An unused piece of farmland is transformed into the ultimate family garden

Years of planning and hard work has transformed this farmland just out of Gisborne into a slice of paradise where native trees and exotics live in harmony


A bare paddock and a vision for the future are at the heart of many a good Kiwi tale and that was definitely the case for Jo and Phil Ware, who returned from their obligatory OE in London dreaming of big New Zealand skies and rolling green pastures.

The couple initially made tracks for picturesque Lake Okareka, near Rotorua, where the houses are perched precariously among native bush. But the pull of their home town of Gisborne proved too great and they headed back to their roots.

Ten years ago, after a fruitless search for a house with the view they wanted, they embarked on the striking new-build which they and their two boys, Fletcher, 9, and Cooper, 5, call home.


“We subdivided a piece of my parents’ old farm and built our dream home,” says Jo, a freelance photographer and event manager. “The site has views to Young Nick’s Head and Mount Arowhana, which gets a light dusting of snow several times each winter.”

Kaiti Hill is in the distance and in between is the expansive Poverty Bay Flats, home to many of the district’s vineyards. “We’re lucky as we get to enjoy the New Year’s Eve Rhythm and Vines Festival’s fireworks for free,” laughs Jo.

Out of the one-hectare site there was only one pocket of land that was deemed suitable for the build. The couple visited this spot often, at different times of the day, to make sure their designs took account of the sun and the views. “Without this, we wouldn’t have been able to build our outdoor living spaces and enjoy the sun as much as we do,” says Jo.


After the house was finished in October 2006 and they had moved in, the couple commenced phase two: a few years of “phenomenal grass planting”. The area suffers from the spring equinox winds, so they sowed a tough pasture species which has thrived in the rugged conditions.

Two years later, the first plants went into the ground. These were primarily to counter rill erosion, which was becoming an issue on the exposed site, by establishing windbreaks. “Our soil is naturally very light and like a sieve. We’ve had to use mulch extensively. We’ve put on close to 200 cubic metres of aged mulch – by hand!” says Jo.


With the soil stabilised, the pair began surrounding themselves with a small forest of natives, taking care to retain their spectacular views. They now have more than 60 species, including titoki, mamaku (black tree fern) and Chatham Island nikau, some of which are now developing their own micro-climate. Self-sown trees have popped up, encouraging plenty of birdlife.

“The mulch has meant our trees have flourished and we are now at the stage of having to cull some. At the same time, we are able to start planting the understorey,” says Jo. “Birds have also returned, with lots of tui, kereru, a family of moreporks in the trees behind us, and even shining cuckoo.”

The garden

The original plan was to plant only natives, but after plenty of thought Jo and Phil decided to incorporate some exotics, including the ever-versatile Portuguese laurel as hedging. It gives the garden a strong structure as well as year-round texture and interest.


The hedging has turned out to be a significant and often-admired feature but does require extensive trimming several times a year, a skill Phil has had to master.

Phil, a commercial manager for a veterinary practice, has also become an expert path-maker. Paths have become a vital part of the garden, both for maintenance purposes and to encourage visitors to explore. The outdoor living areas are bordered by more formal planting, then, as you get further from the house, the garden becomes more forest-like.


The front of the house has floor-to-ceiling windows to take advantage of the views but the land at the back of the house was underused. Jo and Phil felt it would be the perfect place for a sheltered entertaining area.

“A local architect designed the outdoor-fire area. We also installed a window above our kitchen hob to connect to the outside,” Jo says. This window has affectionately become known as “the Burger King window”.


The result is a spot protected from the northwest winds where the family can chill out and catch the last of the evening’s rays. The front of the home is also ideal for chasing the sun, so a new saltwater pool has been added, with a kwila boardwalk surrounding it and linking back to the house.

The natural slope of the land turned out to be an advantage when the couple were planning the pool. The hedging that runs along the steep side acts as a safety barrier and avoids having to clutter the view with fencing. It also integrates the pool seamlessly into the garden beyond.

The future

Jo and Phil say making sure their garden was accessible for everyone to enjoy was key to their plans and it’s the one thing they’re most proud of. They love cooking outdoors, swimming in the pool, and being able to see their family and friends enjoy the fruits of their Herculean effort in establishing the garden. It is all the reward they need.

But this is a never-ending story and change is a constant at the Ware household. Ideas they are currently mulling over include a platform in the gully, more of their famous hedging, and planting yet more natives to encourage the birds.

Jo and Phil’s garden will be open to the public as part of the Gisborne Garden and Arts Festival in November.

Words by: Tina Stephen. Photography by: Sarah Horn.

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