Sculptural waves transform lush city garden

Mel O’Sullivan.
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Mel O’Sullivan.

On the foreshore of the upper Waitemata Harbour, Cox's Bay is a sought-after place to live just 15 minutes from downtown Auckland. A boardwalk skims across the creek's tidal mangroves beside a large reserve. Walkers and runners, with or without dogs, share the park with sports-mad locals.

Mel O'Sullivan and her late husband Mike bought their property because it was in a quiet no-exit street with a peep of the sea and backed onto that park. In early settler days, Cox's Bay was called the village of Richmond. Mel's family home in Dunedin is Richmond House: call it one of those meant-to-be moments. "Dad wanted me to have the house's brass plaque but I said no way. Too pretentious," she says with a laugh. 

"I love the park," says Mel, whose contemporary garden, redesigned three years ago, backs on to the playing fields. "It's so peaceful." She even likes the floodlights: "They create a beautiful wash in the sky."

Her garden is an inspiring concoction featuring a leafy mix of exotics and New Zealand native plants and enough design dash to beguile anyone lukewarm about our own flora. Surrounded by walls on three sides, its front is protected by a rusty Corten steel plank fence that hints at treasures beyond. 

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A compact sugar cane palm Dypsis baronii, underplanted with a row each of Liriope muscari and mondo grass. Mel’s husband ...
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A compact sugar cane palm Dypsis baronii, underplanted with a row each of Liriope muscari and mondo grass. Mel’s husband Mike was keen to experiment with Corten steel, with dramatic results.

 

Each time Mel walks through her front gate, she says her heart skips a beat. On one side, there's a grove of lancewoods with oioi at their base; on the other, islets of Poor Knights lilies jut out of a sea of liriope and mondo grass, with delicate kowhai trees beckoning from the far end. "I look up the path and think how lucky I am. I'm so happy it's mine," she says.

Her Mainland parents and grandparents were keen growers of rhododendrons, roses, veges and immaculate lawns. Mel did not inherit their love of exotics nor their green-fingered gene. She insists she's a non-gardener – but she's a keen garden lover. 

Palms both tall and short pull the planting together near the front door; bottom left is a sculpture Mel’s son Tom made ...
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Palms both tall and short pull the planting together near the front door; bottom left is a sculpture Mel’s son Tom made for her birthday.

So keen that she and Mike called in Trish Bartleet to design a new garden once work ended on the contemporary house they'd built – and rebuilt – to replace a 1950s bungalow. Before Trish arrived, their outdoor space was a practical compromise for this couple, both hardworking advertising creatives with two children. It was all raised wooden planters, palm trees and lots of pebbles. "I didn't like it. It was very harsh but I didn't have time to do any gardening."

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Mel says their lack of gardening knowledge meant they needed a design pro such as Trish to guide them. Mike was not particularly interested in having a lawn when there's a park next door, says Trish. "He was always full of ideas, which was great. His aesthetic was masculine; Mel's is very soft and atmospheric." She enjoyed rising to their different challenges, she says. 

Their brief to Trish: a low maintenance garden, which as Mel says now, shows how little she really knew. "Easy care? There's no such thing. A garden is a never-ending process. There's always something to do." But in a good way.

The deck off the kitchen has a monumental feel thanks to massive steel beams suggested by Mike; it’s large enough to ...
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The deck off the kitchen has a monumental feel thanks to massive steel beams suggested by Mike; it’s large enough to accommodate dining near the fire and a pair of Adirondack-style chairs.

They also wanted Corten steel and, to soften it, lots of grasses. They had a germ of an idea for a wavy wall. And native plants were a must. Trish sent the O'Sullivans a list of suitable plants (grasses and reeds) to which they added their own favourites. The result is a combination of three opinionated, creative minds – a one-of-a-kind oasis in the city.

Mel has a kitchen garden where even in winter salad greens and herbs flourish. An outdoor fire sits within a grandly scaled steel pergola. Plus there's a smaller spot where Mel can settle down with a book and a glass of wine with all the privacy you could ask for in the middle of our largest city. When she comes home from volunteer work teaching at the Mangere Budgeting Services Trust, Mel reckons her garden provides all the chilling out she needs.

It wasn't easy to create this elegant leafy enclave: they had to bring in new soil as the area once housed a tip. A confusion of different levels was neatly resolved by installing a boardwalk. Instead of lawn, meandering pebble paths thread between beds where Mike's wavy steel walls were to edge and contain the planting. But it had never been done before. "It had to be wavy this way and wavy that way," says Mel. 

Trish came in with a chalk and drew curves on the raw black steel (it takes about a month for Corten to start colouring up). Once Mike and Mel agreed on the look of a section, the steel fabricators cut it to suit, sometimes on the spot, in a challenging  experimental process. Trish says the waves are a testament to her clients' adventurous spirits. "I'm really pleased with the result," she says. "Mel and Mike pushed me to try new things. The garden is very much a reflection of their wishes."

It wasn't until much later that Mel visited Gibbs Farm sculpture collection on the Kaipara Harbour and spotted the sinuous Corten steel wall Te Tuhirangi Contour by Richard Serra. Great minds and all that.

One of those minds is no longer with us. Tragically Mike died suddenly last year. But Mel has their garden to keep her memories warm.  n

Mel grows her veges and citrus in raised planters in a sunny spot around the side of the house.
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Mel grows her veges and citrus in raised planters in a sunny spot around the side of the house.

Visit this garden during the Auckland Garden DesignFest, 25-26 November.

Q&A:

Hours spent in the garden: Hard to say. A gardener spends six to seven hours every six weeks, and I spend about an hour a fortnight, sweeping, spraying, picking up leaves and so on.

Alpine Mix pebbles light up the garden path as it meanders slowly through the foliage; the soft feathery reed horsetail ...
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Alpine Mix pebbles light up the garden path as it meanders slowly through the foliage; the soft feathery reed horsetail restio (Elegia capensis) draws the eye up to the park planting above the garden wall.

My most used tool: My sucky-blowy thing (I don't even know what it's called)!

Top edible crop: The tomatoes and chillies. I make Annabel Langbein's chilli jam with my own chillies and limes, and I make tomato sauce and passata with my tomatoes. It's the first time in my life I've been able to do that. 

The thing I've learned about gardening: It's never complete. It's a constantly evolving place according to the season. 

My favourite time in the garden: Spring, with the new growth and the promise of sitting out on summer evenings. 

Mel O'Sullivan

The container holding the grey-leafed Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’ was finished in a rust colour by Porter’s Paints ...
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The container holding the grey-leafed Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’ was finished in a rust colour by Porter’s Paints to blend right in.

Fronds of a Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) are backed by several specimens of tall Cordyline stricta ‘Showoff’ that ...
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Fronds of a Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) are backed by several specimens of tall Cordyline stricta ‘Showoff’ that designer Trish Bartleet says “are perfect for tight spaces”.

 - NZ House & Garden

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