An overgrown East Auckland garden is now an oasis filled with birds and bees

Battling an awkward site and a tight budget, this fledgling landscape designer has achieved the ultimate urban retreat


An overgrown East Auckland garden is now an oasis filled with birds and bees

When Dee McQuillan first moved into her townhouse in Auckland’s eastern suburbs she was a solo mother with two young boys. At first, the compact 380-square-metre site seemed ample for all their outdoor needs.

Fast forward eight years and the family has expanded to include husband Nic McQuillan, regular visitors Aimee and Holly (his stepdaughters), a dog, two cats, bantam hens, two aviaries (housing canaries, finches and cockatiels), several goldfish and some beehives. Thankfully, Dee decided to retrain as a landscape designer during those intervening years and, as a result, her plot can now accommodate all its inhabitants with panache.



The property was in dire need of improvement when Dee purchased it, with the house painted yellow inside and out, and the garden overgrown with weeds. The only plants were a few straggly fruit trees and a large date palm.

“To me, the date palm was the reason I bought the house, which is crazy really, as it is not something I would ever recommend planting (due to its spiky, toxic foliage). I liked the way the palm tree connected to the height of the house and added a leafy ‘roof’ to the courtyard. From the master bedroom, you can look down on the date palm and feel like you’re in another world.”


Another positive was the generous courtyard, which received all-day sun and had an established hedge along the back boundary that provided plenty of shelter. For a fledgling garden designer, though, there were a few issues to contend with, including the awkward shape of the site, difficult access, lack of privacy and a variety of outlooks from the house.

“The house has two storeys, so the view from above is an important aspect,” she explains. “Every window looks into, up to or over the garden, so I had to put a lot of thought into my lines of sight when positioning everything. On top of it all, we had virtually no budget so if it couldn’t be begged, borrowed or done ourselves, it wasn’t going to happen.”



To screen out the neighbours, the McQuillans planted a pleached hedge and some trees along two boundaries and built a new fence along another. Painting all the disparate fences black gave the garden a more unified look. Dee also used Resene ‘Waikawa Grey’ on a fence screening the carport, a colour that is excellent in an outdoor situation.

“Although this is a strong blue-grey, it blends with the iron roof of the carport and flows up to the skyline,” she says. “I’ve then repeated this colour throughout the garden, using it on the garden shed, both aviaries, one of the beehives and also my ‘mock window’ on the back fence. It tones in well with our large silver pots and outdoor furniture.”


The couple built a small retaining wall to provide a platform for a trampoline and added another terrace to the existing retaining wall to make the lawn more level. Planting star jasmine to tumble down the retaining wall helped improve the view from inside.

They also built a floating deck around the side of the house for easy access and to house Dee’s potting table and propagation area. “We put drainage everywhere and carried loads and loads of compost, horse manure, garden mix, mulch and pebbles up those two flights of steps.”


Dee says she loves every plant in her garden as there’s not enough space to tolerate things she doesn’t like. “As the garden is small, I really try to apply William Morris’ principle to ‘have nothing that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.” Some plants are handy for providing screening or year-round structure, while others are purely there to add fragrance, colour or something edible.

When pressed, Dee does admit to a particular passion for her scented shrub Brugmansia x candida ‘Plena’, planted just outside the kitchen window. “It has the most amazing fragrance when it flowers, especially at night.


The fragrance will fill the house on a hot night. I also love ‘Crepuscule’, a climbing rose and the first to flower in spring, and lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), a groundcover that’s a lovely grey and goes with everything. It’s very well behaved, has stunning spires of purple flowers beloved by bees, smells like citrus and it’s fluffy! What more could you want from a plant?”

Standout features

Dee treasures the courtyard water feature, a birthday gift to her husband. “We all enjoy the fish, and the fountain makes a very relaxing sound. It creates a lovely atmosphere in the courtyard under the date palm,” she says.


The resident bees are also much loved. Their hives were introduced to help arrest declining bee populations, but now the family are completely hooked, says Dee. “We love to see them pollinate our fruit and flowers. They are so interesting and calming to watch as they work away around the garden. And something unexpected was how good the beehives smell – a sweet, spicy, honey fragrance that drifts through the garden.”

Words by: Carol Bucknell. Photography by: Wendy Fenwick.

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