STORY: SUE ALLISON • PHOTOS: JULIET NICHOLAS
In this singular Marlborough homestead, a brother and sister combine their creative flair and love of plants to create a stunning floriferous tapestry. Welton House offers commanding views over farmland and vineyards to distant hills, but the foreground is even more arresting. Colourful, textural, sculptural, original. It is a garden that invites description while defying definition and flouting fashion. “We don’t have rigid rules here,” says Wendy Palmer of her Marlborough garden, which is a mix of exotics and natives, soft flowers and clipped topiaries, rare beauties and the commonplace, all woven into an unorthodox tapestry that changes dramatically with seasons. The three-hectare garden is a collaborative venture with her brother, Ross. “We come from a family of mad gardeners,” says Wendy. “If we wanted to talk to our parents in the weekend, we had to go out to the garden. I’ve always loved gardening, but Ross is the one who has taken it to extremes.” Wendy’s gardens have grown in size with passing decades. She started with a window box before graduating to a balcony in her 20s. Her first terrestrial plot was in London, where Ross, who was over there gardening and studying landscape architecture, helped design an inner-city garden. When Wendy shifted to Suffolk, he helped her create a walled cottage garden in the countryside. In 2001, after two decades in England, Wendy returned home to New Zealand with her young daughter, Maia, and purchased Welton House. With Ross also back in the Antipodes nine years later, it was only a matter of time before the sibling duo tackled their third and largest joint project. The story of Welton House started a century earlier, in 1901, when the landowner, Arthur Mills, built the home for his new wife, Sarah. Positioned high on an ancient sand dune to avoid the Wairau River’s regular floods, it began as a modest abode but has been modified and enlarged over the decades. Wendy’s incarnation sees the house faithfully renovated, but with large picture windows and terraces connecting it physically and visually with the garden. The garden’s diversity is, in part, a response to its challenges. Scorching summer sun, wind and regular droughts are on the region’s calendar, and the fertile sedimentary soils are interspersed with sandy patches and boggy bits. Then there are the rabbits that can literally nip the best-laid plans in the bud. On the bright side, the westerly breeze keeps frosts at bay, and microclimates within the garden open up a raft of possibilities for the artistic pair of plant-lovers. Wendy and Ross plant to the conditions and look for silver linings. A distinctive feature of the garden illustrates this well. When Wendy planted a corokia hedge to screen the swimming pool, she was dismayed when the seedlings took off at vastly variable rates. It transpired that dray-loads of material had been brought in to flatten the house site, leaving intermittent patches of loam and heavy silt. Undaunted, Ross took to the scrappy hedge with shears, accentuating the highs and lows to form topiaried hills that mirror the topography of the local Richmond Range. “He’s really a frustrated sculptor,” says Wendy. “He has an extraordinary ability to visualise things in three dimensions, coupled with a huge botanical knowledge.” Add a fertile imagination and the possibilities are endless. San Pedro cacti and silvery Leucadendron argentea flourish on sun-baked terraces; a rare Marlborough weeping broom (Carmichaelia stevensonii) shares its bed with a cactus-like Eryngium agavifolium sea holly; lancewood heads appear above mounds of Muehlenbeckia astonii like groups of people chatting; a ‘Crepuscule’ rose clambers over native bush to reach the light. In a fiery bed of their favoured orange hues, thorns of Rosa sericea glow scarlet among poppies, native red tussocks and clumps of bronze fennel. Around the corner, all is demure in a border of pink, blue and cream. “It’s a bit of a polyglot, but there is a lot of emphasis on flowers,” says Ross. “The reality is that our native plant palette is incredibly textural but doesn’t often have that joie de vivre in terms of flowers. Flowers and colour lift the spirits. It’s ingrained in our psyche.” “We aren’t afraid of colour,” adds Wendy, who spurns “the god of good taste” and has simple advice for aspiring gardeners: Do what you want to do. Make yourself happy and the garden will follow. The Big Border below the house is a symphony of colour almost year-round, with unexpected chord changes as different plants pick up the tune. Hellebores, miniature irises and trilliums lead a winter procession that reaches Above: The boughs of a black beech (Fuscospora solandri) make a dramatic backdrop to a display of Ixia viridiflora ‘Elvira’, golden bearded irises and Dianthus carthusianorum. Right: A curtain of Rosa ‘Crepuscule’ on a woodland trail. Below: The Thai spirit house above a sea of ‘Mutabilis’ roses. a crescendo with a burst of colourful polyanthus towards the end of the season. “Polyanthus are such an underrated plant,” says Wendy of the hardy little bloomers. Spring brings a display of red, pink and orange, with purple Iris siberica a showstopper for a few short weeks. Euphorbia griffithii ‘Dixter’ is another performer with its bronze leaves and orange bracts, while ‘Mutabilis’ roses, their blooms ranging from hot pink to gold, link the warm colours and bring harmony to the beds through summer. The garden fills up as summer progresses, becoming taller and tawnier as the grasses sprout seedheads. Plumes of the native form of Deschampsia cespitosa wave over full-blown perennials, while large black taro leaves add dramatic contrast nearer ground level. By autumn, the beds are more than 2m high, with canna lilies giving a final flourish before being felled by the first frosts. “One of the most remarkable things about this garden is how well it keeps through late summer,” says Wendy. “Ross has created a succession garden that looks fabulous until we cut it down.” In the northeast corner is a cool green antidote to the vibrant beds. “The native bush is one of my favourite spaces because it’s so calming,” says Wendy, who has watched the trees grow through the kānuka, used as a nurse crop for cover, to transform once-bare pasture into a forest. “We are now managing the whole time, manipulating the canopy to let light in,” says Ross. Many of the trees have become gardens themselves. South American bromeliads (Billbergia nutans) and Australian rock orchids (Dendrobium speciosum) share branches with native orchids and kōwaowao ferns (Microsorum pustulatum). “Epiphytes are a big part of our ecosystem in Aotearoa,” says Ross, who scales ladders to plant aerial gardens, securing them in beds of coir after birds started stealing the sphagnum moss for their nests. Kahikatea, pukatea and swamp maire thrive in the wettest part of the bush, along with bog-loving Astelia grandis and woody kiekie (Freycinetia banksii), which resembles an epiphyte but can climb the highest trees. Inhabitants of the forest floor include native hen and chicken ferns (Asplenium bulbiferum) grown by Michael Owens from locally collected seed and spores, as well as plum tart irises (Iris graminea) and rare white Anemone leveillei, which Wendy and Ross are spreading through the bush. A gargantuan Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, which is on the Notable Trees of New Zealand list, is an imposing anchor near the house. “Lawson cypresses were popular in Victorian times. It’s not something I would plant, but it’s got a real presence,” says Ross. They have “heroed” the tree, surrounding it with hefty decking and adorning its branches with lights and colourful epiphytes. Beneath are plants partial to dry shade. Silver astelias, Brazilian plume flowers and striking South African paintbrush lilies sit amid aspidistras, all descendants of a pot plant from Wendy’s flatting days, and orange clivias from their Uncle Harry’s garden in the Manawatū. Nearby, an intricate Thai spirit house, a 50th birthday present from Ross to his sister, adds a mystical element. For Wendy, a consummate cook, the potager is central to the garden. Raised beds are packed with vegetables, and the lawn is dotted with citrus bushes, nut and fruit trees, with a focus on heritage varieties. Heritage is important to Wendy, be it fruit or Uncle Harry’s clivias. She takes cuttings from old hedges to create new ones and the Echeveria elegans that spill down the verandah steps, descendants of one plant, also grace the pots of many friends. Three-dimensional artistry is central to Welton House garden, but so is consideration of the fourth dimension: time. Its gardeners are mindful of the passage of seasons, evolving forms of maturing flora and provenance of plants. “There’s a beautiful magnolia outside my bedroom which constantly fills me with joy. I don’t know who planted it, but I am grateful,” says Wendy, who, like her forebears, knows they are not only planting for themselves but also paying it forward. Extracted from In the Company of Gardeners published by Penguin Random House NZ, RRP $55. Text © Sue Allison, 2021 and Photography © Juliet Nicholas, 2021.