Over a lifetime Bev McConnell has created one of the world’s great gardens
- and it’s just outside Auckland.
Tropical oasis - nowhere near the tropics! Photo - Robin Powell
Let’s start at the pool. I realise that you’re reading this in winter, when even seeing the words ‘swimming pool’ might make you grab that throw rug off the back of the sofa and brew another pot of tea. All the more exciting then that Bev McConnell planted up the banks around her swimming pool with brilliant tree aloes that in the dead of winter are ablaze with giant orange candles of flowers that make the pool a sort of firebowl of warmth and intrigue. It’s a typically surprising and clever planting, one of many at Arylies, a world-renowned garden just south of Auckland.
I visited Arylies in summer so saw the aloes without their flaming candles and loved Bev’s pool, created way back in the ‘70s with what looks to be a very contemporary rockpool aesthetic that links the cool blue water to a cascading waterfall. The slopes of the rockery embrace swimmers with an enveloping privacy, while a breezeblock-backed pavilion along the south-west side provides solid protection against the prevailing chill winds.
Cypress pond. Photo - Robin Powell
Building the dream
The rockery was the first garden Bev made in what was then a bald hill on a bald farm. The former art student had found her calling, though she writes in her book Arylies: my story; my garden, which is part garden book, part memoir of life in New Zealand in the first half of the 20th century, that “one ambitious member of the marriage is enough so it wasn’t until after Malcolm’s death that I dared to acknowledge even to myself how ambitious I was for my garden.”
Since starting the garden more than half a century ago, Bev’s ambitions have been realised across some 16 acres of gardens. She did have some help along the way, primarily from her engineer husband Malcolm, whose business provided her with machinery – and the men to use it – that transformed the landscape and dug out the water features that give Ayrlies its great character.
Along with the swimming pool, there are four large ponds that form focal points for complex plantings of an astonishingly wide variety. In 2000 Bev created one more water feature, this time a memorial to her husband and a kind of millennial gift to the place she has called home for so long. She constructed a great wetland, some 40 acres in total, at the swampy bottom of the property. This complex of ponds, lakes, reed beds and boardwalks links Ayrlies with the ocean, and provides habitat for myriad waterbirds.
As well as her husband, Bev also chose her gardeners well, especially Oliver ‘Ollie’ Briers, who was engaged when the McConnells took a garden inspiration trip to the UK in 1974. Ollie migrated with his family later that year. Bev says that their partnership evolved into one in which Ollie designed and built the structures, and she became the plantswoman.
wetlands. Photo - Robin Powell
Being a plantswoman encompasses a number of skills, as Bev writes in her book including “ the science of plants, their history and natural habitat, their forms and their needs… and the art of composition or plant association -putting them to bed together happily and artistically, within the architectural structure.”
Bev’s artistry in plant combinations is apparent throughout the garden – variegated groundcovers and white and blue hydrangeas in a shady glen provide sparks of light in the gloom; a waterfall of hot colours cascades around the pool; plantings of apricot and peach vireya rhodendrons, brugmansia and daylilies complement a bed of glowing Japanese maples. But perhaps it’s most striking in the Lurid Border. Pastels look insipid in the strong Auckland light so Bev’s flower border is instead bold reds, oranges, golds and purples, cooled with many different tones of green. Scarlet cannas and red alstroemerias bump into the dark purple rosettes of Aeonium ‘Zwartkopf; and the plum-purple leaves of the castor oil plant. The ferny foliage of bronze fennel contrasts with the heart-shaped gold of Trachystemon ‘Gold Medal’, tangerine red-hot pokers and yellow ‘Bush Dawn’ kangaroo paws. The whole border is a thrilling mix of texture and colour, with change happening throughout the seasons. It’s a brilliant example of the English flower border made over for the stronger light of the southern hemisphere.
Bev writes that not long before he died, Malcolm looked at her thoughtfully and said ‘You know Bev, our annual garden budget of over two hundred thousand would have provided us with a substantial art collection. He was right of course, but there wasn’t a note of regret in his voice. He was intensely proud of the garden, how lucky I was.”
And are we all, for Arylies is an art collection, brilliantly showcasing the art of the garden.
Lurid-border. Photo - Robin Powell
Ayrlies is open by appointment. Simply call ahead and let them know you’d like to come. Entry $22. Tel. +64 9 530 8706. www.gardens.org.nz. We hope to visit New Zealand again in 2018. Call Ros or Royce on 1300 233 200 if you’d like to be kept in the loop about our plans.