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Layered Loveliness: A bare sloping Wellington yard becomes a

multi-tiered family-friendly playground

Words Susan Pepperell | Photographs Paul McCredie | NZ House & Garden, 2016

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

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

Outdoor living is easy for Georgina and Deighton Conder, their children Nico, three, Will, five, and Helena, seven, and dog Maika; the Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (left) adds colour; on the upper tier, potted copper beech are being clipped into barrel shapes as they grow. 

Georgina Conder shudders when she recalls the outdoor laundry in the dank concrete shed they had when she, husband Deighton and their young children first moved into their Wellington home.


“It was dark and damp and certainly wasn’t going to work for long, especially for a family with young children.”


Fast forward a couple of years and the garden, with soothing cascading water and the sounds of children playing, has an entirely different atmosphere.

Renovated villa for family living
Indoor outdoor family inner cty living in private sunny courtyard
Green & white planting scheme roses, cosmos hedge mondo grass

LEFT: The Conders’ Italianate villa in the Wellington suburb of Thorndon  was built in 1873, it sits above street level; the deciduous beech ‘Dawyck Gold’ behind the fence will grow to 7m. CENTRE: The dining area and kitchen open out to the courtyard; up on the balcony are potted conifers Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’, adding some evergreen texture to the exterior.

RIGHT: ‘Iceberg’ roses are Georgina’s favourites and share the garden with cosmos and Buxus ‘green gem’ hedging; a row of mondo grass in front completes the look. Wide terracing and a mass of green and white lure visitors to this peaceful garden haven, only a few steps away from hectic city life.  

The Thorndon villa was built in 1873, and the couple bought it online when they were living in Brussels. With Georgina just a couple of weeks off giving birth to the couple’s second child, inspecting it in person was impossible so they relied on the good judgment of friends and haven’t looked back.


They rented out the house at first, then returned to New Zealand, moved in and started planning renovations. That outdoor laundry and an equally unfortunate shed both sat on a sloping, barren section edged with badly broken paths that hadn’t been touched in decades.


“Essentially we didn’t have any outdoor space that was useable for a family,” Georgina says.

Chinese Star Jasmine, Bacopa syn Sutera cordata

Star jasmine trained over wires has been underplanted with box holly balls and the trailing Bacopa cordata, which has masses of starry white flowers from spring  to autumn. 

Water feature, small growing tree Cercis Forest Pansy

Work started 15 months later. The Conder family by then included a four-week-old baby, two toddlers and a dog, so considerate builders were a must.


From the outset, the house renovation and garden overhaul were undertaken at roughly the same time. A self-contained wing was added to the back of the house to cater for visiting grandparents, and excavation began on the section. 

Deighton and Georgina brought in Rachael Matthews, director of Hedge Garden Design and Nursery, and pretty much handed over the reins. She worked closely with architects Liz Wallace and Rochelle Tse of Tse:Wallace Architects to ensure the hard landscaping and garden would be complementary.


“We had a general idea of the kind of style we wanted,” says Georgina. “We wanted it to be sympathetic with the house and we knew Rachael creates such beautiful gardens for these kind of houses that at the same time are a little bit different.”


Rachael says the early start enabled her to talk to the builders about what needed to happen with the ground. “Wellington soil is all hard clay and rotten rock so we had to excavate about 40cm and bring in some fluffy garden mix.”

Left of the water feature is a branch of the Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’  tree – with violet flowers in spring and large burgundy leaves in summer, it adds colour to the courtyard; on the upper tier, potted copper beech are being clipped into barrel shapes as they grow.  

The priority was useable family space, so the aim was to create a large outside living area and provide immediate impact with big plants. Once the dreaded sheds were gone, the structural landscaping began. 

The section was terraced, a water feature was incorporated on the second level and the top level was reserved for artificial turf framed by paving. Artificial grass is something Rachael has used often, preferring its versatility and hardiness when Wellington’s climate is a little less forgiving. It’s also a great area for the children and dog, Maika.


On the main level, the courtyard holds centre stage, with a barbecue and fire on one side. It’s a family haven that offers privacy, space and protection from the fickle weather, and is the most used part of the home.

Ornamental pleached pears, white Hydrangea Limelight


Artificial grass has been laid in a few select spaces ar ound the garden such as the childrens and dog's play areas , and here in the gap between the bed and the fence, to save the hassel of mowing such a tiny strip.

The steps around the side of the house are framed by ornamental pleached pears that remind Deighton of time spent in Europe, and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ with cone-shaped flowers on long arching stems that are perfect for lining pathways and driveways.

While the colour palette is mostly green and white, overhanging the terrace is a sturdy Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ that boasts huge burgundy leaves in summer and purple flowers in spring.


Those seasonal changes are a feature of the Conders’ garden. “That’s where Rachael’s expertise comes to the fore,” says Deighton. “I know what I like but lack the knowledge to establish a garden that’s always changing and developing.”


Evergreen foliage is used at a low level complemented by deciduous specimen trees that let in the light over winter and keep the space open.


Hydrangeas, hellebores, lilies and impatiens bloom yearround and Georgina particularly loves the ‘Iceberg’ roses – her only request for the garden, which have been planted in memory of her mother. “They just don’t stop flowering, it’s unbelieveable. We’re so lucky.”


Under the roses and the Mexican orange blossoms they have found room to plant vegetables and herbs, which have been exceptionally prolific.

Built in corner seating in the garden

The built-in corner seat is one of georgina’s favourite places to sit in the sun and keep an eye on the children.  

In fact, the entire garden has been an outstanding success according to Georgina, who leaves the maintenance to her husband. The courtyard is littered with children’s bikes and toys and the barbecue gets more use than the oven. It’s also a magnet for friends and neighbours.


“The whole area works really well. I love being able to sit in the corner and watch the kids run around. And it’s so quiet. Often we’re not aware of how windy it is everywhere else.”


Deighton, a meticulous gardener according to Rachael, has a special fondness for the garden at the side of the house. That’s where you’ll find his one request: pleached ornamental pears, a common sight in Belgian parks and a reminder of the time the family spent in Europe. On stainless steel frames, they border the garden and screen the neighbours.


“When you come through the gate and walk around the side of the house,” says Deighton, “you feel like you’re away from it all, even though this is a house that’s on the fringes of the city.”

Foliage textures, focal points, variegated pittosporum

A potted variegated pittosporum is surrounded by miniature ‘Princess Alice’ rhododendrons and Liriope muscari ‘Evergreen Giant’, with a hedge of Buxus ‘Green Gem’ along the front edge

Q & A 


CLIMATE: Thorndon is slightly warmer than other parts of Wellington and has better growing ability. We are also sheltered from Wellington’s famous wind.

HOURS SPENT IN THE GARDEN: about two to three a week.


WATERING: We have an irrigation system we use about twice a week that takes care of all the garden’s needs.

BEST TIP FOR OTHER GARDENERS: From a project perspective put your confidence in the experts, but be articulate about what you like and what you need from the outset.

FAVOURITE SEASON IN THE GARDEN: summer, because we can spend evenings in the courtyard with family and friends just enjoying the garden.  


Georgina Conder

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