Gardens and Vineyards in Marlborough

There is a bit of the green-eyed monster in many of us who live in areas of the country where vineyards are rare or non existent. A visit to Marlborough had me thinking that the green-eyed monster may be wearing rose coloured spectacles with visions of the romance of Tuscany.

Vineyards in Marlborough are acre upon acre upon acre of green monoculture. And frankly there is not a lot that is aesthetically pleasing about endless expanses of tanalised posts, wires and alkathene piping. And while the vineyard cafes, for which many of us would also admit to feeling envy, are generally magnificent, architecturally designed buildings from the front, if you view them as a whole, the backs of the buildings are factories. Stainless steel vats are not great additions to the rural landscape.

Vast vineyards mean little bird life. Birds and grapes don’t go together and stringent efforts are made to kill or at least banish all birds. But worst must be the frost control in an area which has fairly frequent frosts. A local told me that there could be as many as 150 helicopters hovering in the air. I was a bit surprised that they could muster 150 helicopters but the vineyard acreage is huge now. I imagine Apocalypse Now has nothing on these areas and the prospect of long nights with the throbbing of helicopters ensuring the survival of the precious grape crop (while discharging vast quantities of exhaust fumes) would have me selling up and moving to somewhere less likely to be afflicted by deafening noise while I struggled to sleep.

So a recent weekend in Marlborough was a revelation in dispelling the myths of the glamour of living in a grape growing region. Good wine (and plenty of it), good food in vineyard cafes and lots of wealth but the environmental impact is not all great. And in Marlborough, which is dry as a bone, vineyards all need irrigation. With no ground water (so no springs, wells or bores) I was told it all derives from the one river. The current buzz word elsewhere of sustainability was not mentioned. Overall, I concluded, Tuscany it is not.

I was in the area for a weekend looking at gardens in the company of some of the country’s pre-eminent and up and coming gardeners. The first garden had me thinking about whether it was in fact a garden or a landscape but that is pedantic because it stands out as the most sensitive adaptation to the environment that I have seen. We were lucky to see it because it is not open to the public. The house was the initial unique feature – thick concrete poured in curves and completely nestled into a hillside so that it is nearly invisible. In fact, as we walked towards a windowed cupola which appeared to be a garden feature set on a grassy mound, it took a few moments to realise we were walking over the roof of the house. The glassed cupola was the light and ventilation shaft for the kitchen. Entering through a cutting in the hill flanked by ngaio trees, we walked into this curious, curved house where there was a wall of windows looking out to the landscape and the sea. It took your breath away. Living in a hobbit house which is half underground may not appeal to all but I have never seen such sensitive blending of architecture and landscape. It was all of a two minute stroll to the wild coastline and the environment is harsh and unforgiving but simply splendid. Gardening in a traditional style would be doomed to failure but the owner has maximised two view shafts while retaining some shelter from the existing dunes. Vegetation was entirely native and tough – including ngaios, cabbage trees, flaxes, tussocks and toetoe. It looked as if it was all a happy, natural occurrence and it wasn’t until I looked closely that I realised the owner had worked hard to achieve this impression. I figured the land had been re-contoured somewhat to achieve the view shafts (he confirmed that he had indeed bought a bob cat and owned diggers) and I could see where he was managing the native flora to keep a natural appearance without the scruffiness of the wild. But nothing looked contrived or artificial and it was simply remarkable.

Inland from Blenheim, we visited Barewood – Carolyn Ferraby’s garden which carries national significance ranking. Her place was very different with the prettiest garden in combinations of pastel perennials, annuals and shrubs surrounding a very old villa. A florist by profession, she has clearly shunned anything bright or garish and I certainly can’t recall seeing anything spiky. I think of it as an English-styled mixed border approach to gardening and it was the sort of place that my English mother (herself a very good gardener) set about creating in her many gardens but never stuck around long enough to see mature. Harmony is the key, and deceptive understatement. Nothing shouts look at me, look at me. Blending together to create a complete picture is the order of the day. The only mass plantings are the three avenues of matched trees which frame access ways but many of the border plants are repeated in different combinations. Considering we were viewing it at the very end of a dry summer when most gardens can look a little tired and stressed, the owner maintains a high standard with the help of irrigation. It was very pretty.

Southwards, near Kaikoura, we visited Winterhome, another Garden of National Significance. I have never been there before though I have seen it frequently on TV and in magazines where the rose gardens (massed planting of white Margaret Merrill in compartments surrounded by box hedging) and the canal garden feature heavily. Those simple forms photograph well but never inspired me so I was completely unprepared for the impact of this large and mature garden which went so far beyond those two areas. It is Italian in style with intersecting axis but on a fairly grand scale and a complexity of planting which goes beyond the modern formal style with its very limited palette of plants.

This is a garden light on ornamentation (thank goodness) but heavy on structure and form. Lots of walls, loggias, pillars and structural framing but all integrated with planting. It is a garden which has surprises and mystery and where some of the long axis (very long, some of them, stretching hundreds of metres) entice you down to see what is at the end. The structure, or hard landscaping, has aged gracefully so it is not intrusive but gives it all shape and coherence.

I was forced to review my cynicism about the Italian look (all structure and form with no plant interest and usually clichéd structure at that). While I may feel a little sense of NABBH (more of that in a later column – it stands for Not Another Bloody Buxus Hedge), it was great to see gardeners carry off a grand vision with flair and hard work, albeit probably backed up by quite a bit of money.

Barewood and Winterhome are both open to the public but you have to know the right people to get entree to the coastal house and garden.