Taupō is a strikingly beautiful place in which to live. But it poses some interesting challenges for gardeners, as Colleen O'Sullivan discovered when she and her husband Seamus moved to central North Island pumice country after many years gardening in Wellington.
In just four years since moving into her riverside home, green-fingered Colleen has created a thriving garden that looks like it’s been there much longer. Her first challenge was to plan her garden so that it complemented the spectacular outlook over the Waikato River. She knew it was important to get the bones of the garden right and that the design did justice to the unique setting without distracting from it, so she consulted local garden design guru, Gordon Collier.
One of the hallmarks of successful garden design, is one that holds its own during off-peak seasons. I visited Colleen in the middle of winter, and she was quick to lament that I wasn’t seeing it at its best. I would love to come back in spring to see the garden brimming with the fresh colours and perfumes of Colleen’s much-loved perennials and roses. But few gardens look so good in July. The view from the indoor and outdoor living areas is dominated by the river, but fully enhanced by the strong geometric lines of Griselinia hedges and a long lawn echoing the flow of the water.
In the front garden there are mass plantings of evergreen shrubs with colourful foliage brightening the scene until the sleeping deciduous trees, roses, lavenders and flowering perennials take over in spring.
Colleen loves old-fashioned flowers. Her Wellington garden was a cottage garden. While structure has been a high priority for her Taupo garden, her favourite flowering plants have been given their rightful place. “I was even more inspired to plant perennials after my visit to the Chelsea flower show in London,” she confesses.
Along the river side of the garden, a metre or so below the house, a wide perennial border runs between the Griselinia hedge and formal lawn. The cunning design means that the bareness of dormant perennial beds cannot be seen from the house during winter. Filling the narrow space between Colleen and Seamus’ home and their neighbours is a ‘secret’ garden filled with scented shrubs and shade loving perennials. The treasures Colleen has planted alongside the soft bark path include Daphne, rhododendrons, camellias, hydrangeas, hostas, hellebores, Chatham Island forget-me nots and ferns. She also loves spring bulbs, but they’ve not been so easy to grow in the loose soil. ‘They seem to disappear down deep in the soil,” she says.
The soil posed challenges from the outset. “Luckily Seamus is good with a spade” Colleen laughs, “because we had to break through a hard layer of pumice before we could plant anything.” The compacted layer of pumice, 30cm below the soil surface, is a result of the site preparation that is the practice prior to construction of the houses in the area. But once that layer is broken through, the soil is extremely free draining with minimal ability to hold water and nutrients. Colleen gets around this by treating her garden to four trailer loads of compost per year. She also has an irrigation system. “Gordon said irrigation is essential if you are going to maintain a garden in this soil,” she says. She also feeds her garden a lot. Colleen is big on foliar feeding and makes her own seaweed fertiliser.
“One of the most challenging things about this soil is keeping a lawn looking good,” Colleen adds, to the extent that she admits she is considering replacing the lawn with ground cover plants, although I can’t help but wonder if this is also a way for her to find more space for all the interesting plants she treasures.
Colleen and Seamus's river side garden in winter