I have just visited Flaxmere, a large country garden in the South Island, New Zealand. The garden surrounds the homestead of a high country farm, with three hectares of paths, ponds, trees, shrubs, roses, ornamental grasses - everything under the sun!
It's said that Flaxmere is a garden with 'good bones'. So the garden fits the lie of the land, and has grown strongly and naturally out of its topography? Yes, Flaxmere does that wonderfully well.
Good bones? I asked my friend. She thought that such a garden would be built on good, fertile soil. Yes, again. Then I asked my dogs. No - they didn't start wagging their tails and digging furiously. They thought that paths and interesting walking circuits gave a garden 'good bones'. Thankfully, in the garden my dogs are 'doers', not diggers.
Grasses, Primulas, Azaleas...
Then I had a silly thought, nothing to do with Flaxmere at all. Garden writers talk about the garden's skeleton being visible in winter, so maybe a garden with 'good bones' has a good skeleton, and will therefore look good in all seasons? And there's more! So the soil can be the skin, the mulch the moisturiser, shrubs and trees can be the clothes, perennials and bulbs the jewellery, and so on. Hairstyle? I'm sure the analogy could continue indefinitely...
Through the Gate
My first visit to Flaxmere
But back to Flaxmere. When I first visited (twenty-five years ago) the scale of the plantings impressed me : long rows of tussocks lined the curve of a path, trios of blobby Hebes took up space under the trees, mass plantings of Primulas spread along the side of a little stream. Good, honest country shrubs (some a bit sprawly and scruffy) edged the lawns.
The prettier, formally planted rose garden was new, the spare ground dotted with perennial treasures, pea-straw laid around everything. I met the lovely climbing apricot rose Crepuscule for the very first time. Yeay! I wanted one (and got one, a few years later).
My 2019 spring visit was musical. My jazz choir was singing at the Hurunui Garden Festival's cocktail party, on the verandah of Flaxmere's homestead. When the mayor arrived in cocktail finery, the garden owner and creator (Penny Zino) was still dressed in her gardening 'best'. A real gardener! Of course she transformed quickly into the perfect hostess, and I'm sure she scrubbed her fingernails, hee hee.
For me, the official words in Flaxmere's garden brochure don't capture its beauty and thoughtfulness. I never sensed that I was in a 'garden room' - the garden had its own free design-spirit. Water flowed naturally through the garden, with little artifice or fuss. Everything was well proportioned and natural.
One pond was ringed with closely planted species Phormiums. Over-sized, they might have been well past their use-by-date in a fussier, more manicured garden. But in the scale of Flaxmere they looked just fine. Yeay! Now remind me - why do I spend hours trimming and manicuring my own Phormium tenaxes?
Since words can't do this garden justice, please let me resort to some personal gushing. I love the wonderfully natural woodlands with adult shrubs underneath large trees. I love the delightful sunken spiral of pale green tussocks, and yes - I love the vista! A rather splendid one, leading the eye down the well-mown lawn and across the farm paddocks towards Mount Te Koa.
Tussock Spiral at Flaxmere
And I love the promise of the roses which were yet to flower, and the cute one-off plants - a young Hellebore with variegated leaves, a ridiculously large-flowering pink peony.
Fifty-two years old...
Fifty-two years in the making, the garden at Flaxmere celebrates its maturity in style. I love its honesty, its settled feeling of longevity, and the way its occupants have been allowed to age naturally. Old bones but good bones, I reckon.