Imagine a Versailles-like vista on the coast of New Zealand, covering a quarter of a kilometer, but constructed entirely of New Zealand plants. And half an hour’s drive away, imagine one of the best English country gardens you’ll see anywhere in the world, nestled amongst gentle rolling hills, with dramatic mountain peaks looming in the background. Then, about the same distance away again, imagine New Zealand native plants used to create a truly original suburban garden with a distinctly Japanese vibe.
Whether or not your imagination is up to the exercise, all these gardens exist, and all within an hour’s drive of Blenheim, Marlborough.
My first visit to New Zealand was back in 2002. I was there to speak at the astonishing Blenheim-based garden festival, ‘Garden Marlborough’. On this, and every visit since, I’ve been struck with the conviction that New Zealand is less like another country than it is like another planet. Its geology, topography, and most of all, its plants, are wonderfully, curiously, and inspiringly different to those in Australia. And, the gardens are incredible.
Since 2015, Ross Garden Tours has based its New Zealand garden tour around ‘Garden Marlborough’. It’s hard to work out what makes this event – I would argue – the most unique in the world. Whether it’s the blend of lectures, garden bus tours and social events, the incredible New Zealand hospitality, or the remarkable beauty of the area that sets this event apart is hard to say. Eight visits along, I’m yet to even nearly tire of it.
The Ross Garden tour starts in Christchurch, and often with Frensham, a garden just outside of town, on our way out to the unforgettable Banks Peninsula. Frensham just oozes the love and careful nurturing of its owner, Margaret Long. Stunning, sweeping lawns and beautifully colour-themed borders abound, though what sticks in my memory, above all else, is the live woven-willow fence. Time and time again, the group I’ve been travelling with have wondered if the tour has hit a dangerously high point way too early in the tour. I’ve sometimes wondered it myself. But the days ahead are filled with such highlights, in rapid succession.
Out on the extreme edge of the Banks Peninsula, with dramatic coastline and distant-horizon ocean views, Jill and Richard Simpson are exploring the use of New Zealand natives in entirely new ways, and playing with perennials in naturalistic plantings. While artist and horticulturist, Josie Martin, at The Giant’s House in nearby Akaroa, is taking gardens in another direction completely, using plant colours, textures and forms to back up her wonderfully imaginative mosaic sculptures. Josie has laid every tile on all the sculptures, and all the vast retaining walls, stairs and structures herself in just over twenty years, and I never leave without wondering what, in the meantime, I’ve been doing with my
Fishermans Bay, Akaroa
The quickest route between Christchurch and Blenheim is along the coast road – a magical journey that crosses the braided rivers of the Canterbury Plains, winds through rich forest, and snakes along the edge of the coastal sands, passing numerous seal colonies on your right, and snow-capped mountains on your left. The recent Kaikoura earthquake put a temporary stop to that, and one year our Ross Garden Tour had to head inland, taking several hours longer. But it was several hours of further delights, skirting the Nelson lakes and winding through the prehistoric Gondwana forests of Southern Beech, during a brief, beautiful snowstorm.
Blenheim itself is nestled into the base of a bowl of rolling, buckled hills. Grapevines, including the famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, extend as far as the eye can see. As the sun sinks lower, the gentle, folding contours of the treeless hills emerge, as if draped in fawn-coloured velvet, creating a scene at once grand and intimate. Indeed, the larger landscape is nearly always a major player in New Zealand gardens. Maybe that’s
what sets these gardens apart, and keeps calling me back.