Looking out from the slopes high above Moncks Bay on the way to Sumner, the view stretches across the Avon Estuary towards central Christchurch, around to Southshore and on past Brighton to North Canterbury and the Kaikōura Ranges. The quality of light is always changing so close to the sea, as reflections from the water and neighbouring headlands move with the sun, and pass through rising clouds of spray from breakers along Sumner Beach.
Homes and gardens on the upper slopes enjoy early sunrises and late sunsets, warmer average temperatures and those panoramic views, but of course there’s greater exposure to the wind. Shade and shelter is vital, and the soil needs regular building up with plenty of organic matter, to hold moisture and develop a cool root run for healthy plants.
A beautiful garden on the northwest face of Clifton Hill has been re-established during the last 18 months, after house repairs were completed and the homeowners could turn their attention to the garden. The 757 square metre section is a roughly triangular shape laid across the steep slope, with street access at the narrowest point, the house in the centre, and the garden opening out behind and below the house towards the back boundary. Part of the site was once a driveway leading to an older residence – this area of Clifton Hill was first developed just prior to 1910. The modern house on the site was completed in 2000, and the garden developed over the following decade. Drystone walls supported lush colourful plantings around a network of pathways extending back and forth down the steepest slopes, and two good-sized lawn areas were established next to the house. The garden grew organically, as borders and pathways were expanded and built up over time.
Photographs from 2006 show a cheerful mix of plants ideally suited to the conditions: bearded iris, Euphorbia, lavender (particularly the larger growing L. dentata which responds well to hard pruning), citrus, blue Felicia daisies, succulents, Aloe, Chatham Island Forget-me-not Myosotidium, red and cream-coloured roses, Marlborough lily Arthropodium and Sweet Pea shrub Polygala. This was a garden where every plant had a story: propagated by seed and cuttings from the couple’s friends and family as far afield as the Hokianga Harbour, slips and seedlings collected from local walks around the Port Hills and tested out in different spots, and nursery plants such as the rose ‘Margaret Merrill’ chosen for their names and associations with travels and extended family. Particular attention was given to building up the soil, with clean garden trimmings, organic compost, seaweed from the beach and newsprint all chopped, shredded and tucked right down amongst the plants where it could break down into a thick layer of mulch.
The February 2011 earthquake damaged both house and garden, with areas on the upper part of the section and closer to the volcanic bedrock relatively less affected. However, those areas of garden below the house and supported by drystone walls gave way, and slid several metres down the slope taking the walls and plants with them. Although partly buried in the rubble, many plants were able to be dug or pulled out and potted up, including a mature Tahitian lime which had been a gift from close family and was now minus many of its roots. The house was repairable, and while this process continued over several years, most of the salvaged plants lived in pots onsite with regular irrigation. A close watch was kept on the lime, which unfortunately suffered from easterly winds at the homeowners’ rental accommodation. Earthquake repairs to the house and associated new retaining walls were completed just over a year ago, and during my recent visits it’s evident how much care, determination and sheer hard work have been focused on bringing the garden to life again. The massive new reinforced concrete walls below the house, if not quite Babylonian, are truly impressive, and faced with a harder stone than the original reddish basalt drystone.
The lawns have not been replaced and this decision, in combination with a new geometry of steps and railings, makes for a crisp layout under the abundant planting – very much in keeping with the clean angles and soft colours of the repaired house. The property is slightly below the ridge line overlooking Moncks Bay, just enough to be protected from the prevailing easterly wind. Northwest and southerly winds can be an issue, but are less common. Fresh soil and conditioner have been brought onsite to help with re-establishing the garden, and growth has been such over the last 12 months that it’s difficult to see a transition between new and old. The homeowners see the garden as still a work in progress, and in the process a new story is emerging. Below the decking by the front door, a new planting of Astelia ‘Silver Spear’ (divided from an original plant), dark purple succulent Aeonium and ornamental peppertree Pseudowintera colorata ‘Red Leopard’ are settling in above the main diagonal retaining wall.
Directly below, along the base of the two-metre wall, is a shingle path next to a recently planted border of bush roses. ‘Margaret Merrill’, ‘Fragrant Memories’, ‘Strawberry Ice,’ ‘Celtic Cream’, and two rescued ‘Iceberg’ mix happily with hot red pincushion dahlias and ornamental strawberries Fragaria. Another new rosebed below the pathway has ‘Freesia’, ‘Barkarole’, ‘Fragrant Cloud’, ‘Best Friend’, ‘Double Delight’, ‘Royal Dane’ and ‘Whisky’ – good strong colours, and all with special significance for the couple.
Follow this path away from the house towards the back of the property, and it dips down into an area of the original garden. Tall shrubs and small trees close in on both sides, including New Zealand natives and exotics – kōwhai, Coprosma, Olearia, titoki Alectryon, three karaka Corynocarpus grown from local seedlings, a tamarillo, Sweet Pea shrub Polygala, and thriving plants of the Fan Aloe Aloe plicatilis with its finger-like leaves.
Enclosing relatively narrow pathways with taller greenery is a great way to provide effective shade and shelter on exposed sites, and create microclimates for tender plants – the wind whips across the top of the taller plantings leaving the air at lower levels warm and still. Enclosing small garden spaces with hedges is another way to achieve this effect, and several gardens at the settlement of Birdlings Flat use the technique to grow tender plants in a far more extreme coastal environment than Clifton Hill. Returning along the path and up a flight of steps to the level of the main house, the original back lawn has been replaced with an elegant arrangement of white marble chips and timber-edged beds of citrus trees. They are growing well in this protected space behind the house, including the original Tahitian lime which was pulled from the rubble after the earthquakes, and is now relishing a proper root run and regular feeding. Blackbirds are also enjoying the fertile soil around the trees, and plastic mesh will be needed for a while yet until the ornamental strawberries are thick enough to stop them from throwing it about!
An Indian Bead tree Melia azedarach at the far end of the citrus beds shades a seat from which to enjoy the view back along the house and down to Moncks Bay. Scented white Arabian jasmine Jasminum sambac will soon cover a metal framework behind the seat. The species is native to the eastern Himalayas and was introduced to the Middle East centuries ago – it’s now cultivated worldwide. The botanical name Jasminum is a Latin form of the Persian yasemin or Arabic yasamin, referring to perfumed plants in general. The highest garden level on the property is reached by following a path up above the citrus beds. Hedged with toothed lavender L. dentata, and supported by a bank filled with agapanthus, aloes and pelargoniums, the path steps up past a fi g and olive to a level area of vegetables, salad greens, berryfruit, and herbs perched above the house. Raised beds for seedlings are protected from visiting birds by mesh draped over metal hoops, and a mature bay tree over a drift of sage at the northeast corner breaks the force of the easterly wind. From this highest point in the garden one gets the full benefit of that amazing view from the central city to the Kaikōura Ranges. A roof lantern projecting up above the living room is an elegant feature of the roofscape. A grove of Eucalyptus in another property just down the hill is a cherished part of the view – visiting bellbirds are a daily pleasure for the homeowners, and the trees also have an extraordinary visual quality. Their curving branches in the foreground frame distinct ‘pictures’ of the estuary and Moncks Bay as the viewer moves through the house and different levels of the restored garden – a new composition forms with every step.
WORDS & IMAGES Martin Wilkie