Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

Back to Garden Writing


Some Landscape Clients Are A Dream

This article appeared in Alfresco magazine April 2004

These ones were. They bravely gave me an unusually free hand in designing their pool and garden in their absence overseas.

They have owned this Northland coastal property for about 17 years, during which time they have lived and worked in North America, coming back to it for the worst months of the Northern Winter, January through March each year.

Every year they would fly back to the US on April 1, April Fool's Day, in ironic acknowledgment of how dumb it felt to be leaving this beautiful, laid-back place for the rigours of big city apartment-living and high-stress careers.

In 1999, planning semi-retirement, they removed the old bach and started again. Designed by Auckland architect Jon 'Jake' Jacobsen and built with great care by Ken McKillop of Tutukaka, the result is a beautifully crafted, spacious, light-filled home which pays homage to the stunning ocean and coastal vistas all around.

Simplicity is the key on every level.

The landscape design has likewise been a character-building exercise in restraint.

The aim was to frame and focus attention on the ever-changing drama of the sea and the magnificent centuries-old pohutukawa which stands centre-stage.

Central to everything is the pool which, from the deck-chairs and from inside the house appears to be continuous with the sea to the North.

Painted black inside, it reflects the sky just like the sea, enhancing the illusion of continuity.

Anchoring everything to the greater landscape are the extraordinary basalt boulders, some weighing several tonnes, which came from the ancient volcano above Helena Bay.

The headland is lashed by salt winds in stormy weather so plants must be tough and leathery to survive and look good.

Plantings around the rocks and pool are dominated by the miniature Agapanthus 'Streamline' which flowers for nine months of the year, the pale blue flowers echoing the frothy splash of waves against the headlands below. Pygmy date palms and Coprosma groundcovers carry on this theme.

Colour is very restricted here with most plants in shades of blue, mauve and green, with highlights of dark red in a few key spots which in turn echo the crimson of pohutukawa that dominate this headland.

There are no oranges or yellows in the design within view of the sea. These hot colours would shriek discordantly, and conflict with the sea for attention, disrupting that sense of connection with the seascape which is the magic of this place.

The subtle charcoal shades of Phormium 'Platts Black' make an elegant contrast with silvery Brachyglottis greyii 'Sunshine' below the pool, while the bold grey rosettes of Agave attenuata contrast with the huge undulate leaves of Philodendron selloum.

Rosemary lavendulaceus and the succulent Senecio articulatus create creeping and cascading stains of pale blue to continue the bluesy mood while the dark reds of sun-loving Neoregelia bromeliads make the blues seem even more so.

The warm tones of the timber and masonry are subtly enhanced by the cool delicacy of the plant colours.

Everything depends here on restraint and simplicity inside and outside the house in order to allow the sea to cast its spell.

After decades running in the fast lane, this tranquil retreat which has become their home, has made it all worth while. And nowadays April first is just another Autumn day by the sea.

(Copyright Russell Fransham 2004)