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Garden Expert: A Wellington garden designer knows how to turn

city plots into peaceful, leafy sanctuaries

Words Rosemary Barraclough  | Photographs Paul McCredie | NZ House & Garden, 2017

Rachael Matthews of HEDGE Garden Design & Nursery has clients lining up for her particular brand of structured, soothing green and white gardens.

A bare sloping Wellington yard becomes a multi-tiered family-friendly playground

Chinese star jasmine trained against a fence makes the most of vertical space and unfussy topiary provides focal points.   

Although Rachael has always loved growing things (in her student days she carted hordes of pot plants between flats) she spent 12 years in corporate law, until the arrival of her first baby prompted a career change.


She started growing structural plants at her Levin nursery – hedges, topiaries and standards, arranged as if they were in a garden, so customers could imagine how they’d look at home; from there a garden design business flourished.


Gardens are all about structure, says Rachael. Get your hard landscaping right first and all else will follow. “For a formal garden with layered hedges, your hard landscaping needs to be square and flat, otherwise nothing will look right."

LEFT:  A tiered hedge of corokia, viburnum, manuka and azaleas. RIGHT:  A buxus hedge punctuated by topiary domes; pots allow gardeners to add seasonal colour. 

A strong structure will keep the garden looking good year round, and then owners can add personal touches to make the garden their own. “So I might help them choose the right-sized, beautiful pots; then they can add whatever plants they like.” In the garden beds Rachael also likes to leave room for people to experiment with favourite plants and flowers.


“People love impulse and seasonal buying at garden centres and this gives them spaces to play with. Often the plants won’t last, but people still love them and that’s fine. I’m not a plant fascist – people need to connect with their favourite things.” 


Garden designer Rachael Matthews.
Portrait by Jane Usher.


LAYER IT: In a small garden think about all the surfaces and air space. Layers are important – you can use hedges, pleached trees and climbers to make the most of vertical space. The backdrop to your garden is important too; I love Boston ivy, with its lovely shaggy texture, as well as ficus and Virginia creeper.

BARE BRANCHES: Don’t rule out deciduous trees – go for evergreens at ground level and deciduous trees up higher. They keep you in touch with nature as they change with the seasons, let in light in the winter and cast beautiful shadows.

THE LOW-MAINTENANCE MYTH: There is no such thing as a low-maintenance garden. Every garden needs a maintenance cycle, including pruning and fertilising. I like to build a relationship with the owners of gardens I design and develop a maintenance plan. Then you can keep improving the garden; with a new design you’ll only get it right 80 per cent of the time. It’s ideal to keep adjusting. 

ARRIVALS: When designing a garden, I always think about how it looks when you’re coming and going. When you come into your garden you want to feel as if the world is lifting off your shoulders.

FOCAL POINT PLANTS: Strong, symmetrical features, such as topiary balls or cones will give your garden focal points. I’ve moved away from more decorative topiary shapes.

IF IT’S LITTLE, LOOK UP: Pleached trees and columns are good for small gardens, because they’re narrow and don’t take up too much room. Their height will quickly give you privacy.

GO LARGE: It might seem counter-intuitive, but big elements work best in a small garden. If you have a whole lot of little things, your garden can seem cluttered. For example, a few large, sculptural pots are better than many little ones.

LIGHTING: Light up your garden so that you get to see it at night too. There are so many different options (I like the new warm candle-like LED lighting) that it’s wise to get a professional involved. Make sure it’s balanced so you light up the whole garden without any black holes, but it shoudn’t look like  an airport runway!

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