Flora fanatic Dylan Norfield has transformed a gorse-covered Blueskin Bay site into a wonderland of rare and interesting plants
Like many gardeners, Dylan Norfield has an addiction – an addiction to plants, that is. It’s hardly surprising, considering his parents ran a nursery and his job is managing the plant collections at Dunedin Botanic Garden. “I know I have a problem but, as addictions go, I don’t think it’s too bad,” he says wryly. “My garden is definitely a plant collector’s garden. I collect plants from all around the country that are rare and unusual. It’s for our enjoyment but also to preserve many species that are hard to find.”
Luckily, Dylan, wife Jo and daughter Libby, 8, live on a large property (5000 square metres) so there’s plenty of space to indulge his cravings, and theirs too. “Jo and Libby love plants and have developed an interest in gardening,” says Dylan. “Libby has grown vegetables most years and loves succulents and carnivorous plants.”
Originally from the UK, Jo and Dylan moved to New Zealand in 2005 after a holiday that saw them both fall in love with Dunedin. “The climate was perfect for growing a huge range of plants.” A year later, the family bought their current property, which is 20 kilometres north of Dunedin in an area known as Blueskin Bay. There was a small dwelling on the site when they bought it, but after a year the couple realised it wasn’t worth renovating so they built a new house.
Sheltered from all but the northwesterly winds, the site is near the coast but faces inland across Blueskin Bay towards the Silver Peaks mountain range. “It’s surrounded completely by native bush with amazing birdlife,” says Dylan.
“Orokonui Ecosanctuary isn’t far away, just over the hill, and it has helped increase bird numbers – we have resident kereru, bellbirds, tui, fantails, South Island robin, tomtits, riflemen, grey warblers. And, more recently, kaka are now frequent visitors.”
There was no garden when they arrived, as most of the sloping site was covered with gorse, and the rest in regenerating pines. “Our first five years were spent removing gorse and pine trees while still finding areas to plant trees.”
Before the new house was built, Dylan started planting. “I believe, if possible, the garden needs to be planted and designed early in the process, as often it is an afterthought, installed after the house construction.”
He says the sloping topography of the land largely determined how the garden evolved. “I let the plants do the designing. From my time working in England doing displays for the Chelsea and Hampton Court garden shows, I do have an eye for the placement of plants – it helps having a good idea of plants’ growth and size, and I’m a good pruner. Also, I love Japanese maples and have planted large quantities around the garden, so these have determined to some extent what goes where.”
Luckily, no major earthworks were required to develop the garden. The only significant structures are the 80-square-metre deck that wraps around the house and a boardwalk across one of the ditches to ensure better flow around the site. “The garden still needed to be child-friendly, so space was cleared for a trampoline and a flying fox between the trees.”
As most of the plants are rare and unusual they are not available in garden centres, so Dylan either propagated them himself or was given them by friends. “Each year I graft lots of trees to increase the collection and this is where most of my 70 maple species and cultivars have come from. Doing it this way means you cannot plan where things are going to go in advance as it all takes time.”
Heavy frosts in the first year killed some plants, but since then there have been few frosts and he now successfully grows cold-tender plants such as banana. “I believe in ‘right plant, right place’. Like all gardeners, I have killed many plants but I never give up and keep trying them in a new spot. My Cordyline indivisa is attempt number six, but at last I got it right. I am under no illusion that fickle plants won’t die suddenly, and therefore I will have to start again,” he says philosophically.
Maples are his favourites due to their diversity, resilience and, with many, colour throughout the year. “Whatever size your garden, you can fit at least one, and maples give you interest for more than one season. Spring leaf colour, summer leaf tones, followed by dramatic autumn colours and even branch structures in winter. They are good value.”
Dylan applies a layer of mulch annually to all his plant borders which means he has to do very little weeding. “People underestimate the importance of mulch for a low-maintenance garden. Life is very busy with full-time work and child activities. I love pottering around the garden and often do a bit of pulling and cutting as I go,” he says.
Although it may look as if the garden is fully established, Dylan considers it to be only in its early stages of development. “It will never be finished and the day I believe the garden is finished is the day I will have to move. I am a plant addict and with my love of trees I have already overplanted the section. This does not mean I am not still putting plants in!”
Not one to rest on his laurels, he’s also busily establishing a second garden, this one in Naseby in the Maniototo region where the temperatures and low rainfall are ideal for continental-climate plants. “I am starting a new collection of plants there from central North America and central China/Asia.”
So does he ever sit back and relax in the garden? “I am not very good at relaxing; Jo would vouch for this. My way of relaxing is wandering around the garden looking at plants. Jo and I do sit at the top of the garden, under the last couple of pine trees, and enjoy looking back at the garden and Blueskin Bay over a cup of tea.”
Words by: Carol Bucknell. Photography by: Isabella Harrex.