This exotic Auckland garden is designed as a series of circles, with colour, artistry and excitement at every turn
The farmhouse and exotic garden hidden in New Lynn
The best gardens are created by passionate gardeners; people with vision and determination who want to make something extraordinary.
In the west Auckland suburb of New Lynn is such a garden, a magical place filled with exotic plants, fountains, decorative paving, streams, boardwalks and Oriental statuary.
Glades of tall palms and graceful tree ferns wrap the property in a soft green shroud so that as you stroll along its gently winding paths there’s barely a glimpse of nearby suburbia to disturb the tranquillity.
Owner and designer Craig Thorburn christened the garden Oakvale in homage to the enormous, century-old oak tree near the front gate. He later planted two more pin oaks on either side of the driveway, along with hundreds of other plants during the 30-plus years he and his wife Bronwyn owned the half-hectare section.
While developing the garden Craig also carried out major renovations to the house, a “plain little farmhouse” built in 1910. “The house had been bastardised,” he says. “It was the original farmhouse but was quite an ordinary building with no top storey. I could see the potential there because of the amount of land.
“It was a garden waiting to be awakened. Everyone thought we were mad, because a lot of the bush on the site was full of weeds, plants were very overgrown and the original lawn had a big slope and bad drainage.”
Craig decided to base the layout of the garden on a series of circles, each a courtyard or area of open space, connected to each other by paths that wind their way around the sloping site. “A circle has no beginning and no end, which is a good way to link a series of spaces together,” he says.
The first circle in the series is the now flat green lawn in front of the house. From here an arbour beckons you down a path of concrete pavers through groves of nikau and other trees underplanted with shade-loving plants.
Oakvale’s tall trees were one of the big attractions for Craig, a self-confessed plantaholic. “The existing bush was great because it gave me so many more opportunities for planting. Under the canopy in the shade I could plant abutilon, hostas, helleborus, fuchsia, ferns and orchids.”
While his plant palette is by no means narrow, he admits that he did develop a preference for more exotic species rather than the traditional English-style plants that originally grew in the garden. “I planted 400 old-fashioned roses but about 12 years ago I was bitten by the subtropical bug and completely changed the planting. I guess you would call the theme Singaporean Raj. I’ve always liked Oriental design, which is why I import garden art, paving and other objects from Bali.”
In tandem with the development of the garden Craig renovated and extended the house, adding a new storey and spacious verandas on three sides. Craig worked with his builder father-in-law on the structural aspects of the project although he did all of the work in the garden himself. “I’m very good at demolishing things,” he laughs. “The whole project has been like one big jigsaw, it’s amazing how the pieces all fitted together. We bit off one piece at a time as we didn’t have the money or time to do it all at once.”
Craig’s most recent building project at Oakvale was the construction of a studio and bathroom over the garage, built in the same style as the rest of the house, for his landscape/interior and event design business Grand Illusions.
What’s next for this energetic designer? Unsurprisingly it’s a new direction, southwards to picturesque Greytown in the Wairarapa region where he’s about to open a shop on Main Street selling garden-related products imported from Bali. He’ll be developing a new garden there too, this time with English cottage-style plants much like those he removed from Oakvale all those years ago. The irony of this fact is not lost on Craig, who acknowledges that gardens have a habit of turning full circle.
To link different areas and create continuity in a garden use plants with boldly coloured foliage as Craig has done with the burgundy-leaved Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), ‘Forest Pansy’ (Cercis) and smoke bush (Cotinus).
Explore your own ideas when planning a garden. “You can read every book on garden design, but in the end you adapt what you learn and form your own style,” says Craig.
If a landscape project is too expensive at the outset, break it down into more manageable stages.
Words by: Carol Bucknell | Photography by: Duncan Innes | Styling by: Janice Kumar-Ward