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Old quarry outside Christchurch now an amazing wonderland garden

Updated: Mar 13, 2020

Source: STUFF, Mary Lovell-Smith/NZ Gardener13:47, Feb 13 2020

Photos by Juliet Nicolas/NZ Gardener

Look for the rusty gates, advises owner Mel Haskell over the phone. And here they are in all their magnificence, welcomingly half open to the cream Springfield chip drive.

Macrocarpa and buxus hedges and windmill palms line each side of the drive, with two upright hornbeams signalling its end in front of the house – a terracotta-coloured, Chinese foo dog-guarded, Mediterranean-styled affair covered in Boston ivy and designed by Mel's husband, Chris Allen.

Allen bought the 5000 square metres of quarry near West Melton on the outskirts of Christchurch 25 years ago.

Four years later he started planting a perimeter macrocarpa hedge. Beech hedges followed and then he began planting around the pond in the quarry pit.

Visitors to the Hollywood juniper room must first pass muster with the life size replicas of Chinese terracotta warriors.

Despite its great beauty and complexity, Allen says he did not have a grand vision for the garden, only that he wanted a show garden and that the film Much Ado About Nothing was an inspiration.

Surprisingly, he has never put pen to paper to plan it. Rather, the details were honed over many hours on a ride-on mower, cutting hectares of turf across Christchurch – a job he took on after he finished his apprenticeship at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens "40-ish" years ago.

Don't be afraid, this wooden horse does not kick or bite.

"A lawnmower is good for sitting, thinking about things. I planned it in my head. I might see something, then get an idea and toss it around in my mind."

These ideas were to land exquisitely. "It's a bit of a journey around the garden," explains Allen as we head out. "I like views to keep changing, something different around every corner."

If a garden has a beginning and an end, then this one may start in the expansive courtyard off the sitting room. In memory of the victims of last year's mosque shooting is a fledgling knot garden of New Zealand myrtle Lophomyrtus 'Red Dragon' in the shape of a stylised Māori heart.

Stone Chinese foo dogs guard the imposing entrance to the ivy-clad Casa Rossa.

Hearts of another sort feature in the adjacent pond. The very romantic, bronze, Baroque-style, tiered Italian fountain was a wedding present to each other.

Haskell may have been a latecomer to the garden, but "luckily, she had similar tastes to mine," says Allen.

"I had to," replies Haskell sardonically.

"She does the high and the low," Allen continues, laughing. The high takes place in a scissor lift every three years or so when Haskell and her secateurs confront the ivy threatening to obscure the house's windows. The low is mainly restricted to weeding the property's only flower garden, wherein also grow paeonies, cannas, lilies, dahlias, daylilies, hollyhocks, artichokes and hydrangeas.

Mel Haskell and Chris Allen have combined their talents to create a property full of surprise and drama.

Allen is able to take winters off from his day job to tackle the bulk of the gardening, which can take him up to six hours a day. This work includes pruning the legion of hedges and the six macrocarpa pyramids along the lawn, each measuring some 4m(ish) high. (Sadly, the macrocarpas have canker, a fungal disease, and are soon to be replaced with cherry laurel Prunus laurocerasus.)

Allen estimates that for the rest of the year he works about six hours a week in the garden. "There's really only a bit of spot spraying of weeds in the paths [all of which are cream chip] and a bit of hand-weeding. We mulch an awful lot; that keeps the weeds to a minimum. We get woodchips by the truckload from a mate in the business and truckloads of rotted horse poo and sawdust which we spread around to rejuvenate the soil, then cover it with the woodchips."

A bright-red Chinese-style bridge lies at the heart of the garden. Juliet Nicholas/NZ Gardener

Beyond the fountain pond, the 3m replica of the Eiffel Tower and the nattily concealed vege beds, potting bench, nursery and working yard is the start of a 20m beech walk.

The hedges' high and dense walls muffle any exterior sounds and the cream gravel crunches agreeably underfoot.

But the pleasantly meditative stroll comes to an abrupt end, at a right-angle corner. Upon turning, any calmness is momentarily banished by the sight ahead, of the walk continuing for another glorious 60m.

The wrought-iron arch in Mel Haskell's flower garden is one of many metal structures adorning the property.

Scarcely has the visitor regained composure when another sight arrests them – halfway along the walk a gap in the hedge reveals a view of another pond, replete with a little red bridge, maples and a myriad other plantings big and small.

Around the next corner, a series of rooms off the main path graduate in style from the whimsical to the grandly eccentric. Included in them is Haskell's flower garden, smart colour after the predominance of foliage; a fanciful chamber in which buxus balls appear to roll around under the pleached hornbeams; and a surreal zone where the neat buxus hedging struggles to contain the Juniperus chinensis 'Kaizuka'.

Known as Hollywood juniper for its popularity in Tinseltown, this juniper is often cloud-pruned in the Oriental fashion. Allen, however, prefers to let his grow, its naturally contorted and spreading branches making bizarre and fabulous shapes.

Now, the formal structure of the garden is dissolving. Right angles give way to curves. The hedges are lower, the plantings lusher.

The pond can be glimpsed through a gap in the long beech walk.

Around a corner, a driftwood horse prances in a vinca dell.

Behind, the brilliant white bark of Himalayan birches (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii 'Silver Shadow') shines in the shade of tall trees the likes ofFagus sylvatica 'Riversii' ("the most copper of beeches," says Allen), weeping sequoia, and elm and claret ash, and Allen's bamboo collection.

The path winds gently down through the woodland, past a room whose walls and ceiling are formed by soaring oaks (Quercus rubra 'Fastigiata').

Buxus balls appear to roll freely over the cream gravel.

"It's cathedral-like, isn't it," says Haskell, adding it was where the couple got married. (Theirs was the first of several weddings in the garden, which is also used for photographs, and what Haskell and Allen call elopement weddings, where the couple flies in, get married, stay the night and flies out again.)

Suddenly, the vista opens, and behold: a sizeable pond. Such is the clever course of the path just travelled that it takes a few seconds to recognise it as the one seen earlier through the hedge.

The paths get curvier and the plantings more lush, the deeper into the garden one goes.

To form it, Allen excavated a metre or so deeper into the former shingle pit, using the fill to create an amphitheatre, which adds visual interest and also helps cuts road noise.

The plantings here are rich and varied, and made for all seasons. Now, the hostas are in full glory, including the 'Empress Wu'. One of the biggest in the family, its leaves can grow up to 45cm long by not much less wide.

Gunnera, irises, maples Allen estimates he has about 100), waterlilies, flowering cherries, dogwoods, fuchsia, rhododendrons and swamp cypress all happily rub branch tips. Judicious pruning and sensitive planting have helped meld often disparate subjects into a cohesive, yet exciting whole.

Allen points out his 3m high Cordyline indivisa, aka tōī, which he says is not easy to grow on the Plains. Naturally found at high elevations in the North Island, this mountain cabbage tree looks right at home among other, more tropical, palms.

The couple could not resist this Indian obelisk, spotted while out driving one day.

That Allen loves his garden is obvious, but does he get time to just be in it without working?

"Yes," he replies. "I like to get up really early and go wandering by myself. It's really quite nice."

Haskell's special place in the garden is under a weeping elm, whose curtain of branches sweep the ground creating a chamber, into which Allen has cut a doorway. With its table and chairs, it's Haskell's secret spot for reading.

Here, too, she can seek respite from the Canterbury Plains' hot, dry summers, when searing nor'west winds sweep over the Alps from Australia. It is then that the woodland garden and ponds come into their own as cool retreats, says Haskell.

Just as firmly as the path leads us into the heart of the garden, it ejects us. Too soon, we've completed the final pretty stretch up a gentle rise and we are back where our journey began, admiring the perfection and symmetry of the new season's ivy leaves on the house's wall.

Back in front of the wedding cake dogwood (Cornus controversa 'Variegata') and the pink roses.

Back wishing I could take it all in again.

How to visit: Casa Rossa has a five-star rating from the New Zealand Gardens Trust and is open to the public by appointment until the end of March.

NZ Gardener

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