Written by John Williams
Scott Humphreys has been making gardens look beautiful for over 25 years, and his eponymous company has been collecting awards for its work on Auckland’s finest landscape designs. His latest project, which won the Registered Master Landscapers’ highest honour, was for a beautiful garden in Herne Bay.
We caught up with Humphreys at his recently renovated headquarters in Morningside to get his thoughts on what makes a great garden and the best way to go about achieving this. According to Humphreys, the best gardens are planned right from the beginning of the design process; they are integrated with the house in collaboration with the architect and homeowner.
“At that point, the design can be correctly sorted out in terms of levels and materials, how the house and the garden react with each other, and, importantly, how it’s going to be used. Often, though, it’s done the other way around, and the garden has to fit in with what is already there. Sometimes that works out OK but, more often than not, we would have achieved a much better result if we had been brought into the conversation right at the beginning,” he says.
Clearly, the ideal is to start with a blank canvas, but for the vast majority of the houses in our immediate neighbourhoods, new gardens and landscaping have to be retrofitted into existing schemes – many of which have historical overlays, especially along the streetscape.
“Generally, I think the front garden needs to stay traditional, in keeping with the style of the home,” says Humphreys. “For me, they look a little weird when they’ve been done in a really modern style. Having said that, we do try to introduce modern touches, like keeping the traditional white picket fence, but chopping the decorative detail off the top to create a flat, squared-off look.”
The front walls of the villa are often very balanced, and the garden needs to address that symmetry, so you don’t want paths wandering up to the front door from the gate, he says. Also, the streetscape, often with established trees on the grass verge, needs to be considered, so anything done to the front of your home needs to fit in with that scheme, too.
“It’s usually a different story at the back of the house where, more than likely, a modern extension is being added,” he says. “Although we still like to keep everything structured, the rear garden is typically a lot less formal than the front – and that’s usually achieved through planting. We will also relate the structure and layout of the garden to reflect the architecture of the house, creating decks and courtyards and connecting them with paving, making a seamless connection between the inside and the outside – and that in itself tends to give the garden a feeling that it has always been there.”
On the subject of money, Humphreys recommends allocating 15-20 percent of your budget to the garden and landscaping, assuming you’re doing a full-house renovation.
“Certainly in the suburbs, we’re talking about here, it makes sense to invest in a professionally designed garden and landscape – and of course, in on-going maintenance,” he says. “People are spending more than they used to because they realise how much value a good garden adds to a property when it comes to resale. You also end up with so much more of a finished product with a professionally planned garden, with thought having been given to privacy, outdoor living and cooking areas, a nice, level lawn for the kids… and even a swimming pool. It’s the complete package.”
Swimming pools are still very popular, says Humphreys. Timing is important, however. There are a lot of processes involved with installing a pool, not just in terms of designs and plans, but also getting consent from the council, which can take up to two months. Then there are the features that surround the pool – the paving, the landscaping, the fencing – all these take time. Humphreys’ advice? “If you want to be diving into your pool in December, then you will ideally need to start your planning at the beginning of that year, in January or February.”
Auckland’s rather wet and unpredictable climate means that there’s not really a ‘best’ time to start a major landscaping programme. “Excavations are best done when it’s dry. However, in Auckland, February can be as wet as July. Obviously, it can be slower during the winter months, but we work the whole year round. No one wants to lose a summer, so if you were planning a major landscaping project, you’d be looking at planning in February, hopefully, to be all finished by November.”
The soil in our part of the city is generally quite good, he says, although it’s very site specific. “It very much depends on what’s gone on over the years – whether it’s been looked after, had things put into it, been excavated and new soil brought in. However, it’s all about replenishment – what you put into it and what you’re draining out of it.”
As far as favourite trees and plants, Humphreys says it’s as much about choosing something that is resilient – plants that are less affected by bugs or fungal diseases. There’s no point in having a great-looking plant if it’s a nightmare to look after, he says.
“Ficus tuffi is a great option for a hedge. Buxus Green Gem is a good, hardy plant, as are gardenias and hydrangeas. Clivia are great perennials for the shade and are always a staple in our gardens. For full sun, we really like roses – they make for an interesting garden. For a subtropical look, we love using palms, but we will only use Kentia or Phoenix roebelenii. They have a more classic look and they don’t get as hammered by the wind, like the Bangalow and Queen palms which can tend to get a bit scruffy.”
He also mentions plants and trees to steer clear of – in particular, conifers, which are susceptible to canker, and Strelitzia nicolai, the big brother of the bird of paradise plant. “They get really big and have very robust root systems that can cause havoc and damage if they’re planted close to buildings. Pohutukawas are the same,” he adds. “There are some very ill-planned pohutukawas out there.”
Humphreys has one final piece of advice for anyone looking at embarking on a major landscaping project, and that’s to prioritise your money on gaining level space. “The larger the level area you can have the better. And, if you’ve got the space, make sure you have a good lawn – I always say, if you’ve got a good-looking lawn, you don’t have to worry about the garden.”
Five Quick-Fire Questions
Decking or Paving?
Depends. Paving, if you’re close to the ground surface. For a deck, you need at least 450mm to accommodate posts, bearers, and joists, so if you haven’t got that gap between the indoor floor and the ground, then you would need to dig a hole and that needs drainage. Personally, if that’s the case, then I don’t think that it’s meant to be.
Artificial or Real Lawns?
Artificial turf is definitely trending at the moment. However, we like real things. So if you’re going to have a lawn, have a real one, unless there’s a really good reason not to. That’s the rule we run by. Circumstances, where we would install an artificial lawn, would be in a small area that’s in shade for most of the day, where real grass would struggle – that’s one obvious spot. Also, if the area’s going to be used by kids a lot – soccer in the winter, cricket in the summer – and you still want to look out at a pristine-looking lawn, then it’s also worth considering. The products available on the market are getting much better – they have a longer pile, and there’s a realistic thatch in them that makes them look more realistic. Initially.
Apartment Balconies or Small Spaces?
There’s definitely a greater call for more small spaces, like balconies and courtyards, and that’s where we have to start thinking about using planters and pots for the planting and espaliering on the walls, so you can introduce green without taking up much space. You need to be aware that plants in pots dry out quicker than they would in the ground, so that’s something to be aware of – however, you can put in a small irrigation system. Because of the size, everything’s competing for space, and there’s a priority for the placement of furniture, so that has to be planned carefully. The trick is to keep it simple.
Lighting and Heating?
Lighting is very important. Over and above the obvious wayfinding along pathways, there’s the aesthetic side to lighting. We often see our gardens from inside the house, through windows, so some subtle lighting can be very attractive. Lighting is best done at the design stage, so you can plan where the conduits go and where to locate the transformers for the power supply. For warmth, gas strip heaters up in pergolas are great, but for ambiance, nothing quite beats an outdoor fireplace.
Areas of the garden dedicated to growing your own food are definitely on trend – herbs, and salads mainly, but also root vegetables in the winter. People tend to put these in as much to educate their kids as anything else, and that’s a good thing. Almost every garden we put in has at least one variety of citrus, usually a lemon and lime. Occasionally, a client will have a memory of a stone fruit or pip fruit, and we’ll plant a special apple or pear tree.