of Auckland, embraces and celebrates this evolutionary process, taking it to unique and unexpected levels.

In fact the entire ethos of the garden is based on the natural processes that take place within its boundaries, from the insects and fungi on the ground to the tree canopy and the birds that live within it. 

Within the 2.2 hectare property, a range of sculptures – many made of natural materials such as giant fallen pine trees, meandering log walls and flat circles of timber forming a ground level mosaic – flows through the woods. "We use nature to sculpt our magical oasis," owners Carol van Dyk and David Smitheram explain.

Carol and David beside the sculpture 'Queen of Wetland' which supports moss and lichen growths.
MATTHEW CATTIN

Carol and David beside the sculpture 'Queen of Wetland' which supports moss and lichen growths.

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It's an evolving habitat with trees – many native, wetland, lawns and gardens abundant with birds, insects and fungi. If you look closely, you'll see new inhabitants residing on the sculptures in the form of grubs, mosses, spiderwebs, lichens and other plants and organisms comprising the establishment of a new ecosystem. These ecological changes will continually alter the form, shape, texture and colour of each piece and are an integral part of all the sculptures in the habitat."

The couple bought the property in 2016 from Wendy Marshall and Tony White, who began creating the Sculptural Habitat out of a weed- and rubbish-filled wetland about 12 years earlier. After a violent storm felled many pine trees on the property, they began to turn the trunks and roots into large scale sculptures that they felt would represent the inner spiritual nature of the habitat. Followers of the Baha'i faith, Wendy and Tony also wanted the natural organic processes of the garden to serve as a metaphor for the wider Baha'i belief in the transformative processes of life.

Although current owners David and Carol are not Baha'i, they believe that the concept of transformation is relevant to us all. "Personal transformation and transformation of cultures, societies, nature and humankind all are natural and familiar," they assert. "The large natural sculptures and the natural elements of the property create beautiful vistas using techniques that any gardener can undertake."

'Release of Spirit' is composed of  200 copper pieces.
SALLY TAGG

'Release of Spirit' is composed of 200 copper pieces.

A shady path beside a meandering stream takes you into the Sculptural Habitat. Tall willows grow in and around the stream while sweeps of mondo grass, zephyranthes and other flowers line the paths. Graceful carex move gently in the breeze and fantail dart from branch to branch, so close you can almost touch them. 

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On a fallen log, partly hidden by foliage, is a metal book, its copper and steel pages inscribed with these words from Baha'u'llah, founder of the Baha'i faith: "Look into all things with a searching eye." 

The inscription sets the tone of the place, encouraging you to slow down and open your mind to seeing the different things in the garden. 

'Patterning of a Ponga Stump'.
SALLY TAGG

'Patterning of a Ponga Stump'.

The first of the large-scale pieces is quite unobtrusive, a land sculpture lying quietly in the shadows of the trees, just before the path turns towards the open lawn area. Called Emergence, Transition, Maturation, it comprises of mounds of sawn timber curving organically around the base of several trees, some set flush with the ground, others at random heights above it. In the deeply shaded areas, moss, fungi and ferns are gradually colonising the timber, nature adding its own dimension to the work, as the designers intended. 

As you emerge from the trees, you see the massive trunks of the fallen pines, lying prone like slumbering giants on the smooth green lawns. Straight ahead is a work entitled Submission, Sacrifice, Succession, incorporating the contorted and exposed root ball of the tree, its severed trunk and finally a curving wall of logs cut from its branches. Tiny metal artworks appear to be growing among the beautiful curvaceous forms of the root ball and along the trunk, like some exotic fungi. 

To the left is a work titled Liberation. Another fallen pine, its soaring trunk has been carefully sculpted to maximise the sense of elegance and simplicity. 

'Habitat for Fungi'.
SALLY TAGG

'Habitat for Fungi'.

In deliberate contrast, alongside the pine is a delicately wrought piece nearby called Release of Spirit, composed of 200 copper pieces emerging from the ground, each designed to move in the wind to symbolise an abstract form in flight. This work represents spirit as an enduring life force, hence the use of a more permanent material. 

Weaving in and around the sculptures and trees are various groups of plants – ferns, hydrangeas, impatiens and aspidistra in the shade; protea, lavender, grevillea, day lilies, euphorbia, bird of paradise, kangaroo paw and succulents in the sun.  

However, the plants are there to merely complement the artworks, to be viewed as a backdrop rather than significant features. Their placement is deliberately unconventional, designed to ensure visitors can weave in and out of wild, and more formally planted areas.  

'Rose of Love'.
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'Rose of Love'.

Like their predecessors, Carol and David also own and operate the Protea Patch Nursery, which sells protea plants and flowers next door to the Sculptural Habitat. 

The couple also still have their own careers: David is an engineer, and Carol is a pharmacist and university lecturer. Keeping all these balls in the air can be quite busy! 

"To maintain the lawns alone around the Habitat, proteas, and house garden takes around five hours on a ride on mower," says David. "We are constantly picking up debris from paths and culling trees and plants as so many self-seed."

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Carol and David beside the sculpture 'Queen of Wetland' which supports moss and lichen growths.

'Rose of Love'.

A massive fallen pine is raised to the sky in the sculpture 'Liberation'. Echium flowers in the background.

Made from rounds of timber from the site, the natural sculptures 'Maturation' and 'Transition' wind through groves of kanuka, willow and ponga.

'Release of Spirit' is composed of 200 copper pieces.

Weaves of brush clasped with colourful ties craft 'Mystical Prospectors'.

The sculpture 'Protection', partly consisting of stacked logs.

'Patterning of a Ponga Stump'.

'Habitat for Fungi'.

Nikau stand sentinel in front of the sculpture 'Custodians', formed from a massive fallen tree trunk.

The slender trunks of willow line the stream that flows through the property.

Zephyranthes line the banks of the wetland ponds that border the garden.

Waterlilies in three colours thrive in the wetland ponds as do wild ducks and their young.

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When they first bought the property, Carol spent three months learning about protea propagation and care, as well as the philosophy and maintenance of the Habitat. "With 270 protea trees and a nursery for propagation, we have one of the largest ranges of protea varieties for sale in New Zealand and ship them around the entire country."

The protea genus is wider than people realise, she says. "Different varieties can grow in colder conditions in the deep south and all will grow in the North Island. Protea don't want nutrition, do want water, but don't want wet feet. If you can achieve those conditions, then protea are easy care and best left alone. Apart from pruning the bountiful flowers for display inside, protea do not want to be fussed over." 

Asked to describe their plans for the Habitat, the couple are quite clear. "Shaping the garden to make the most of its wonderful natural elements and creating a place we and others can enjoy is first and foremost. We feel honoured to be the custodians of these wonderful pieces of art, and have renovated and added our own vision to six of the current sculptures. As time goes on, the sculptures will surely transform as the Habitat itself transforms."

Carol and David have made one significant change – giving the garden a second name, the Secret Garden. They decided to do this after noticing the reactions of visitors to the garden. "It was like a locked garden they had never seen before, with wildlife and birds, where the gardeners had planted seeds, and nature provided the raw materials. The garden has a spirit or vibe. It inspires those who come and gives them joy. This could be describing Frances Hodgson Burnett's garden in her book, The Secret Garden

"People are always surprised at how successful the sculptures are and yet they are simply made from materials found on the property. Explained another way by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 'If you look the right way, the whole world is a garden'." 

How to visit: The Matakana Sculptural Habitat aka The Secret Garden is at 545 Matakana Rd and open weekends and on weekdays by appointment. Contact Carol or David on 027 576 8563 or email proteapatch@slingshot.co.nz. 

 - NZ Gardener

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