Written by John Williams
With summer in full swing, we bring together three of Auckland’s top landscape designers to discuss the latest and greatest for your outdoor living areas.
Fully functional outdoor kitchens have become a ‘thing' recently. What are our designers’ views on this – good idea or overkill?
“Outdoor kitchens are great, but they're a big-ticket item," says Kirsten Sach of Kirsten Sach Landscape Design. "Built-in barbecues and pizza ovens can really make for a great entertaining area and can be more attractive to look at, but usually a kitchen company would need to be involved with the cabinetry and benchtops, so a good budget is required.”
Tracy Chalmers from Shafer Design agrees that outdoor kitchens are great, but they need to be considered in the early planning stages. “The kitchen layout will often centre around the quintessential kiwi barbecue, which otherwise can be difficult to fit neatly into a design. With today’s slimline, in-built benchtop options, designers have a great opportunity to develop stylishly appointed and highly functioning outdoor entertainment hubs."
“I love outdoor kitchens, but you need to keep them simple and bulletproof,” says landscape designer Trish Bartleet. “However, they can get dusty and grimy when not in use, so they need to be able to be easily cleaned, hosed or wiped down.”
Outdoor rooms or all-weather, all-year spaces are another big-ticket item that can make an incredible difference to your home and lifestyle. What are the latest developments in this area?
“It's cheaper to build an outdoor room than an indoor one, and they are much more versatile. I can’t recommend them enough!” says Trish. “Opening roofs, louvres or rollaway awnings give flexibility and all-season use. Clients often worry about the roofs blocking light, but you can install glass sections close to the house to allow light in all year.”
Covered patios and outdoor rooms really extend your home's living space, adds Tracy, with the extra benefit that outdoor furniture is protected from the elements and you no longer have to find storage for cushions and squabs. “Our variable climate, with high UV and rainfall, takes an enormous toll on even the most durable brands,” she says.
“With louvre systems, there’s now a greater variety and price range to choose from in New Zealand than ever before. Initially, louvre systems offered rotating fins; now, there are retractable options available, too. We like this option as the roof can be left open to allow more light into the home.”
Tracy also has concerns around natural light inside when there’s a covered patio area directly off the house. “We recommend that new builds include transom windows so that light can continue to flow into the home above the patio roof. Another option is to have the covered roof as a freestanding structure, and connect it to the house with a simple glass panel. Custom greenhouses also make incredible, architecturally appealing, covered outdoor spaces; they can be light-filled, with awnings and shade systems installed for sun protection, where necessary."
Are our designers being asked about – or are you steering your clients towards – more sustainable gardens and outdoor living spaces, not only in terms of growing and maintaining plants, but also in the choice of products and materials such as recycled timber for decking or more natural materials?
“Yes, certainly harvesting and storing rainwater is a hot topic these days, especially after the last couple of drought years and Auckland’s water shortages,” says Tracy. “[Aesthetically] we believe the colour palette for materials should be in natural tones, unless we want to make a point of focus such as a feature wall, for example. We also suggest staining timber fences a dark colour to make them disappear; the dark colour also showcases the plants and makes them pop. And, if viable, we would certainly suggest reusing timber, particularly in a more rustic design.”
"Not so much recycled materials, apart from rustic hardwood sleepers or wharf piles," adds Kirsten. "Decking timber doesn't have a long life really, so you wouldn't be reusing old timber." She says there's a definite emphasis on dry-tolerant plants where possible, and people often ask for stormwater collection tanks.
Trish says she always raises the question of sustainability when discussing plants and structural materials with her clients. However, she also mentions issues around durability and longevity. “Not all natural materials are long lasting. However, I am happy to use them as long as the client accepts that they will need to replace them within a timeframe or maintain them more regularly.
“I often select plants for three stages of growth – for the long term, the medium, and short-term plants for immediate impact. The garden will change with the growth of the long-term plants, and they are the ones you will prune and shape for the garden's life. Choosing the right plants for the site is an important sustainability issue,” she says. “Lots of clients are very keen on installing water storage tanks as part of their garden design. As the professionals say, it's impossible to store enough water to support your garden over a dry summer. I am watching with interest. We shall see."
And while we are on the subject of sustainability, what are their thoughts on edible gardens, beehives and chicken coops?
“Not too many beehives or chicken coops – they are for a unique type of client – but I do get a few,” says Trish. "I do, however, get asked for edible gardens. I encourage clients to take up even the least opportunity for growing some edibles – either as separate raised beds, large pots, or just edible elements incorporated into the design. Coloured silverbeet, parsley, purple sage all look amazing incorporated among other plants.”
Kirsten agrees, adding that vege gardens are predominantly for suburban gardens, whereas bees and chickens are almost always on lifestyle blocks. “People love fruit trees and citrus, and often use edibles in an ornamental way, perhaps for hedging or a garden border.”
“We’ve seen a huge rise in requests for edible gardens, especially since the beginning of Covid, as there's been a sense of a desire to be able to feed oneself if needed," says Tracy.
“Raised vegetable boxes and fruit trees are super popular, and a great deal of fun can be had from growing unusual vegetables such as gourds, training espalier fruit trees, and growing triple-grafted fruit trees. These are perfect for smaller gardens, and there's a huge range of dwarf fruit trees to choose from, too. My current favourite is the Ballerina apple tree, which can make a great vertical accent in the garden. Remember, too, you don’t always need a designated area – vegetables and fruiting trees can be interspersed throughout your garden.”
What species or varieties are 'on trend' regarding plants, flowers, hedging and trees?
"I think that it is a 'trend' not to be 'on trend'," says Trish. "My clients seem to be keen to push the boundaries and be more eclectic in their choices; to plant gardens that are unique to them."
"Native gardens continue to gain in popularity," says Tracy, "with a Mediterranean/NZ native fashion working well, particularly in coastal areas. Our native flora, with its muted tones of green, burgundy and sage blue, work well with silver-leaved plants such as olives trees, westringia, lavender and rosemary – adding Cupressus Totem for striking vertical accents. Popular tees for more extensive gardens are Quercus Palustris (pin oaks), Liquidamber, Liriodendron and, for smaller spaces, Acer, Magnolia, Lagerstroemia and Cercis trees, particularly Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’.
“Our city environment still largely desires a more formal approach with neatly clipped hedges and a green and white colour palette. Our go-to hedging species are Ficus ‘Tuffy’, Buxus 'Green Gem' and 'Ilex Largo'. We've been enjoying Lauris Nobilis (bay), and Pittosporum ‘Stephens Island’, too.”
For fast, tall hedging, Tracy says it’s difficult to beat Eugenia Ventinatii, although it is prone to psyllid. A new variety called Syzygium Resilience has been bred to combat this and appears to be more evenly coloured than its predecessor.
“Grasses are also becoming more popular. The Australian Lomandra grasses grow well in New Zealand, although we recommend giving them plenty of space to grow; they grow bigger here, and if not given enough room, their beautiful, rounded form is stifled. Tropical gardens are still requested often, particularly around swimming pools; they look good all year round and, once established, are quite low maintenance,” she adds.
“There will always be those who love sub-tropical gardens, and there are those who love a formal English garden layout… it really comes down to taste,” says Kirsten. “There are certain plants making a big comeback, like hydrangeas and flowering perennials, and also plants and trees that attract bees and birds.”
Planting patterns and themes: are you leaning towards a particular style, or does it depend on the home's architecture?
“I don’t think I have a particular style,” says Trish. “I like interesting gardens that work well with the architecture, the clients and the site – but not necessarily in that order! I like my clients to be excited by my gardens and for me to be happy with my choices. It can be a tortuous process but very rewarding."
Tracy says it's taken a long time, but the 'natural garden' movement is slowly taking hold in New Zealand.
"Piet Oudolf, a Dutch landscape designer, is the leading figure in the 'prairie'-style garden movement, where large sweeps of grasses and flowering perennials are naturally grouped together. I was first exposed to this style of landscape over 20 years ago when living and working in the UK. I have collected plants and perennials over time, trialling them to see how they cope with our changeable climate and clay soils.
“We have had a very limited variety of plants available because of our stringent importation laws, and a lot of the beautiful, floaty grasses such as Pennisetum are banned in NZ, but other varieties such as Miscanthus and Calamagrostis grasses are available. I look forward to seeing how this style unfolds here. It requires a certain level of maintenance and care, so it’s a style that would suit keen gardeners, I think.”
Front gardens are often neglected in terms of design, but they are the shop window of your home. Do our designers have any advice for this small but essential outdoor area?
All three say that they love being given an entrance or a front garden to design. Good design pays dividends, adding pizazz and lifting the property to the next level, says Tracy. “As you say, it's a small but very important area, so the design should be bold, proportionate, relative and strongly directional.”
Kristen agrees, saying front gardens are about formality and often involve clean lines, particularly for a character home. "Function is also essential, as is flow to the front door. They also make a considerable difference to the street appeal of a house."
“I wish there were more low fences and open front gardens that can be shared with the street,” adds Trish, “although I do feel the urge to put notes in some letterboxes to give them a helping hand… things like ‘please cut out that yucca before it eats your house’!”
Talking about plants taking over the house, are designers planting living walls? And are these a practical option for most people?
“I think they can be great, but the only successful green walls are those that are fully irrigated, and where the planting has been carefully chosen for the situation,” says Kirsten. “I do get asked fairly often, but once they are priced up, people generally steer away.”
Living walls are a relatively new concept, adds Tracy, but there’s certainly a growing interest in them. “Personally, I am very excited [about them], and I'm watching avidly to see how a new installation around the corner from our offices in Orewa develops. So far, so good. It’s been in for a couple of years and is getting better and better. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful.”
Bringing things back down to earth, Tracy agrees with Kirsten that they tend to be quite expensive but are a good option where planting space is limited, for example, in a small courtyard garden in a heavily hard-scaped urban environment. “These external spaces are often surrounded by tall, unforgiving walls that, when turned into green walls, can be a spectacular transformation.”
Tracy also recommends using a reputable brand installed by professionals, with follow-up maintenance. They will know the best plant species to use in these conditions and ensure the plants receive adequate nutrients, watering, trimming and replacement where necessary.
“I would also be very particular about location. It’s a high-impact landscape piece, so I would use it in a focal-point situation such as on a feature wall or a front entrance, with uplighting. I would also make sure the environment is controlled, for example, protection from strong afternoon sun and wind.”
A cost-effective way of arranging and displaying plants is in pots and planters. Large, small, round, square… what’s the go here? Also, what materials look good, and what’s the best way to group pots?
“I love pots and, yes, lots of them, as long as they are big enough to support the plants,” says Trish. “The best example of great outdoor pot combinations and planting is in Dawsons’ carpark, off The Strand. I think combinations of all shapes and colours of pots are great, but they need to be grouped together, or evenly spaced throughout a garden… say, in groups of three or five.”
Pots are either the icing on the cake or, ‘oh dear’, says Tracy. “Quite often, they end up being a collection over a lifetime – gifted, inherited or rescued, becoming an eclectic mix – which can look fantastic if the rest of the garden is much the same, but otherwise can be a bit of a mess. As is often the case with good design, some restraint is required and constantly reminding oneself of the endpoint.”
Tracy says an understanding of design principles is helpful when choosing and placing pots in your garden:
- Rhythm, repetition, movement: an avenue of single pots of the same type, marching along, makes a powerful statement.
- Contrast: white pots against a dark building make a striking display, while dark pots will hardly be seen, which is useful sometimes, depending on what's trying to be achieved.
- Proportion: if a single pot being used as a focal point isn’t big enough, it’s totally lost. I’ve seen this happen many a time. While the style of the pot is important, its size is crucial.
- Balance: sometimes, the strength of one large pot acting as a focal point may not be quite right. A group of pots together is softer and adds a richness that can't be achieved using one pot. They don't need to be the same pot style, but they need to communicate and tell a story with each other. It’s harder to achieve, but you can create a stunning display with some trial and error.
- Shape: this is determined by location. Curved spaces are better suited to rounded pots, while square pots make quite a statement against the hard architectural lines of buildings.
Finally, we have talked extensively about what's on trend, so what’s not so popular these days? What should homeowners consider taking out or changing when rethinking their outdoor spaces?
“Lawns!” says Trish. “People have realised that a perfect lawn is hard to achieve. I have a surprising number of clients who are prepared to do away with lawns completely and use gravel and ground covers instead, where you can still have an open and green feel but with a lot less maintenance and frustration. If you want to play ball with the kids and dogs, visit your nearest park.”
For Tracy, it's about adopting a holistic approach to the whole garden. "Garden spaces can become over-cluttered with a mishmash of different materials and plant species. If you’re refreshing or overhauling garden spaces, we advise spending time thinking about materials and plant palettes. Choose materials that harmonise with the architectural elements of the house and surrounding environment.”
On a more practical level, Tracy says that installing drainage in garden beds is never popular with clients, as it’s an expense that doesn’t give back immediately. “However, we can’t stress enough to our clients that installing drainage and good growing medium is key to success – and while the initial outlay is difficult to swallow, it really pays off in the end.”
Invasive plant species can cause real headaches, so understanding the plants going into your garden is essential. Gaining knowledge and taking guidance from your landscape designer is the best approach.
"I can tell you what are popular – swimming pools," says Kirsten. "There has been a massive uptake in people wanting pools and spas in the garden, particularly families with young kids and teens – quite possibly because of Covid, as a lot more time is being spent at home!"