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Close Connection
Words: Rebecca Lancashire | Photos: Paul McCredie | NZ House & Garden, August Issue 2013

Designed for a green-thumbed owner by her daughter-in-law, the Wellington apartment garden is living proof of the power of collaboration

Designed for a green thumbed owner by her designer daughter-in-law

The first thing visitors say when they see the pretty , inviting courtyard beyond Barbara Matthews Wellington sitting room is, “Oh, you’ve got a garden!”


But it wasn’t always that way. When Ray and Barbara Matthews downsized to their ground-floor apartment in Thorndon six years ago, they were faced with a windswept, barren space. Their courtyard garden was overlooked by a large block of flats to the north and open to the complex’s communal gardens. The only notable feature was a trio of neglected weeping cherries in huge immovable tubs.

Lutyens Bench flanked by spirals & white hydrangeas in pots
Barbara & Rachael Matthews
View down the side garden with diamonds of Black Mondo Grass,

It was not a place in which to linger. But it did mean that Barbara and her daughter-in-law, Rachael Matthews of HEDGE Garden Design & Nursery (, could embark on a project together. Rachael is an ex-lawyer whose passion for plants and desire for family-friendly hours led to a career change nine years ago. And Barbara is no gardening novice, having developed gardens of her own, including the gardens surrounding a Gray Young-designed house in Wadestown, where the Matthews lived for 32 years, and another contemporary design on an exposed hill in the same suburb, her maiden effort in the gardening line.


“Our first garden was on a sunny but windy site. When we moved in I planted polyanthus and pansies and the wind had blown them out of the ground by the following morning, “recalls Barbara. After a bit of trial and error, she settled on hardy proteas, leucadendrons and ceanothus, along with flaxes and manuka.


The neo-Georgian Gray Young house required a very different kind of garden.”My dream was an English walled garden: formal but informal,” says Barbara. She and Raymond built brick wallsand planted statement trees, including Magnolia grandiflora and Malus ioensis “Plena” ; roses were underplanted with cottage garden flowers in a palette of soft pinks, blue and creamy yellows. A buxus hedge curved right around the garden.


Remembering the garden she created over 20 years ago, Barbara reels off botanical names, describing three separate courtyards. “I did miss my old garden for at least a year,” she says. “But it’s been wonderful creating a new garden with Rachael’s help. Life moves on!”

Layered hedges incl black Manuka
Topiaries & classic statue
Formal garden with topiaries, flowering cherries & layered hedges

Says Rachael: “Barbara wanted something different from what she’d had – something more formal – and she rather bravely gave me free rein. I think we have completely followed through on the original plan and Barbara has enriched and filled it with favourite plants and decorative details. She has a very good eye.”


Adds Barbara: “We talked about the things we liked and then Rachael did a drawing; she knew my aesthetic. I love the formal look and wanted a touch of pink to bring the inside colours out (the lounge is in soft beige and pink tones).

3 topiary pyramids in black pots
Peaking over Rosa Sally Holmes into the private courtyard

They began with two roughly rectangular courtyards of 165sqm in total: the larger facing north and accessible from the living room, the other a narrow area along the east side of the building. Rachael’s first step was to fence the garden and plant a hedge for privacy. This neatly clipped screen is actually in four tiers: Corokia“Geenty’s Green”, Vibernum tinus “Eve Price”, the manuka Leptospermum “Wiri Kerry” and Azalea “Mrs Kint”, which has pink and white flowers.


“I like to create gardens that people get a feeling from, that give them pleasure and make them feel relaxed – it’s about structure plus ambience,” says Rachael. Her award-winning company grows topiary, buxus and other hedging plants which have been put to good use in Barbara’s new garden.


The old uneven paving was relaid in a new pattern and existing planters all painted black to provide unity. Even the cherry trees have been given a fresh look, with dwarf Alstroemeria “White Buttons” around the trunks and black mondo grass edging.

A view down the side garden, divided into garden rooms

The long, narrow side garden to the east was another challenge. The fence along this side has been transformed by training star jasmine into a dramatic diamond pattern along wires. Hornbeams were planted to soften an ungainly metal pergola and create a walkway to a raised pottage of vegetables and herbs, which Raymond enjoys nurturing. With columns of cypress, tiered box hedges, standards of “Avalanche”, a champagne blush rose and white floribunda, the once neglected area is now a sheltered and productive outdoor room. “I was allowed a splash of colour,” teases Barbara, pointing out the pink azalea she bought with her from her old garden.


Now, six years on, the sitting room opens onto a fresh and pretty formal garden. A crisp white Lutyens seat, flanked by large urns of “Bridal Bouquet” hydrangeas, draws the eye. It’s a garden in which to sit and relax, with enough lawn for the grandchildren to play.


“I think it has been the perfect collaboration between client and designer, not to mention between mother and daughter-in-law,” says Rachael with a sense of satisfaction.

Coffee outside the kitchen, with view through the Hornbeam alley to the potager
Barbara Matthews watering her beloved garden
A beautiful potager transformed from the dead the end of a garden

Q & A with Barbara Matthews


Type of garden: I see it as a formal garden with structure and style. As I sit here, it’s reflective and peaceful, not busy.


Hours spend per week in the garden: An average of two to three hours per week including hedge trimming.


Most significant plant in the garden: The plant that draws the eye when people first come into the garden is the Chinese star jasmine, trained in diamond shapes.


Favourite plant: I love roses and in particular Rosa “Evelyn” with her cabbage flowers in soft pink/apricot shades. I couldn’t live without her. I had her at my last garden – one of the few plants that we have had in both.


Plants that grow well here: Acid-loving plants such as azaleas, Irish yew (Taxus baccata “Fastigiata”) and Chinese star jasmine.


Biggest gardening mistake: Persevering with the weeping cherry trees. We should have pulled them out when we first arrived. One is sick with blight and it’s always been a worry. It has carbuncles, its leaves droop and it has deteriorated over time. We have three of them – and they have to match – so if you remove one, you have to remove all of them.


Do you propagate any of your own plants?: Our daughter-in-law has grown many of our plants, which warms my heart.

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