Trial by Flower
Story Clare Gleeson | Photos Paul McCredie | NZ Gardener Magazine, 2023
Creative & eclectic collections of shrubs and flowers dominate the landscape where a garden designer uses her own patch of paradise to test her ideas.
Five years ago, Rachael Matthews and her family moved from Kelburn to Khandallah, and today Rachael’s home is also her office, nursery, trial and display garden.
Not all experiments are carried out in sterile laboratories. The garden of designer Rachael Matthews is a combination of Rachael’s love of flowers and her horticultural trials to provide her customers with the best plants. In doing this, she has created an ever-changing feast of colour and interest.
Black paint on the terracotta brick wall behind the railway sleeper parterre makes the green and pinks “pop”. In front of the wall: Fagus sylvatica “Dawycks Gold”. Pleached ornamental pears and Rosa “Pierre de Ronsard” from inside the courtyard peek above the fence. In front are topiary balls of Buxus sempervirens, Buxus “Green Gem” and Osmanthius “Pearly Gates”.
From outside Rachael’s gate, it's clear to see a garden designer lives within. The lawn on the roadside berm is laid amongst railway sleepers that mirror the pattern of espaliered Chinese jasmine in Rachael’s previous garden.
After trying different kinds of lawn bulbs for two years, last year Rachael planted 25 lawn crocuses. These drew lots of comments from passers-by, and encouraged her to plant another 150 bulbs this year, but none surfaced. Rachael thinks either the rain rotted them “or Tim mowed them” she says of her husband with a grin. Undeterred she will plant even more next year.
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Rachael Matthews in her front courtyard with tiger lilies Lilium “Antique Orange”, Cyperus papyrus, climbing rose “Pierre de Ronsard” and topiaries cones of Buxus sempervirens. The garden is a display space for Rachael’s business HEDGE Garden Design & Nursery (hedge.co.nz)
Five years ago, Rachael and her family moved from Kelburn to Khandallah and today Rachael’s home, is also her office, nursery, trial and display garden. Her garden designs are highly structured with seasonal and this is reflected in her own garden.
Water plants grow in the bowl beneath the lion head, a remnant of the previous garden, with pleached ornamental pears (Pyrus calleryana) above the nearby brick walls. Buxus sempervirens topiary cones and flat topped pyramids join Buxus “Green Gem” balls in the centre. “Antique Orange” tiger lilies, Rosa “Pierre de Ronsard”, Physocarpus “Shady Lady”, and white mophead Hydrangea “Bridal Bouquet” add interest and colour.
Rachael has transformed what was a garden at the front of the house into a patio and here she keeps topiaries for sale to clients, creating a field of clipped green structures. Rachael likes to use disease resistant Buxus ”Green Gem”, and is trialling Osmanthus “Pearly Gates” with its bonus fragrant white flowers in winter. Rachael also grows ivy topiary as an alternative to Buxus as it’s a better performer in the shade and wet.
Pleached liquidambars, climbing roses and Thuja “Smaragd” spirals provide the backdrop to Rachael Matthews’ nursery. In front of the “Green Gem” buxus balls are balls of native Myrsine divaricata, Westringia “Aussie Box” and Teucrium fruticans. Purple Salvia “Love & Wishes”, Salvia “Amistad” and Hesperis matronalis, as well as “Forget Me Not” and climbing “Veilchenblau” roses, contrast with the white of the hydrangeas, Anthriscus sylvestris “Ravenswing”, Orlaya grandiflora, Persicaria “Red Dragon”, Rosa “Burgundy Iceberg,” and Chinochloa rubra complete the tapestry.
An ornamental pear Pryus calleryana is pleached against the black fence of the patio – it’s Rachael’s favourite plant for pleaching. In front of it are “Pierre de Ronsard” climbing roses, and although the roses are staked, they have no frame to scramble up as Rachael wants them to froth out “like champagne bubbles”.
Arching and unsupported rose bower Rosa “Pierre de Ronsard”
From left: Night scented Nicotiniana sylverstris; tiger lily "Antique Orange"; Hydrangea quercifolia “Snowflake”
As well as the fences surrounding Rachael’s garden, there are others dividing the grass area out the back from the plant nursery. Every fence has something growing against it, to show customers how it’s possible to make an interesting garden with just a fence. In the vegetable garden, an apple tree is espaliered in the traditional method of training just one layer a year. On the opposite fence, a Chinese star jasmine is trained on wires. A ginkgo espaliered against the garden shed is grown – like the liquidambar – for its leaves. Three crabapple column trees grow against the back fence. Another fence has a pleached liquidambar and on the other side are scarlet runner beans which Rachael plants every year, plus sweet peas (planted in autumn rather than spring) and hops.
Rachael loves hops and finds they’re a good way to get men to become enthusiastic about a new garden - “mention hops and they’re sold”.
Outside the living room, three double pompom Buxus sempervirens topiaries line up in front of ladder ferns in French urns and Buxus “Graham Blandy” columns.
The carport opposite the patio has a clear plastic roof and is perfect for storing plants as well as being the ideal unloading bay. In Rachael’s previous home, the truck drivers refused to drive up the steep hill so she had to meet them at the railway yards at all hours to collect her purchases. Rachael chuckles that Tim only got to use the carport for a day before she took it over, and now their cars are parked on the drive.
A deck leads from the house to a lawn Rachael would like to turn into a picking garden but this “has to be negotiated with Tim”.
Over winter the dahlias she is trialling rest under the kitchen windowsill in their black plastic pots and this year, Rachael is planting even more varieties, aiming for a top 30 rather than the top 20 of last year (featured in the October 2022 issue of NZ Gardener). Also on the deck are pots growing large, single bloom chrysanthemums to see how they would do in Wellington gardens over winter. Like dahlias, they are great in autumn and Rachael thinks they may follow in the dahlias’ footsteps for popularity.
From left: Espaliered Trachelospermum jasminoides with pleached Liquidambar stryaciflua “Worplesdon”, hops (Humulus lupus) and Stipa gigantea (in the pot)
The giant topiaries are Buxus sempervirens and about 20 years old.
On one side of the lawn is the vegetable garden and on the other the foliage garden where Rachael grows lots of plants in pots so she can move them around to see how they go together. Amongst the foliage are several grasses, including Stipa gigantea which Rachael plans to grow from seed. “It’s beautiful and there’s nothing like it in New Zealand natives. The grass is transparent, rather than a big plume, and has a lovely sheen. I think about plants in terms of what job they do and if it’s a native, great, I’ll use that, but if not then I’ll use something else”.
There are seven fragrant varieties of rhododendrons being trialled but the gold medal has yet to be awarded.
Rosa “Sally Holmes” in a giant trumpet frame.
Rachael has loved flowers since she was young when she used to pick and press them. On her kitchen windowsill is a row of small wine bottles, with a single flower in each. These are her “seasonal moments”. She plans it so that even in the depths of winter, there’s something to pick and put on the windowsill. “Some flowers can be quite insignificant but when picked and placed together they are gorgeous”, she explains. Flowers of every colour sit side by side in Rachael’s garden, even orange ones, which many people avoid. Of these gardeners, she says “they haven’t seen an orange geum”. It’s one of her favourites.
From left: Scarlet runner beans; Miss PC supervising from the potting bench; Fast-growing hops vine Humulus lupus.
Rachael specialises in growing topiaries & plants in large black plastic pots as she’s constantly swapping plants around and trying new ones. She loves flowers but doesn’t have enough space in the garden, so puts in additional flowering and smaller growing short season plants in pots that can be swapped out. “It’s like getting four seasons of plants in one pot place”.
Giant bird sculptures made from recycled totara oars look over Rachael’s latest project, an espaliered Ginkgo biloba (against the workshed). The purple flowers of sweet rocket are nestled in pots amongst Christmas lilies.
The pots are placed in rows on paths which are one gumboot wide. The pots sit on a sandbed, which is a pool liner with sand on top. At 5.00am, the irrigation hose is turned on for 20 minutes to flood the sand bed, ensuring every plant gets the same amount of water, they grow evenly and the foliage isn’t being watered.
Scarlet runner beans and sweet peas grow on concrete reinforcing mesh beneath pleached liquidambars and hops. Nursery plants include Orlaya grandiflora, sweet rocket, savlia and dahlias growing in pots and roses
There is a huge variety of species in the pots. Dated photos are being taken of a range of daffodils to see if the weather affects how they grow. Viburnums are being trialled as a means of extending the hydrangea season. Several pots are filled with different poppies from specialist plant and bulb seller, Emerden Flower Farm, and Rachael planted five different parrot tulips this year to compare them. A number of deciduous azaleas are being carefully nurtured as Rachael hasn’t had any luck with evergreen azaleas previously. She is also trying out different varieties and colours of phlox.
As well as roses growing against the fence in the front garden and on frames out the back, there are also roses in pots. Rachael stopped spraying her roses two years ago. “Insecticides and fungicides can block the food chain and harm the soil life”, she acknowledges. Last year, a couple of the roses "were terrible”, so she’s hoping they improve this year. Rachael now sprays the roses with seaweed foliar feed and diluted milk.
A garden designer’s Wellington haven.
Garden design is Rachael’s second career. Trained as a lawyer she found the professional life too restrictive once she had children so opted to follow her lifelong love of flowers and train in horticulture. Twenty years ago, after a year’s study at Massey, Rachael started growing amenity plants. As her business grew, she moved her nursery to her parents’ Levin home and built up her customer base. This developed into arranging plants to give an idea of how to grow them together, particularly “instant plants” such as hedges and topiaries which she sold at the Thorndon Fair and Wadestown Garden Tour. Gardeners started asking her for advice on design, and that turned out to be her forte.
Rachael’s garden is constantly changing as she tries out different plants, situations and combinations to find the best solutions for her designs. Her garden also incorporates the plants she loves and grows for her own pleasure. IN short, she has created a wonderfully rich and exciting tapestry of colour, form and texture for herself and her family.
Use all of your space
Layer up your vertical space - trees, fence, wall. You don't have to have a lawn, create a courtyard instead, with interesting patterning with paving, tiles and bricks on pathways and in clearings under seats & furniture. “I use climbers to decorate wall spaces and create view points against flat surfaces,” says Rachael Matthews.
Create a sanctuary
Use tall skinny plants for privacy in narrow spaces without taking up too much room.
No down time
Maximise your enjoyment of your garden by minimising empty gaps & dull spaces, as well as dead & dormant plants. Rachael does plant deciduous trees for dappled shade in summer, let in the light in winter, and to feel the change in seasons, but many flowering plants only look good in season, whereas foliage plants look good year round. So I under plant trees with foliage plants & evergreen structure.”
Extend your enjoyment
Open up the house to the garden with big picture windows and double doors or bifolds. Don’t duplicate inside & outside – treat it as one large space with BBQ cooking smells & smoke outside, and dining table inside. Extend your views & enjoyment of your garden by lighting it up at night.
Stay connected to nature
Fill your garden with plants that you use and enjoy. Mix up edibles, flowers and other plants, and feel the change in seasons. Add a water bowl – and grow aquatic plants, and provide a water source for wildlife, to bring reflection, and movement into the garden.