Gardens

This courtyard garden is a lush oasis for a tightly-packed Wellington home

This U-shaped courtyard home in a densely packed part of Wellington has been blessed with a natural-looking garden that carefully edits the view

Building their own home was always a dream for Wellingtonians Jess and Kris Sowersby. When the young couple found a flat, sunny section on Miramar Peninsula, in the capital’s southeast, their dream soon became a reality thanks to the skill of architects Andrew Sexton and Hannah Griffin. So successful was the design that the U-shaped house – which also doubles as the office for the owners’ business, Klim Type Foundry – won Home New Zealand magazine’s Best City Home award last year.

While they were very involved in the design of the house, Jess and Kris were less sure about the landscaping, partly due to their lack of gardening expertise, time constraints and a tight budget. “During the planning and building stage we only had a rough idea of the garden – it was always going to happen but only after we had finished building,” says Jess.

By the time the couple were ready to move in, they had a much clearer idea of what they wanted for the garden. Mark Newdick of Local Landscape Architecture Collective helped to interpret and extend their vision further, his sensitive concept complementing their beautiful house far beyond what they had envisaged.

The site

The 494-square-metre infill section had been subdivided from an existing garden and came with little vegetation apart from two po-hutukawa and a camellia. Although the site was surrounded by other houses Jess and Kris were not fazed by this at all. “Privacy was never a huge concern for us. I suppose we realised it could be easily managed by careful architecture, fencing and well-placed greenery.”

Design brief

The couple were happy to leave the landscape design to Mark but were very clear about what they didn’t want. “We’re not fussy or green-fingered,” says Kris, “but we know how to weed a garden and mow a lawn. Something high-maintenance and manicured was out of the question; we simply don’t have the time or expertise to maintain a fancy garden like that. We’re also not really into having lots of flowers. A few is fine, but we’re more into lots of greenery, rocks, sculpture and edible plants.

“The garden needed to complement the house, but also our life. We wanted it to be as ‘natural’ as possible, a semi-unkempt, Desert Road-cum-Japanese-inspired garden, using mostly New Zealand natives.” Jess and Kris also asked that the sheltered courtyard at the centre of the U-shaped home should be “an inviting, comfortable space that was an extension of the house, with lots of plants, seating and ambient lighting”.

The concept

Mark’s aim was to ground the house in the landscape, he explains. “I used tall, medium and short plants, which create a gradient rather than a sudden contrast between horizontal and vertical. The big steppers at the front door were designed to do a similar thing – create an overlap or transition between ‘built’ and ‘landscape’. A welcoming greeting, if you like, and a fun graphic.”

The design achieved all they wanted and more, says Jess. “The house is linear, solid and formal. The garden has a loose structure with varying degrees of texture and height. They both have a muted, natural colour palette. The brief for the house centred on the domestic: we wanted it to feel like a home, not like a shiny, new house. The garden is an extension of this domestic atmosphere; it feels natural and informal. It relaxes the square edges of the building.”

Planting

While the planting might seem loosely structured, Mark was very mindful of the surrounding houses. “We wanted to diffuse the boundaries without being rude to the neighbours, but the main aim was to integrate the house into its setting,” he explains.

“The planting has worked out particularly well in this respect. The inspiration for the planting was taken from the interiors, which almost totally consist of warm timber panelling, and a stripped-back, concrete-sheet cladding. So lots of greys and browns.”

He was also keen to reference both the house and the landscape context in the planting. “This area would have been coastal before an earthquake raised it by about a metre so I chose lots of coastal plants that I don’t often use: Cassinia leptophylla, Festuca glauca, wind grass (Anemanthele lessoniana), Olearia solandri, oioi, Poa cita, corokia, astelia and yellow coprosmas.”

To provide height without taking up too much space, he specified ribbonwood, lancewood and a kōwhai tree. There’s also a feijoa hedge “which fruits like mad” and an olive tree in the courtyard.

Jess and Kris love how Mark positioned plants to “edit out aspects of our surroundings and maintained visibility of nicer parts”. This works indoors and out: “From inside, each window gives you a different frame of calming, lush greens, greys and browns; the background recedes. We also enjoy the seasonal colours of the kōwhai and pōhutukawa,” says Jess.

“We love native bush and we’re keen campers, so we wanted to emulate that experience at home,” she adds. “We wanted to feel surrounded and embraced by the plants. One wish was to be able to lie in bed and see big, wild grasses growing up above the window sill. That desire has certainly come to life – they’ve grown so huge now that we have to push them out of the windows to close them. It’s lovely!”

While they aspire to be keen gardeners, the pair say the garden is ideal for their current level of ability. “Mark did a fabulous job of articulating our brief into a physical, living artwork.”

Words by: Carol Bucknell. Photography by: Juliet Nicholas.

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