Words: Carol Bucknell | Photos: Sally Tagg | Next Magazine, April 2010
A lawyer reshapes her life with a pair of hedge trimmers ....
Rachael Matthews believes in shaping her own destiny .... she traded her job as a lawyer for a life sculpting beautiful topiary. Carol Bucknell finds out why she’s never looked back. Photographs by Sally Tagg.
HIGH IN THE HILLS above Wellington’s CBD our taxi driver seems to have got us lost in the twisting streets of Kelburn. We’re searching for the house of Rachael Matthews, designer of contemporary formal gardens and owner of boutique nursery HEDGE, which specialises in topiary and structural plants. Finally we pull up outside a pretty grey villa with white trim and we know instantly this is the right place.
Clipped Buxus of every imaginable shape and size fill the front porch, while rows of ivy standards grow in pots in the adjoining brick-paved courtyard. Espaliered diagonally across two walls of the house is star jasmine, its tiny white flowers filling the courtyard with its delicious scent. On the ground below, a neatly clipped rectangle of Buxus surrounds the lush green leaves of Hosta, their pale mauve flowers adding a soft touch of colour to the green and white composition.
As we launch into the photo shoot, 41 year old Rachael, her clippers always handy in her back pocket of her jeans, tidies the already immaculate plants, moving enormous Buxus topiary balls effortlessly at the photographer’s bidding. It’s a far cry from her previous life as a corporate lawyer – but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I was a lawyer for 12 years and then had children (Charlotte, five, and Sasha, seven) so I moved outside. And I’m never going back,” she laughs. “I love being my own boss and running a small business, and I love garden design and growing and experimenting with plants. It’s very creative, with lots of variety and flexibility, but it’s not a get-rich scheme.”
She and husband Tim initially thought about setting up a commercial horticultural growing business up the coast in Ohau, where Rachael’s parents live. “Eventually we realised we needed to grow something in town”.
So Rachael began studying for a certificate in horticulture at Massey, with a view to establishing a home nursery selling topiary and rows of young hedge plants. “Then my customers started wanting their gardens to be designed and I discovered I loved it. I’m much better at it than I was at being a lawyer.”
So good in fact that Rachael has just won second prize in Wellington Botanic Garden’s annual competition for the innovative design and use of plants. She previously won the competition in 2006 with a scheme called “Ruby Necklace”, themed to tie in with the World of Wearable Arts Festival.
Her latest design is called Koru Parterre, a synthesis of Maori design and European garden-making that will be installed at the Botanic Garden’s Founder’s Entrance in August. Many of the plants for Koru Patea are being grown in Rachael’s small back garden with additional plants being brought on at her growing nursery on her parents’ Ohau property.
Rachael believes in giving back to her community and is also in the process of recreating, for no fee, Katherine Mansfield’s childhood garden.
“In reality it was pretty bare, but we’re putting in plants of the period and from her stories, plus gardening quotes which I suspect are really about life. For instance, finding a good husband is like finding a good pumpkin.” Plus there’ll be devices to take you back in time and screen out the street.”
Although Rachael’s own garden is a working space, the clever layout ensures there’s plenty of room for the family to relax. The garden is on two levels and the smaller upper level is devoted entirely to the nursery. The lower level forms a neat rectangle, with a white pergola half way down the lawn on a direct axis with a tall ancient cabbage tree at the end of the garden. A stylised bird sculpture made from Totara creates a dramatic counterpoint to the aged cabbage tree.
On this sunny afternoon the garden feels secluded and private, the sound of insects masking traffic noise from the surrounding streets. Tall hedges screen neighbouring houses while a line of neatly trimmed Karaka hides a work area at the end of the garden.
“The Karaka have been a real talking point with people who come to the garden,” says Rachael. “I love it as a hedge. It’s like Griselinia but the leaves are larger and darker.”
Massed around the base of the bird sculpture are the rounded forms of several Buxus cones and balls, pieces of living sculpture in their own right. In the sunnier areas of the garden around the small deck are a variety of flowering plants. Flat bumble bees alight on the tall yellow flowers of a Ligularia while Dahlias, Dianthus, Oleander, Bronze Fennel and Salvia add to the colourful display.
“A lot of plants in my garden are on trial. I’ve run out of room here so at Ohau up the coast I’ve put in a massive flower circle 30 metres across, with rings of different plants that I’m trialling,” explains Rachael. She points to a gorgeous dark purple Clematis, appropriately named “Romantika”.
“I grow a lot of climbing plants on frames. I trim all the topiary by hand and I train all the Ivy standard balls with twisted trunks.”
She also does a lot of the installation of her designs which, given the unpredictable nature of gardens, is an essential aspect of the job. Initially she and Tim did much of the work together.
“Tim has been very supportive. He’s very good at digging holes. My clients find it hilarious to have two lawyers turning up at their house on a weekend with their spades and starting to dig their garden.”
“Tim really helped me when we started the business. He worked a four-day week and took Fridays off to look after the kids. This was my “Thelma and Louise” day: when I’d take off up the coast to visit suppliers and look after my plants in the nursery at Ohau. He now works full time at mobile firm 2degrees, which launched last year. It’s been very busy for him so I’ve only been going up every second weekend.”
These days Rachael uses students to help with the installation, which helps her to keep her working week to a family-friendly 30-40 hours.
“Working from home is the trick. I couldn’t really run a shop where you need to be there all the time. I work around the family, running the home, doing school trips and walking the girls to school. The garden and the house can get quite messy because something always has to give – and yes it’s housework.”
Rachael works mainly in the Wellington area.”I get requests from Auckland but so far I’ve only worked as far north as Martinborough because it has to work around the children.”
So who is her market? “People who are learning how to garden, 30-something couples who have young families and have done up their houses and want to start on the outside area. Also 40-something people who want me to do the design and installation for them. A lot of landscape designers and landscape architects are also sending their clients to me for plants.”
Having successfully made the transition from office to back garden, what suggestions would Rachael make to other women contemplating a major career change?
“A lot of people keep thinking about what they want to do but don’t have the courage to make the change. My advice is, give it a go, don’t think too much about it. Just try it. It might lead to something marvellous.”
Rachael’s Topiary Tips
Think beyond Buxus. Other plants suitable for topiary and hedges include Corokia, Euonymus, Teucrium, Yew, Lophomyrtus, Manuka, miniature Holly, and Vibernum.
Keep an eye on the basics; it will make a big difference. With regular feeding and watering you will get more lush growth and healthier plants that can fight off pests and diseases.
It's better to trim little and often so all the growth is going in the right direction, rather than cutting off a large amount of unwanted growth once a year, which is a waste.
Plant several plants in the same pot for a fuller look, sooner. For example, plant 3 Buxus together to grow into a large ball.
Walk around your plant and look at it from lots of different angles when you're trimming including from above.
Rotate your plant for even growth.
Rachael stands her plants on an upside down pot to raise them up, for trimming.
It’s important to move your plant onto level ground when you're trimming it for instance onto a deck.
Water your plants at wine o'clock time - but don't trim. You may get emboldened after a glass of wine an make a rash decision. On the other hand it’s a good time to enjoy your garden and be creative.
Don't trim when you're in a rush. However, if you do make a mistake and cut too much off, it’ll likely grow back, it might just take a while.
Rachael uses the shape of the pots as a cutting guide, and cuts in proportion to the pot that the plant is sitting in. For example, use the straight edges of a square pot to cut the base of the pyramid.
If you are worried, buy a plant that's already been shaped and then you can just maintain it.