All posts by sarahnorling2014

Creating Space


The owners of this inner-city garden came to me a couple of years ago with just one request: could they please have a lawn, no matter how small. Just a pocket of green grass for their young children to play on.

What had been a lushly planted courtyard now felt cramped and overgrown. In a small garden every inch counts, and we needed to open the space up.

Before: Paving, plantings, and no lawn
During: the new layout taking shape

Michelia trees, which have a fragrant white flower in spring, now form a screening planting at the back. Bricks were taken up and reused for a new layout. By pushing the beds back to the boundary I found space for a new lawn:

P1080667 (2)
After: the same area, looking twice the size.

The new plantings require little maintenance, withstand the hits from children playing, and will add increasing levels of privacy as they mature.

The new design has found the space that was lacking earlier, and has given the owners just what they wanted: an smart new area for family and friends to spread out.




Respecting the Past

IMG_20181130_140947 (2).jpg

When I first visited this 100 year-old cottage, the back garden was dominated by a massive pohutukawa tree which grew right against the corner of the house:

May 2017

Apart from posing a risk to the house, the tree also took up the sunniest corner of the pocket-handkerchief garden. The owners had already decided it had to go.

The new design puts a sunny, sheltered, terrace where the tree once stood. Three Corten panels with a pohutukawa design are now framed in the side fence, with a herb garden tucked in beneath:

P1080691 (2)
November 2018

The new terrace, path, and lawn are edged with beautiful old bricks salvaged from the cottage’s earthquake-prone chimney:


The owners were keen to grow edibles, so a new raised bed against the sunny side of the garage is now a flourishing vegetable garden, with a passionfruit vine already bearing fruit:




On the shadier side, a lush border planting of Chatham Island forget-me-nots, clivias, ligularia, and bromeliads is doing well. Along the back fence, we planted for the long term with the slow-growing Nikau palm.


The owners now say that they enjoy spending more time in the garden, both working and relaxing.


A Bold Re-Imagining.


I took a pair of bright red Adirondack chairs and a red front door as my cues when I was given the brief to re-imagine the garden of this newly renovated house. Pastels were out, and a strong, lush planting went in.

Where two new downstairs bedrooms opened to the side of the house, we widened and levelled the path to create a sunny terrace. This now leads to wide steps down to the lawn. The planting through here was completely replaced. The striking white bark of silver birch trees now rises from a layer of white-flowering grasses and shrubs. I selected a mixture of natives and exotics, each species able to withstand the wind and deliver something special.

After: perfectly positioned for the afternoon sun
After: Coming away beautifully in the windiest part of the site, less than a year after planting

The tired clay pavers on this terrace (below) were replaced with concrete to match the new work elsewhere. The brush fence came out, new raised beds were added, and the planting refreshed. New trees will eventually create a light screen for more privacy.


The lawn was levelled and replaced, and new raised beds wrap around to meet the wide steps.



At the front, the clients wanted a colourful planting right to the footpath on one side of the driveway, so I suggested we take out the unused sloping lawn on the other side as well, and plant it out to match.

After: The plants are already doing a good job of covering the area. In a year or two there will be more height as well
After: The pot was chosen to complement the pops of red  throughout the garden

Where there are existing mature trees, it can be a hard call to remove them and deal with the short-term loss of greenery, so it was great that the clients were willing to do this. As a result we achieved a bold, cohesive look that will keep getting better as the new trees and shrubs fill out.

The photos show the garden just 10 months after planting. The owners were delighted to see tui feeding on the flax flowers in the front garden within a year of planting, and often receive compliments from passersby.

p1060127-3     p1060114-3


Plant this:Chaenomeles


As we swing into spring, the incredibly showy magnolias are bursting into bloom everywhere, and I admit there’s not much that can beat a full sized Magnolia x soulangeana in full cry. But I’d like to sing the praises of a less glamorous plant, one that is probably considered old-fashioned and doesn’t feature on too many professional garden design plans.

‘Japonica’ growing in a border at Wellington Botanic Garden.

This shrub goes by the names of Japonica, Japanese quince, or flowering quince. Botanically it is known as Chaenomeles speciosa, which grows to about 2 metres, or Chaenomeles japonica, generally smaller at around 1 metre.

I have a soft spot for this quietly unassuming shrub.One of my earliest ‘plant’ memories is of admiring the beauty of its deep pink flowers along a bare stem, inextricably linked with images of ikebana and Japan.


This specimen grows out on a roadside corner near my house, completely neglected and half tucked into some other bushes. But every year for at least 2 months from mid-July onwards, it flowers away beautifully. The flowers seem to cling on effortlessly through wind and rain, and last longer than the blossoms we’ll be getting on the ornamental cherries soon.

I like this shrub better if it is left alone to form its rather rangy, some would say scraggly, shape – when I’ve seen it tightly clipped it doesn’t look right. So it’s not for every garden – I would recommend it for an inconspicuous corner of a larger garden, planted amongst other shrubs, where it can disappear into the background for summer and autumn, then cheer you up enormously over the winter and spring. Make sure to clip off long stems and bring them inside.

The most common colour is deep pink, however you can also find shades of lighter pink, orange, and the white and green flowers shown below.

This is Chaenomeles ‘Green Ice’
This is Chaenomeles ‘Yokuku’ – a pure white, which grows to about 1 metre and bears yellow quince fruit which can be made into jelly.


I would always go for the dark pink myself, probably from the nostalgia of that childhood memory.

Best Trees for Autumn Colour in Wellington

Liquidamber styraciflua

I’ve just spent the autumn searching Wellington for trees with good autumn colour, and have compiled a shortlist that should cheer up anyone who thinks that we only have year-round green as our backdrop. We’re never going to match Queenstown for picture postcard autumn displays, but you can definitely get a touch of gold, red, and orange into your garden between April and June. All of the photos in this post were taken around Wellington. As I took them, I really appreciated how the low sun at this time of year gives wonderful back-lighting to the foliage, bringing out the colours.

1. Maples

Maples (the Acer family) are one of the best small garden trees you can grow here. There is a huge range in the growth habit (upright, spreading, weeping), height, and foliage colours available. A favourite of mine is Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’, shown below, which having dropped the last of its golden autumn leaves is now stunning with its bare red stems revealed in full. Other cultivars will turn orange and fiery red. Just make sure that you give a maple some shelter from the wind and from hot afternoon sun. Both will damage the fine foliage.

Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’

2. Gingko.

The Gingko tree (Gingko biloba) is another beauty. The specimen below is in the Wellington Botanic Garden and the fan-shaped leaves are still holding this wonderful golden colour in late June, just past the winter solstice. The summer leaves are a fresh green. Although slow-growing, this tree will be large. Look for  Gingko ‘Jade Butterflies’ which is a miniature version that is said to reach about 3.5 metres in height. Plant in a sunny position.



Look how the leaf veins radiate out from the base, rather than from a central midrib. The gingko leaf has been found in fossils dating back 270 million years.The gingko is a living fossil and any other trees related to it are long extinct.

3. Cherries


Ornamental cherries ( Prunus ) are dotted all over Wellington, not least because some self-seed readily and have got into the margins of the native bush, where they betray their presence with fiery autumn tones. You can expect good, late autumn colour from  many of the Prunus species, plus of course the spring blossom. Look at Prunus ‘Shirotae’, also known as ‘Mount Fuji’ which seems to tolerate the wind quite well. Plant in full sun.

Weeping ornamental cherry in autumn

4. Liquidamber.

IMG_2283 (2)
Liquidamber styraciflua

On a grey day, doesn’t this liquidamber (also known as American Sweet Gum) stand out against the native bush behind! This is an outstanding tree for long-lasting and vivid autumn colour. It won’t get too large here – 15 year height is approximately 8m.

People often think that to get proper screening you need a high, evergreen hedge or shrub border. Deciduous trees can be very useful instead – providing screening and shade in summer and allowing filtered sunlight through in the winter. There is the bonus of the seasonal changes bringing life to your garden. And who amongst us hasn’t enjoyed kicking their way through piles of autumn leaves! Although some of the trees shown here are quite large, don’t forget that if you go for maples there are many that will stay as small as one-two metres high and grow in a container.

Finally, a shout-out to the trees that nearly made this not-at-all comprehensive list. Birch trees, ( Betula species) , example shown below.










Golden elm ( Ulmus procera ‘Louis Van Houtte’ – you need plenty of room for this one but it’s a good hardy tree for exposed sites.

Golden elm








Cercis candensis ‘Forest Pansy’, the claret ash Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Raywoodii’, and the magnificent copper beech Fagus sylvatica purpurea all deserve a mention. And if you really, really can’t plant a tree, perhaps you have a brick wall or garage that needs covering. Here is the Boston ivy Parthenocissus tricuspidata doing its thing:

Boston ivy




Chic, Clean & Green

The owners of this garden wanted a classically edited look to set off their beautiful new lawn and terrace. Black and white were to be the accents in a largely green palette.

P1040888 (2)

Combinations of straight lines, spheres, contrasting foliage, and layered hedges, all add subtle complexity to the design. In spring, white tulips, cherry blossom, and Mexican orange blossom will flower profusely, before the garden returns to its crisp simplicity. The rogue element is provided by a trio of small kowhai trees and potted lemon trees – there’ll be a seasonal splash of gold as well!




Persian Gardens

Ok, so this is going to be a departure from my usual subject matter on ‘Gardens I like’, as a couple of months ago I spent 2 weeks visiting Iran. We had a fantastic trip with Intrepid Travel, travelling from Shiraz in the south up to Tehran in the north. I found the landscape and gardens fascinating.

Between towns and cities we drove for hours through dry, brown, desert. Mountains that had weathered away to nothing but rock jutted out of vast river plains, but the rivers have long since gone. It wasn’t hot, but the air was so dry we swigged water constantly from our water bottles. A bag of small sweet oranges bought from a streetside seller was shared around on the bus, and is one of my favourite food memories.

Dry, dry, dry, but magnificent desert landscapes


I saw a flock of sheep being driven through a carpark next to the 2450 year old tomb of Xerxes, and in true Kiwi style wondered just what they were off to eat, as I couldn’t see a blade of grass anywhere!

Practically a Biblical scene, if you took away the asphalt…
Had to put in these weird hills to the south of Tehran.

I have emphasised the bare landscape because it was crucial to how I came to understand the Persian garden. Travelling through a monochromatic palette of browns with no evidence of water makes you crave the colour green. Finally seeing water and green foliage comes as an almost physical relief. It means shelter, shade, and food. It means life.

Garden at the tomb of the poet Hafez, Shiraz.



Date palm and geraniums at the Eram Botanic Garden in Shiraz.

In a barren landscape, even a single tree can have a powerful presence. Here is a photo of an autumnal tree which was the only one for miles around. Talk about creating a focal point.

Taken at sunrise, at the Zein-O-Din Caravenserai, where travellers on the Silk Road have passed through for centuries.

Echoing this, at a mosque in Esfahan, the impact of this golden tree combined with the blue and gold tile work was just exquisite.


The season was very late autumn/early winter, which meant that in many places leaves had fallen and flowers were well finished. But one could still imagine the fierce heat of summer and see how the courtyard gardens are such a secluded haven from the harsh environment without. The Persian courtyard doesn’t embrace the surrounding landscape, it retreats from it to make a private and comfortable space. In a place where water is precious, it is honoured with the central position in the design.

Once the home of a wealthy Esfahan merchant, now a restaurant.

In the restaurant courtyard above, there was everything you could wish for. A pool with a fountain, flowers, fruit trees, comfortable seating. A large overhang to give shade in summer, but also areas to sit out in the sun in the cooler months.

In the courtyards I often saw roses, pomegranate trees, and figs. Pots are used extensively, always beautifully arranged, although the Iranians are tough on their potted plants. Potting mix is clearly considered completely unnecessary – with disbelief I saw roses growing quite happily out of solid clay inside the pots.




Clever use of bougainvillea as a potted shrub. Photo taken at the Tomb of the poet Hafez, in Shiraz.

It was lovely to see these pansies growing in old crates, in the setting of another courtyard garden. You can glimpse the pool and Persian carpets in the background, both key ingredients.


Ceramic doves were a beautiful touch in this courtyard in Kashan.


These gorgeous turquoise glazed pots were displayed to stunning effect in a courtyard in Kashan.

I’m not proposing that we should all start re-creating Persian gardens and courtyards down here in New Zealand. But I was struck by how, having had several thousand years to think about it, Iranians have developed a style that is entirely appropriate to their climate, culture, and lifestyle. Their gardens protect you from the heat and dust of the wider landscape, and provide peace, shade and privacy. There are symbolic meanings attached to many of the elements, but the gardens also work so well on a practical level.

Here we often have the luxury of beautiful outlooks and views which we seek to maximise. But any good garden will also have an area on an intimate scale where you can sit outside and feel sheltered and private. We can give more thought to developing our own genuine vernacular, to how our gardens sit in the landscape, how they function, and hopefully we can, given time, develop a distinct New Zealand style with solutions as beautiful and recognisable as these.