The Complete Gardener
Words & Images: Martin Wilkie
Christchurch gardens in the lush traditional style reach their first peak in October, when they are full of fresh colour and leafage without aphids or seed heads. These intricate multi-layered plantings can be the individual expression of a person’s style and attachment to the soil. Gardening is as simple or as complex as we choose, with corresponding maintenance levels, and for people who practise it as an art form the prospect is a boundless source of fascination: three-dimensional, multi-coloured and constantly evolving. Imagine the layers of experience building up like compost, ready to apply during the course of each new season.
Its been my pleasure to work with Alison Ayling for nearly 24 years (and her late husband Dr Ron Ayling until 2004) in their sheltered Fendalton garden, close to St Barnabas church and the Wairarapa Stream. Alison is one of those rare people, like our mutual friend Micky Kerr, who moves in the present while quietly living something of la belle époque, the good old days: email, a convection cooktop and plasma screens, yes; but also fresh flowers, classic styling, and alwaysa thoughtful, open-minded approach to plants and people.
This balance is nicely reflected in the garden: resident plants are often moved about in wheelbarrows to keep things fresh and innovative, and new additions settled in well-prepared soil (with bioblend); while the established limes, oaks, tree sized camellias, maples and feature Silver Pear are appreciated for their maturity and sense of enclosure. There are vistasand a firm layout, but this is not a garden designed on paper. It could be described as a series of planting pictures which flow into each other alongside lawns and gravel paths, and individuals are encouraged into their natural shape – there’s just one buxus I can think of (in the utility area!) and the only hedges are for boundary shelter.
Roots and leaves (“will be written on my headstone” smiles Alison) are always with us and part of the maintenance process. The trade-off is an elegant maturity of spaces, and vital shelter for a superb collection of rhododendron species and hybrids which form most of the garden’s shrub layer. Rhododendrons have great diversity of form and colour, and the wild species are largely native to areas in Central Asia such as China, Nepal and Tibet where their natural environments are increasingly threatened by development. The Aylings have
enjoyed a decades-long association with local and national rhododendron organisations, plus international connections including American friends from the Pacific Northwest – cooler misty conditions there suit many temperate climate rhododendrons. It’s slightly too dry here in summer for them to thrive without extra water, but generous mulch and dappled shade go a long way to reduce stress on the plants.
Many other shrubs including New Zealand natives are fitted into warmer or cooler spots, and herbaceous perennials under these and the rhododendrons make a lower tapestry, carefully chosen to complement flower and leaf colour. For example below the Silver Pear is a combination of slate-blue Hosta ‘Halcyon’, Stachys Lambs Ears and rhododendrons ‘Walport’ and ‘Preyii’ with pale furry indumentum undertheir leaves. Likewise the bright cinnamon bark of maple Acer griseum perfectly matches the lower leaf surface of rhododendron ‘Sir Charles Lemon’, one of Ron Ayling’s all-time favourites.
This sensitivity to colour and texture is a highlight of Alison’s floral design work, and most of her plant material comes from the garden. ‘Fresh and in-season’ refers to what’s in the vase, as well as on the plate! She’s a long-time member of the Canterbury Flower Arrangement Society (as was my aunt Win Wilkie, who knew Alison’s mother Mrs Bruce – Christchurch networks go in all directions). Her arrangements are of the highest quality and, like the garden, they capture a memorable effect with deceptive ease, without striving to impress. Foliage is just as important as floweringin what must be one of the most complete private collections of year-round leaf and flower for picking in Christchurch. Anything new or untested is of interest (Helleborus ‘Moonshine’ has proved a winner this year) and if it does its thing during an otherwise quiet period “it’s a lifesaver”, such as the white form of Willow Gentian, G. asclepiadea which flowers in February.
One of Alison’s favourite colours - and there’s a lot of it to see in October and November – is acid-green chartreuse, that vivid almost astringent hue. Think Alchemilla mollis paired with chocolate-red ‘Colorbreak’ roses in a silver dish, Euphorbia polychroma, and Trillium luteum. A beautiful and practical garden with a purpose, full of rarities: Disporopsis omeiensis resembles an evergreen Solomon’s Seal with snakeskin patterns on the stem, pale greenish-yellow Illicium flowers open beside the stream in winter, and Clematis grewiiflora drapes through a rhododendron and has flowered this year for the first time - bell-shaped blooms on this beautiful Himalayan native have a dense furry coating.
The whole garden fits on 0.2 hectares (0.5 acres) in two main areas: the first stretches out to the north of the house on either side of a central lawn; and the second lies to the west and south within a gentle curve of the Wairarapa Stream. 'Gartmore’ was subdivided off the Ayling’s original property in about 1985, and some of the original terraces and mature plantings from the older garden still lead down to the stream. Two large camellia ‘trees’ planted by Alison over 50 years ago attract bellbirds which fossick about in the pink flowers - mature camellias are often removed from other gardens, but here they are treated to careful thinning which opens up their crowns to light and air and makes a feature of the smooth curving trunks – one of my favourite tasks each year. Alison does full days hands-on with spade and pruners, and Carolyn, Frankie and Wayne are also part of the house and garden team at different times.
There are numbers of trout in the stream during winter, and small eels. The original shingly streambed has reestablished itself again after the earthquakes with the water running clear at a permanently higher level. Perhaps the water table has risen, or new springs have formed upstream. There are appropriately ‘watery-looking’ plants along the bank: hostas, Astilbe, feathery reed-like Elegia capensis and
moisture loving trees Nyssa, Cornus kousa ‘Chinensis’ and Stewartia pseudocamellia var. koreana (a mouthful to say but this small flowering tree is a treasure). Rhododendrons are here beside the water too – slightly tender species such as lindleyi appreciate higher levels of humidity from the stream in summer and its warming effect on frosty mornings.
‘Gartmore’ is a study in layers of colour and texture, and open to change. Sometimes radical change is needed, and we now have a whole new section of border to play with after the removal of an overgrown yellow conifer in July. Alison’s elegant garden is always in a process of renewal, and never out of style.