Okuti Garden, Little River
Words: Martin Wilkie
Images: Martin Wilkie & Supplied
In our time there’s an odd paradox to living thoughtfully on the landscape: the hi-tech information highway flows invisibly all around the compost heap. Okuti Garden Ecostay near Little River has a gumboot in both fields, as it were, successfully adapting information fresh from the internet for hand-crafted solutions, in a beautiful secluded environment. Imagine the trees, meadows and quiet pathways of Hobbiton on a golden afternoon, then add bellbirds and discreet luxury accommodation under canvas. The place is unique, with a curiously timeless and otherworldly quality.
JANE AND JIM MULLINS and their son Sol (he’s now 12) came here from Wales just over ten years ago. From the start they were interested in how they could live well on the property without a daily commute into Christchurch, and go about things in an environmentally sustainable way – “post-modern peasants,” says Jim. They see themselves as working together within a garden setting, creating lovely outdoor spaces which are also richly productive. Jane is a true gardener, like both her parents, and has noticed that “the fences keep moving
outwards…” most recently for a grove of new pip-fruit trees.
There was never a grand plan for the layout, Jim says, more a gradual organic expansion. “Ideas have come and we’ve worked with them, and seen what works and what doesn’t.” The result has that genuine feel of a handmade personal landscape – an elusive quality for landscape designers because it usually takes time to develop this feel as people live in a place.
On this sunny side of the valley there are deep loess deposits “with an overlay of really nice fertile topsoil.” Branching off to the right at the head of Lake Forsyth, the Okuti Valley has more shelter and less shingle than Birdling’s Flat (Latitude Issue 35 Apr/May 2014) at the lake outlet. The topsoil developed under what was a mature podocarp and broadleaf native forest until well into the 19th Century, when the great trees were progressively logged for timber. In 1852 the trunk of a giant totara growing further inland to the north near Mount Sinclair was measured: convertedto metric figures, over five-and-a-half metres in diameter at chest height. The forest in Okuti Valley is gone but bush
reserves and regenerating kanuka support a healthy chorus of bellbirds, and the Mullins family has planted trees on their steeper slopes which hold the soil and slow water run-off. Some of the walnut, eucalyptus and pear trees around their home (one pear is the classic ‘Williams’ Bon Chrétien’ whose ripe fruit is mobbed by bellbirds) are over a hundred years old, like the homestead itself which was once part of the local
Kinloch estate. Built with native timbers by the Buchanan family for one of their daughters, it was later used as a farm cottage. An old red woolshed has plenty of room to house their flock of sheep, says Jane: “Megan the wether (we didn’t know he was a he when we named him!) and his 14 woolly girls” have good pasture, and ample figures.
Mature trees on the property bring quantities of bird life, and at ground level the family dog, Nutmeg, welcomes visitors at the gate. She has more four-legged company in addition to the sheep. Two donkeys live under the walnut trees behind the house: mother and daughter, Rebo and Rosie, are inseparable. Rebo is around 18 years old – donkeys can live to be at least fifty – and both have mastered the art of looking and sounding properly miserable when it’s wet. In late March when I visited
they were developing thicker winter coats, and crunching up windfall green walnuts. They obviously relished the flavour and those extra calories are stored in a fat ‘crest’ along the arch of their necks.
In spring the potager garden is covered against foraging birds when fresh salad greens and herbs are planted, and later to protect ripening strawberries. Wildflowers on grassy banks in early summer encourage insect life for natural pest control and pollination; and comfrey, blue borage, brilliant red poppies, marigolds and acid-yellow mustard mix with the other edibles on different terrace levels. A renaissance-style
covered pavilion for meals and contemplation sits beside a living arbour of pleached poplars – it looks idyllic and, like all exuberant big gardens, needs regular work to keep things in balance – attending to a reciprocal relationship with the landscape. They’re not toying with macramé underwear and leather sandals here: YouTube videos have helped with
designs for the composting toilet, solar shower (the family often use it themselves if guests are not in residence), and amodern eco-designed waste water system which filters grey water through a reed bed (layers of reeds and willow saplings from the pond are spread above stones in tanks as part of the purification process). A friend, Arthur Gilmore, lives on-site and contributes to the woodworking and stonemasonry tasks.
There are renewable on-site firewood sources and the garden grows on permaculture principles.
The family share their garden environment by providing accommodation and hosting an increasing number of workshops, performances and local community activities. Distinctive structures within the garden include four Mongolian-style yurts, a tipi, and a house truck with its own shower. Presentation is immaculate, and guests may find tiny bouquets of fresh wildflowers to welcome them. Yurts are somewhere between a house and a tent: timber floors and comfortable furnishings are enclosed by cream canvas fitted over a light wooden lattice, so the cool well-lit interior transmits the sounds of birds, insects and the stream: “a special place within a special place,” says one guest. Radiating forms in the canopy converge high up at a round opening,
the oculus. The circular shape of this ‘room with no corners’ makes sense, because we naturally move in curved pathways around our own homes. Starting with Paul King’s Complete Yurt Handbook, “we’ve developed our own way of building,” says Jim. “Lots of little elements need to fit together, including steam-bending the latticework frames to form the right shapes.” Jane is the chief operator of a ‘walking-foot’ industrial sewing machine from Trade Me used for stitching the durable
canvas – it has a mind of its own! Yurts (and the tipi) are relatively portable: set up around the garden in spring, they’re carefully dismantled and stored over winter.
Not everyone can live in places like Okuti Garden – we’d run out of countryside. However, these friendly people have found a way to share their special garden environment, and use the information highway on their own terms for sustainable solutions; with a dash of Nutmeg!