Modern Charm: Wellington garden perfect combination of
modern charm and old school appeal
Words Rebecca Lancashire | Photographs Paul McCredie | NZ House & Garden, June 2016
A contemporary Wellington garden accommodates kids and dogs but keeps its old world feel.
The ornate urns flanking the front door at Maria Pippos & Chris O'Brien's Karori Wellington villa were found at California Home & Garden in Miramar; the row of pleached copper beech trees along the fence line pick up the red tones in the upright Berberis "Helmond Pillar and Heuchera "Peach Crisp" planted in front of the verandah; the buxus hedge is underplanted with liriope.
Pretty is the word that springs to mind when visiting Maria Pippos and Chris O’Brien’s garden – but not in a fussy or overblown way. It comes from the subtle mix of colours and textures: white rose petals drifting onto native grasses and dainty maroon pansies echoing a row of copper beech trees.
Maria Pippos in her front garden with Alstroemeria "Casablanca"; the front garden features a row of "Amanogawa" cherry columns along the fence; the garden sculpture is by George Andrews and was purchased at the Martinborough Fair, its hair is Sedum mexicanum "Acapulco Gold" and the pink carpet rose next to it is "Appleblossom"
Just as their turn-of-the-century Karori, Wellington villa acknowledges its past but works as a contemporary family home, so does their garden. There are grand old trees, probably planted around the time the house was built, and lots of roses. But there is also Corten steel edging around the garden beds and plenty of bold foliage.
It may be pretty but it also needs to be practical. This is a large suburban garden, home to three children (Penny, 18, Michael, 15, and Victoria, 12) and two busy dogs (corgis Churchill and Russell). A flat area for kicking a ball (for the children), interesting undergrowth to explore (perfect for dogs) and easy indoor-outdoor flow (that’s for the parents) were top of the list.
Looking back towards the house from the rear garden, pots of hydrangeas, hostas, daisies and more brighten the paved area; the pump is from the original brick well; two water bowls feature Iris versicolor, "Firecrest" water lilies and water hawthorn.
After 19 busy years in the house, adding a second storey and a family along the way, the garden had not been Maria and Chris’ first priority. The couple, both lawyers (although Maria is not currently practising), had inherited traditional cottagestyle grounds with a rose arbour, established trees and even an original brick well.
“The garden had been loved and looked after but it was a bit dated,” Maria says. The backyard had appealed because it was green, sheltered and private. “The trees reminded Chris of his childhood in Christchurch,” she says.
An old rhododendron in flower beside the gardens rear clay bank; two urns planted with evergreen fuscias are on either side of the "stairway to heaven"
But there were challenges: the east-facing section slopes in two directions and there is a steep clay bank at the rear. It features a mysterious set of stand-alone steps – Chris believes the section must have once included more land. “We call it the stairway to heaven,” he says. And on the south side, their neighbour is an unattractive electrical substation.
While Maria and Chris had made some improvements over the years – “We both grew up with mothers who were keen gardeners and it rubbed off,” Maria says – they eventually decided it was time to call in the experts.
Michael relaxes on the custom made stainless steel seat surrounding a silver birch tree.
Rachael Matthews of Hedge Garden Design and Nursery (hedge.co.nz) first tackled the rear garden in late 2012. “I wanted to preserve the charm but bring it into the 21st century,” she says. Drainage and levelling were her first priority. Then upright cherry trees were added to provide more structure to the garden. A striking custom-made, stainless-steel seat is curved around a massive old silver birch.
The tricky rear bank was replanted with shade-loving rengarenga, heuchera and ferns. Lots of “big, blowzy” hydrangeas and a white and soft pink colour scheme lighten the area.
In the front, concrete retaining walls that double as planter boxes run along the high side of the fence. The small front lawn
was replaced with fine limestone chip and existing ‘Iceberg’ roses and buxus hedging reused in new perennial beds, alongside penstemon, alstroemeria, Japanese anemones and more.
Penny & Michael on the rear deck, with corgis Russell, left, and Churchill; pots of "Viking" hydrangeas add softness and colour; the huge old silver birch is one of several established trees in the garden.
“Rachael is very good with colour,” says Maria, pointing out how the burgundy foliage picks up the colour of the rusty steel garden edging and a pair of succulents on the front verandah.
A row of cherry tree columns along the front fence echoes the pair of stately old cherries that flank either side of the house.
“The garden has a very strong green structure,” says Rachael, “but it ‘drinks’ like champagne – light, airy and effervescent, with dappled light and lots of flowers.” Plenty of fizz without any fuss.
An "Ivory Prince" hellebore flourishes in the shade of a large cherry tree; "Amangogawa" cherry blossom; the urns by the front door are planted with the succulent Sempervivum "Burgundy"
Q & A with owner Maria Pippos
Type of garden: A large suburban family garden with formal planting in the front and less formal in the back. It is a garden for all seasons, with stunning cherry trees in spring and beautiful autumn colour.
Climate: temperate year round. Occasional frost. Moderate wind by Wellington standards.
Soil type: mostly good but clay in places.
Hours spent per week in the garden: in busy months, 3–4 hours a week excluding lawns.
Favourite garden wildlife: we get loads of native birds, especially tui, as we are very close to the Zealandia native wildlife sanctuary.
Most significant plant in the garden: established trees: oak, silver birch, large cherries, large rhododendron.
Favourite new plant: ligularia and/or lime berberis.
Most-used tool: secateurs
We love this part of New Zealand because: it’s green and quiet yet only 10 minutes from the central city.