New Zealand shows us how to make a formal garden of native plants

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In November I’m off to New Zealand – because we can and because the place is packed with outstanding gardens. I’ll be leading a tour, and one of the gardens I’m excited to show people is Paripuma, created by Rosa Davison on a windswept, barren expanse on the edge of Cloudy Bay in Marlborough, at the north of the South Island.

Paripuma.Credit:Robin Powell

In 1999 Davison sat in front of the pile of building materials that were on their way to becoming her new house. Before her was the rocky shore that was to be its framing garden. But what kind of garden? She had always been moved by the calm order of formal classical European gardens; and by New Zealand natives. In a bold move, Davison decided to marry the two and make a formal garden of natives.

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It was a great idea, and she followed it on a grand scale. The grass avenue that leads from the terrace of the house all the way to Cloudy Bay is 300 metres long and broad enough to land a small plane. It subtly narrows as it nears the water, accentuating its length. The sense of distance is further enhanced by the use of small foliage at its far end and bigger foliage closer to the house, giving the distant view a shimmering indistinctness.

Where the main avenue is crossed by an axis, the grass path swells to encircle a giant iron cauldron, formerly used to boil whale blubber down for tallow. At its base is a necklace of the iconic Poor Knights lily, Xeronema callistemon, a plant found only on one island in the Bay of Islands off the north of the North Island, which flowers with brilliant red toothbrush blooms in spring.

True to the inspiration of European formal gardens such as Boboli Gardens and Versailles, the overwhelming scale of the dominating avenue is contrasted with narrow paths that open onto intimate little spaces. Some of these retreats have seats sheltered from the winds that shear off the bay, others are spaces for more detailed planting, and one features a pond installed by Davison for a rescued duckling that returns each year with a new family.

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The key to success on the sandy, windswept site was providing shelter. Davison did it by first planting windbreak gums and two thousand seedlings of the native ngaio, Myoporum laetum, a fast-growing wind- and salt-tolerant shrub that she initially protected from rabbits, possums and winds with strategically placed hay bales. The ngaio provided speedy shelter for what has become an increasingly diverse mix of natives, some of them just this side of extinct in the wild.

Twenty years after the first planting, Paripuma is still developing, but Davison’s original plan has not been diluted, making the garden a model example of the power of a single great idea, followed undeviatingly.

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Paripuma opens for Garden Marlborough, November 4-7, 2021.

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