Enchanting garden straight from the pages of a story book
Two pert-eared hares box amid the long grass of Dave and Sue Monahan's olive grove, their rusted bodies the perfect foil to the dappled shades of green. "It's Alice in Wonderland and there's the rabbit," exclaimed a recent visitor to Upton Oaks, a Garden of National Significance on the rural edge of Blenheim.
This fairy tale field, with cooing pigeons in its trees, is a foil as well: its rustic charm a rich counterpoint to the immaculately groomed gardens to the east. They too are the stuff of story books, from a 17th century-style knot garden where geometric lines of restrained buxus contain exuberant perennial plantings, to the new picture perfect Laurella Cottage garden with a romantic French gazebo at its heart.
But when Sue and Dave along with their then one-year-old daughter Laura moved to Hammerichs Road 30 years ago, it was quite a different story.
They set their minds and hands to renovating a rotting 1911 villa, while considering the quarter acre section it sat on, which was planted with a single walnut tree.
The house is now light, bright and lovely, but back then it was dark and dank, so Sue gladly stepped outside when possible to design an environment that would suit its era and style.
She cut her teeth on the gardens around the house, and then turned her attention to a bare adjoining paddock that the couple bought. Her carefully drawn plans for a formal knot garden started with perfectly symmetrical lines of buxus.
Once established, she filled in the frames with abundant planting, giving the garden's four quarters a colour each to create a masterful combination of restraint and abandon.
The garden is enclosed by a dense wall of green, with western red cedar hedging providing both shelter and privacy.
"I wanted an intimate garden. I didn't want a big rambling one," says Sue, comparing the separate spaces to rooms that she carefully furnishes with colour and texture.
"Any area that I do, I look at it and see what I can add that is interesting, but not overdone."
Each garden is contained by its frame of hedge or brick, but linked to the wider composition via lanes and enticing glimpses.
So a break in the knot garden hedge leads to a formal herbaceous border garden, designed around the original walnut tree on the property.
Sue planned and planted wide strips of flowers and foliage in green, white and blue, bookended by regimented box hedging.
Achieving a unity of plantings within symmetrical lines takes a lot of planning, and each individual garden was drawn in detail before the couple set to work. But Sue says with two small girls underfoot, a fledgling handcrafted furniture business, and more land bought along the way, Upton Oaks was developed bit by bit.
"This is a garden that evolved. There was no grand plan at all. There was just an old home we restored and us wanting to create a nice environment around it."
The brightly blooming borders run either side of a long lawn, from the walnut tree to a sunken circular water feature overlooked by a brass duck. From there visitors find an enticing vista to the neighbouring Alice-esque olive grove, with its long grasses, shady trees and those fairy tale hares.
Sue says it's important that they, like any ornamentation at Upton Oaks, are subtle. "I don't want it to be bright in your eye. I want them to blend in."
Meanwhile her latest garden is an exercise in sophisticated simplicity. Created for guests at the couple's restored 1850s colonial cottage, Laurella, (NZ House & Garden, January 2017) the garden is enclosed by a hornbeam hedge, framing a circle of blue and white blooms bordered with buxus.
They surround a French-style iron gazebo at the garden's heart, which offers a focal point to look through. Sue has been careful not to distract the eye, so has limited the gazebo's adornment to the single white rose climbing up one side.
The garden's charm is testament to all Sue has learned in her 30 years of building Upton Oaks. "I am not trained but I am constantly learning."
And she never tires of leaving her home office to deadhead flowers, prune the box, or show tour groups through her many outdoor rooms.
"Dave and I are both creative people and we have loved the challenge along the way."
When the visitors leave and they find themselves alone the garden, Sue's first thought is, "Phew, they liked it."
As a "critical gardener", she sees what she can improve, what could be better, and what there simply hasn't been time to do. "Other people see the overall picture and that blows them away. They love seeing the vegetable beds, fruit trees and chickens, whereas Dave and I are thinking, 'If only there were more hours in the day, think what we could do.'"
Most significant plant in the garden: The old walnut tree with its delicious nuts and shade on hot summer days. (Sue)
Our biggest gardening mistake: Planting Leyland cypress hedging at the rear gardens instead of more western red cedar, which is a far superior hedge plant. (Dave)
My best tip for other gardeners: Is the importance of planning when developing a garden. Even if roughly drawn out on paper, you will know what you are working towards. (Sue)
The thing I've learnt about gardening over the years: Every season has its challenges – don't stress about them, just enjoy what is beautiful. (Sue)
My favourite season in the garden: Spring, when everything is fresh, the birds are busy nesting in the trees and the last of the daphne fragrance lingers in the air. (Sue)
Do you open your garden to the public? Yes, we're in Nelmac Garden Marlborough in November and open by appointment between October and April; Upton Oaks is where we sell Dave's furniture and Laurella Cottage can be booked. (Sue)
Dave and Sue Monahan
- NZ House & Garden