This story is from the team at NZ House & Garden magazine.
“You got a little more than you bargained for,” laughs garden designer Geoffrey Marshall, sitting in the new light-filled pavilion at Melanie Hollingsworth’s mid-century Remuera home.
The couple reminisced about the creation of the tiered, plant-filled garden they created together over the course of seven years. In the tropical border next to the driveway, for example, Melanie remembers saying she wanted hibiscus and cannas, but when this couple of plantaholics finished, there were 75 different plants in just one strip of garden.
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There may be a huge variety of plants, but it’s all carefully thought out, using Geoffrey’s skills to create a tapestry of form and color with foliage and flowers, with each area of the garden telling its own color story. Melanie worked for many years as a commercial interior designer and Geoffrey says: “Her sense of color is completely different to mine – it’s a much richer sense in some ways and has given it a real twist from what I might have done otherwise.”
The confident approach with colors is clearly evident from the yellow mailbox, which leads the eye to the yellow front door of the home she has lived in for 35 years. When Melanie and her late husband Philip bought it, it reminded her of a “little Rangitoto bach” with a flat roof, creosote weatherboards and white trim.
Although small, it was a happy family home with a large sloping garden and a stream for their three children to play in. The couple planned to renovate, but family life and Philip’s business interests always got in the way.
“My Christmas letters for years said we’re hoping to renovate this year, but don’t hold your breath,” says Melanie. Philip died after a short illness 12 years ago and a few years later Melanie decided she wanted to start the renovation they wanted to do together. “I wanted the house that Philip wanted us to have and that he would have loved too,” she says.
Melanie wanted to preserve and build on the home’s mid-century features without turning the house into a shrine to mid-century design. She values antiques and precious objects that have been handed down from Philip’s family. “I designed the house around keeping them safe for our children.”
A beautiful walnut desk, which belonged to Philip’s godmother, stands in a specially designed nook in the entrance hall. A pair of early 19th-century portraits of Philip’s ancestors, which have been passed down from first son to first son, are set off a wall of floral wallpaper.
Melanie says she came out like a “house on fire” with architect Robin O’Donnell, who was in tune with her decorative bent. “So many houses don’t have enough display space,” she says, telling Robin, “I need walls and more walls, full-height bookshelves and low-height display shelves.”
She also wanted the house to be warm – the original house had no insulation – and full of light and colour. So clerestory windows let the sun in and provide views of the sky and treetops from the eye-catching yellow kitchen.
How did Melanie choose the color of the kitchen? It was the same shade as her favorite yellow jacket. “I was standing at the end of this big, big, unfinished room in my yellow jacket, and I thought, this is what this room needs. It needs a punch of color. Everything else flowed from there.”
Color connects from inside to outside, with the view from the kitchen a picturesque mix of foliage with oranges, yellows and deep maroons. A striped bean bag turned out to be an unlikely inspiration for the color scheme here, Melanie says, while the plants in the terrace off the guest room pick up the Indian-inspired jewel tones of the area below.
While renovations were underway, Geoffrey advised on the hard landscaping, but then stepped away for a few years until the house was finished. Then the couple started chipping away in the garden.
After the house was rebuilt, little remained of the original garden, although Melanie and Geoffrey agree that a group of mature native trees around a stream at the front of the section was “a gift” that allowed them to create a forest area with lush undergrowth that shows off the beautiful tree trunks.
Giant bamboo at the back of the section was also saved and Melanie loves the way it has a golden glow when the afternoon sun hits it.
Developing a garden with a client over time is the most satisfying way to work, says Geoffrey. “You can experiment, teach and adjust as you go. You’re not trying to plant everything at once. You can wait for the right time to fill in the gaps.”
Melanie says she learned a huge amount during the process; botanical names now roll off her tongue. The couple share a love of gardens packed with interesting plants, with bolder plantings in the distance, color, scent and detail close to the house and repetition to keep it tidy.
For Melanie, the process of creating this garden has been a joy: “I would never have what I have now without Geoffrey; it’s like having an interior designer involved in your home, they always take you way beyond where you wanted to go to yourself.”
Melanie’s garden will feature in the Auckland Garden DesignFest on 26-27 November 2022; see gardendesignfest.co.nz.
Q&A with Melanie Hollingsworth
A useful idea: I have created a document for each area of the garden with the botanical name and a photograph of each plant, which gives a good overall sense of the color palette and a record of the hundreds of plants Geoffrey and I have planted.
Proudest DIY Achievement: My “lockdown lawn” in front of the house. I laid out a hose to figure out the shape and dug it all out myself. It took me all of the first 2020 lockdown.
Favorite garden equipment: My Gubba bag – I can carry it up the bank behind the house and bring it back down – and also my weed hook and secateurs.
I couldn’t have done it without it: Paul Naylor of Garden Transformations. He is amazing and did all the crazy paving, fencing, sleeping steps and rock walls.
A useful hedging plant: Japanese privet (Ligustrum japonicum ‘Rotundifolium’) does not grow too quickly and is great for shaping – it has a fascinating texture and colour.
Time spent in the garden: A lot. I love being outside – fresh air is so therapeutic. I just gardened for three days, five hours a day. But that’s because it’s spring and I’m trying to keep it nice for the Auckland Garden DesignFest.
Best gin and tonic spot: Sitting on the front deck under the umbrella in the late afternoon sun, looking out at the trees and listening to the tūī.