Outdoor

A blank canvas is transformed into an epic courtyard garden

A completely blank canvas has been transformed into a private contemporary courtyard on the fringe of Auckland’s city centre

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The secret garden

The courtyard garden has been around for thousands of years, its basic enclosed form adapted through the centuries to suit the lifestyles of different generations. So it is with this contemporary courtyard garden that Claire and Nye O’Shannessy have developed for their recently built Mt Albert home. Enclosed on three sides by the house and on the fourth by a boundary fence, their sunny courtyard is an oasis of sheltered private outdoor living. There’s no hint of the noise and bustle of the streets outside and there’s little wind to disturb the serenity.

Just as the inhabitants of the first walled gardens did, the couple and their two daughters, Isla and Neve, spend a lot of time in their courtyard sanctuary.

“In the summer the big sliding doors are open until late; it really is an extension of the house,” says Claire. “We eat out there most nights in the summer as a family and also like to have people round for barbecues. It’s so nice to see everyone enjoying the space.”

The site 

The couple bought the narrow 750-square-metre site four years ago with the aim of subdividing it. They moved an existing bungalow to the back of the section, living there while Nye, a builder, worked on their new home. “The opportunity to do something new from a clean slate was very appealing,” says Claire.

To ensure they could maximise the space available they commissioned architect Jan Bernau to design the house and award-winning landscape designer Xanthe White to create the garden. “The brief we gave Xanthe was for a lush, ‘secret garden’ feel, with an area for outdoor dining,” says Claire. “It provides our ‘view’ as well as another room to the house so it needed to be practical as well as attractive.”

Landscaping 

Although there was no existing garden when they began, just a building site, this gave Xanthe a completely blank canvas to work with. Having a live-in builder was another plus. “Nye did all the hard landscaping work himself along with his team of builders and a few willing family members,” says Claire. “Most of the major excavating was done when the house was built but we did have to bring in lots of new garden mix. Although the soil here is pretty good, we used raised planter beds to create some depth in the outdoor area and help enclose the space.”

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Landscaping style

The garden is contemporary in style, complementing the clean, crisp lines of the architecture. The planting is a mixture of natives and Claire’s favourite subtropicals. “My dad has quite a big subtropical garden in Mangawhai and I like that feeling of being on holiday it evokes,” she explains. “I love the large dramatic leaves of the tropical plants; a big impact in a small space. We also wanted a relatively low-maintenance garden. We quite like getting out there and pottering away but didn’t want it to be a burden. Mostly it’s pruning, which is a better alternative to weeding.”

We liked the idea of creating something private –

our own secret garden

Cleverly, for a small subdivided site, there are also no neighbours looking in. “We liked the idea of creating something private – our own secret garden, so to speak – that we could appreciate from inside and out,” Claire says.

Having two courtyards (there’s one at the front, too) means the family can use the spaces for different activities and at different times of the day but the main courtyard is where they like to hang out most. “The front entrance courtyard is a lovely sunny spot in the winter, but a bit under-utilised right now as we need some furniture out there,” she admits. “The original landscaping plan had some bench seats, which are yet to be built. We definitely use the main courtyard the most at the moment.”

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Planting for courtyard gardens

Palms are one of the key plant groups in the garden, emphasising the subtropical theme. The tall, upright form of the palms and the giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) will eventually help balance the height of the house. Nye’s a big fan of the palms while Claire loves the Japanese maples and fruit salad plants (Monstera). “We don’t have many flowering plants in there so the Japanese maples and bromeliads add colour all year round,” she says. There’s also no lawn – not a traditional one, anyway. Instead Xanthe designed ornamental lawns of creeping baby fern (Leptinella) for each courtyard, the bright green foliage contrasting beautifully with the dark-coloured walls of the house.

The couple are keen kitchen gardeners. “We have a rampant herb garden, with thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, parsley and Vietnamese mint, and a lemon tree. We have experimented with growing edibles in pots, too, and lettuces in felt pockets. However, the best success was the strawberries this year,” enthuses Claire.

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Standout features 

When asked for her favourite feature in the garden, Claire can’t pinpoint just one. For her and Nye, it’s the overall atmosphere of their secret garden that has given them so much joy. “It’s definitely not the traditional big Kiwi backyard but I think that is no longer realistic for many people in Auckland,” she says. “So instead we wanted a really usable space, maximising what outdoor area we did have and creating somewhere we could relax and eat outside as a family.

It’s definitely not

the traditional big Kiwi backyard...

“The kids still manage to find fun out there. They potter around making ‘perfumes’ or finding insects and having picnics on the ‘lawn’. There are plenty of parks and the school in walking distance, so if we need a little more space it’s easy enough to find.

Although small, the courtyard has been designed so efficiently that there is ample room for all the extended family, or lots of friends, to come over. When that happens, says Claire, “the kids (there can be quite a few at times) usually find a place to play while the adults can enjoy some time to themselves”.

Words by: Carol Bucknell. Photography by: Helen Bankers.

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