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Small and Perfectly Formal
Words: Bethney McLennan | The Dominion Post, 13 March 2010



When it comes to formal, black can work as well in a garden as on a tie.

When it comes to formal, black can work as well in a garden as on a tie.
Wild Iris Dietes grandiflora

Left - Black and white: Diamonds of Black Mondo Grass repeat the planting theme and Hornbeams soften the effects of the piping. Right - Break it up: Dietes grandiflora breaks the austerity of the new fence.


When Barbara and Ray Matthews made the move from their hill-top property to an apartment on the flat, they were clearly looking forward and their plans included a garden very different from the one they were leaving.


The result is formal but gracious, up to the minute in style while appearing comfortably established. Good access to all areas helps keep maintenance down.

Before the garden transformation
Before the garden redesign, the garden was something of a blank canvas

Before: the garden before its redesign was something of a blank canvas. The narrow corridor alongside the house funnelled the wind, was bisected by a metal portico and disrupted by pebbles and pavers.


Rachael Matthews from HEDGE Garden Design & Nursery, drew up plans that not only made the most of what was an oddly shaped area but also overcame some of the negatives, such as the sight lines from the tower block next door and livening up awkward utility areas to make them useable and productive, including a raised vegetable garden.


She says the garden was something of a blank canvas but even some quite inexpensive changes made a big difference. An early decision was to paint all the wooden features such as the walls of the raised gardens and edges, black, which not only smartened the overall look but linked them to the apartment’s facings.


Another saving was made by reusing the original pavers to create a new look as well as to level the base course underneath them which had become uneven over the years.


A long narrow area to one side of the apartment, which looked even narrower because of it’s starkness, was bisected by an immovable metal portico arrangement that Rachael decided should be incorporated by strategic planting.


To widen the look of the raised bed running along the outer wall, she set a low Buxus hedge, recycling bushes that had been part of a hedge elsewhere.

Something special - a stark border filled with billowing flowers and climbers

Extra special: A stark border made apparently wider by an additional row of Buxus and billowing borders of Lavenders and Snow-In-Summer. The champagne coloured rose is Rosa “Avalanche”.


The raised bed is edged with Snow-In-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum) and Lavender, while the starkness of the wall is gradually being broken by Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) on a diamond-configured wire trellis.


Pavers at the base of the portico’s metal uprights we re removed to leave a diamond-shaped plot Rachael specified Black Mondo Grass Ophiopogon planiscapus“Nigrescens”, as groundcover and Hornbeam trees (Carpinus betulus) to soften the metalwork and provide wind shelter.

A raised bed built from kitset fits the space perfectly

After: A raised bed built from a kitset, gives sufficient space for favourite vegetables, and roses brought from elsewhere cover bare walls.


The bare corner at this far end of this narrow corridor is now home to the raised vegetable garden that allows Ray to grow herbs and ‘best fresh’ favourites including lettuce and dwarf beans. This bed is surrounded by pavers for easy access and the borders beyond now give a sheltered home to roses from other areas of the garden.

Keeping to the colour scheme and adding a luxurious Lutyens seat give the main area a formal look as do the white Hydrangeas and multiple hedges

Take a seat: Keeping to the colour scheme and adding a luxurious Lutyens seat give the main area a formal look as do the white Hydrangeas and multiple hedges


In the main area of the garden, flowering Cherries in large raised beds have been linked to the overall theme by a circle of dwarf Alstroemeria “White Buttons” around the trunks and Black Mondo Grass to finish off.


The curves and angles of the old lawn have been squared off and a wide Lutyens Seat is set back into four rows of formal hedge of Corokia “Gentys Green”, black Manuka Leptospermum “Wiri Kerry”, Vibernum tinus “Eve Price”, and Azalea “Mrs Kint”.

Going Formal Tips


  • Rachael says formal gardens, while not always wholly low maintenance, are much easier to look after than cottage gardens and repeat planting keeps them looking good year round.


  • Forward planning precludes impulse buying and means getting just the quantities of plants and other goods needed.


  • Keep to a set colour scheme, preferably one that blends into the house scheme.


  • Hold costs down by re-using plants and features where suitable.


  • Dense planting brings a mature look to a new garden.


  • Watering and feeding are especially important where plants are grown closely together.


  • Where neighbour’s share or are close to your garden, or the garden is close to your windows and doors, it is particularly important to avoid chemicals. The Matthews’ garden is completely organic from compost to fertilisers.

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