Kathleen Kinney talks with three award-winning landscape designers – Mark Read of Natural Habitats, Robin Shafer of Shafer Design and Xanthe White of Xanthe White Design – about New Zealand gardens; and asks them what makes a great outdoor space.
Urbis: In terms of residential garden designs, how have style and aesthetics changed?
Mark Read: The biggest change is that years ago ‘outdoor living’ wasn’t for the masses. Sites used to be quarter-acre sections; now we have urban sections, so people are aware of the spatial limitations and do more with it. Architecture has changed, too. Now almost everyone has some sort of outdoor living, or entertaining space.
Robin Schafer: Because of the ‘time-poor’ modern lifestyle that we all now generally have, there is little time for people to devote to the enjoyment of gardening. As a result, low maintenance and lack of direct involvement has become an ever-present factor in design choices. It is always really exciting when a client takes a real interest in the plants and sees the spaces as an expression of their personality.
Xanthe White: There was the 70s bark garden, planted with coleonema sunset gold and nandina… then came the 90s pebble garden featuring yucca and agave – and famed for its low maintenance appeal and indoor-outdoor flow. Subtropical gardens then took centre stage and, more recently, edibles and a resurgence of interest in flowers. It’s a merry-go-round of fashions.
Urbis: Is there a typical Kiwi-style outdoor living area or garden?
Robin: Our Kiwi gardens can appear quite unique because of the wide variety of plants we can grow here and the relaxed way we mix them all up. New Zealand is very family oriented and many clients are very interested in creating family activity areas and play lawns for children’s sport and growing their own fruit and vegetables. I noticed on a recent trip to Canada and Europe that we are quite tree-averse here, favouring sun in our gardens, and using fewer trees than we could.
Mark: Categorically, no. New Zealand has a diverse range of climates – we can grow almost anything here. Kiwis travel, and then return home with heads full of ideas based on the places they’ve been and the things they’ve seen and they’re keen to somehow incorporate that into their home.
Xanthe: But all in all there is a New Zealand style and I think it’s in the looseness and wildness that we are comfortable with. We appreciate a garden for what it gives. We have a comfortable-ness with nature that comes from lazy summers at the beach and a love of our bush that is missing in other countries. It’s like our bare feet. Most people around the world just don’t understand how comfortable we are with that. I think our gardens express that.
Urbis: What are the most essential elements of a successful garden and outdoor entertaining space?
Mark: Choosing the right concept for both the house and the client. It all starts with that. A ‘home’ for me, encompasses both the house and the garden. Together. That said, you definitely need someplace to sit, and actually be comfortable outside.
Xanthe: People define a space and how it is used and comes to life. This is the difference between the wild and a garden. The garden requires a relationship between the space and the people. A garden should create a view and a space to soak in. The quality of a good garden is the way it surrounds you and you enjoy moving through it.
Robin: The space must relate to how you live, relate to the architecture of the house and to its surroundings. The design should start spatially with the ‘walls’ which define the spaces. These might be built structures as in a house, but also hedges or shrub borders used to create enclosure. These walls of the garden control the feeling of the space, control the views and the climate. If you get these right your gardens will feel great and the aesthetic components are then easy and interchangeable.
Urbis: What’s the most common misconception (or mistake!) made by gardening amateurs?
Mark: People often think that ‘dead zones’ will always be dead zones and that there’s no hope for them. But those are my favourite spots in a garden! The places that are already pretty nice – there’s not much you can do with those. But the tucked away, neglected, dead-end spaces… those spots have the most potential, and it makes such a difference when they’re properly used.
Robin: Adding features and decorative elements at the expense of creating a good basic structure is where most home designers miss out. Too much variation, using too many different elements, creates a busy feel, where a garden should be tranquil and calm. I always suggest to people to use the painter’s idea of overall composition as a guideline.
Xanthe: Not leaving enough room for plants. Unless all you want is a hedge, beautiful gardens need depth and layers. There was a period where houses were being built to the edge of the boundaries to make the most of the site, but now that is shifting and people are moving more towards smart use of space. This makes more room for gardens within the seams of a property. It’s a good thing.