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A secret garden

5 January 2024
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The first in a series of extracts from gorgeous new gardening tome Secret Gardens of Aotearoa, we travel to Central Otago’s lake district to see the magic Ali Soper has worked on a very special 113-year-old former sheep station.

Nestled into the gentle eastern slopes of Mount Maude, just south of Lake Hāwea in Central Otago’s lakes district, is Crosshill, an established garden set among century-old trees. The massive native beech, birch and flowering cherry trees stand as a testament to the foresight of the property’s first gardeners.

Crosshill was established as a sheep station in one of the area’s early agricultural settlements; the original woolshed now serves as the potting shed and flower-drying area.

Between the rocky under-bed of its mountainous setting and pockets of rich, fertile soil redolent of its farming days, the range of the garden’s soil is as extreme as the Central Otago seasons.

This is both the coldest and driest region of New Zealand, with hot summers and harsh winters. Early Māori primarily occupied the area seasonally by way of routes through the Nevis Valley from the south and the Clutha River from the north.

Crosshill is an eclectic garden that includes the original rose garden, an orchard that is being transformed into a food forest, a newly created woodland garden, a propagation and potting shed, a picking garden for the roadside flower stall, a tea garden and an extensive vegetable garden.

It’s quite a new project for Ali – she and [husband] Nic bought Crosshill in 2020 – and her vision is still evolving, guided by her interest in history and observations of the site. She takes time to be in the garden, to notice what is growing where, and to plan from there.

Nic is always on hand – often with his tractor, ‘Blue’ – prepared to drop whatever he’s doing to help Ali realise her vision. They have banned sprays and replaced much of the grass with productive plants to feed the soil and their family.

The original double-gabled homestead was built around 1910. A century on, deteriorated beyond repair, it was provided to the local fire brigade to be burnt to the ground in a training exercise. At the same time the surrounding gardens were largely cleared, with the exception of a rose garden at the front of the house and the magnificent mature trees planted by the home’s first owners. The native beech, copper beech, elderberry and liquidambar, as well as heritage plums, apples and cherries, survived to provide a sense of grandeur and structure for Ali’s new vision for Crosshill. She suspects the rose garden was planted around the same time as the trees, and its original paved walkway connects her to these gardeners of long ago.

Kānuka and mānuka dotting the old sheep paddocks hint at what grew here before the land was cleared for agriculture. In the late nineteenth century the Crown agreed to restore the land rights to Ngāi Tahu, but the legislation was revoked in 1909 and the area was divided up for colonial agricultural settlement.

Named after Kati Hāwea, one of the earliest tribes to occupy the South Island, Lake Hāwea supported seasonal food resources for Māori, with numerous kāinga mahinga kai (food-gathering places) and kāinga nōhoanga (settlements) established around the lake. Edible plants included kāuru (cabbage tree root), aruhe (bracken fernroot), and māra (gardens) of potato and turnip.

The hot, dry Central Otago summers facilitate a vegetable-growing season that is short, sharp and productive. Ever-passionate about growing food, Ali’s vegetable garden and adjacent propagation and potting shed are central to Crosshill. She grows what she and Nic like to eat – brassicas, peas, cavolo nero (which grows exceptionally well), silverbeet, potatoes, leeks and carrots. The vegetable beds are fed with Ali’s own compost, and dotted around the garden are small fencing-wire bins for collecting weeds as she works. These self-compost in situ and the contents are returned to the soil over time.

The property’s varied terrain contributes to the contrasting environments – dry, wet, sun-drenched, cool – leading to a wide variety of planting opportunities, and sometimes new discoveries. One of these has been xeriscaping, a method of dry landscaping developed in Denver, Colorado, in response to increasing droughts.

The premise is to design plantings that require little or no watering. Ali has been researching extensively – and mulching heavily! Like all new methods, it’s a process of trial and error, she says. She is looking at xeriscaping with both natives and exotics, and has realised that a lot of plants already in her garden, once well established and mulched, support her xeriscaping model.

The original orchard is being transformed into a five-layer permaculture food forest, its clipped lawns and sprayed edges replaced by luscious underplantings of comfrey, garlic chives, peas, lemon balm and other herbs. The deep taproot of comfrey brings up nutrients from the soil and makes them more accessible to the fruit trees, and its leaves are harvested for compost and for laying underneath potatoes when planting. Ali is planning to add grapevines, which will ramble through the branches of the existing fruit trees – apples, pears, apricots, peaches, feijoas and a much-loved quince.

The previous owners of Crosshill were passionate, talented gardeners but health issues meant that when Ali arrived some areas had been let go. The woodland area was barely accessible, with branches having been cut and left in situ. This did mean, however, that when Ali brought in a chipper and cleared the tangle of branches, she found rich, fertile soil underneath, fed by the decaying timber. The resulting chip was laid in the woodland, and the routes Ali’s dogs took through the trees dictated the location of new paths.

Excavating a contained patch of Spanish bluebells, Ali discovered a deep trench of bulbs packed shoulder to shoulder. After careful lifting, dividing and replanting, these bluebells now line the woodland paths. In a clearing, a table enclosed in a halo of rhododendrons serves as a venue for family get-togethers and garden parties.

The many gardens of Crosshill are connected by the mature trees that form its bones, and Ali’s overarching meditative gardening approach. The garden is a space for careful observation of all the elements that contribute to its magic – the seasons, soil conditions, wind direction, orientation of the sun and, most importantly, what likes to grow where. The constant conversation between garden and gardener is how each part of Ali’s garden comes alive.

Xeriscaping is the technical term for dry landscaping, the art of choosing the right plants for a dry environment. Usually they are plants that require little to no water, other than what the natural climate in the area provides.

Simple tips for a dry landscape garden
‘Right plant, right place’ is my mantra when planning a garden. The starting point is to understand your landscape. All gardens have their own special requirements.

Cost is also a factor, so we want to ensure our plants will thrive where they are planted. Make sure you seek out drought-tolerant plants (or drought-loving plants, as I prefer to call them) when you are in the planning stage. Pay particular attention to plants that are native to your region. Silver, furry-leaf plants are naturally more drought tolerant.

Dry landscaping will be more successful if you follow these planting tips:
Autumn is a good time to plant, as the natural rainfall of the cooler months will help the plants establish before the more demanding warmer weather arrives.

Before planting, soak the plant in a bucket of water and seaweed tonic while you prepare the soil.
Dig a hole twice the size of the root-ball. Add compost and water, allowing it to drain away before you plant.

Plant to the same level as the plant sat in the pot. Some suggest agitating the roots a little to stimulate root growth.

Fill the hole, water again, then mulch.

Mulch your xeriscaped garden with either bark chip or gravel to retain moisture before the ground heats up in summer and the soil dries out. Mulch will also help keep the weeds down. I prefer not to use weedmat/landscaping fabric because they are not biodegradable.

Irrigation systems are not required – that’s the whole point. Hand-water with a hose if you have to, and if there are no restrictions in place. Reduce watering over time as the plants become established in their environment.

What to plant?
Sempervivum (hen and chicks) succulents are a natural starting point for a dry garden. They are very useful along the edge of your border and in pots. From there, the list is endless when you start to look!

Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Native – Coprosma, griselinia, pseudopanax, phormium, cordyline, libertia, tussock grasses
Exotic – Lomandra, euphorbia, heuchera, hosta, agave, santolina, stipa
Bulbs – Daffodil, amaryllis, allium, nerine, scilla
Herbs – Rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme
For a touch of colour – Bearded iris, geranium, kangaroo paw, lavender, salvia, achillea, anemone, echinacea, cistus, phlomis, rudbeckia.

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