Margot Robinson always imagined her new Queenstown home would have what she calls a South Island garden, with wind-blown, mass-planted grasses that would blend with the majestic mountain views.
All that changed on a trip to Melbourne to see celebrated Australian garden designer Paul Bangay’s Stonefields garden. While Margot soaked up the measured formality of the huge country garden, her husband Bruce got chatting to the man himself.
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“Paul does gardens in New Zealand,” Bruce reported to Margot when she’d completed her tour, and so began a collaboration between Paul and Margot that continues to this day, with annual visits to plot the next step in the development of Birchwood, which has been judged a garden of national significance by the New Zealand Gardens Trust.
Margot had always been a huge Paul Bangay fan; she’d pored over his books for nearly 20 years, and borrowed ideas for previous gardens. But it never dawned on her that he’d fly over the Tasman to help with this, her most ambitious garden project.
Paul didn’t hesitate. The Robinsons visited Stonefields in October 2015, and by December Margot had a full set of intricately detailed plans for the first stages of what is now a series of garden rooms that become less formal as you move away from the house. The design process has been a delight, Margot says.
“Paul’s a lovely guy. He’s so engaging and easy to chat to… and he includes you.”
When mulling over the design of one part of the garden, Margot recalls their conversation: “Paul said ‘Would you like roses with catmint in the front and Portuguese laurels at the back or would you like a herbaceous border?’ I said ‘Whatever you think.’ He said ‘No, I want your input.’”
Margot’s choice? Hundreds of white ‘Sally Holmes’ roses. “With the landscape, there’s already so much going on, so you don’t want it to clash.” The effect is sublime – more than 300 roses flower prolifically from December to April, but their simplicity doesn’t compete with views that span Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, Cecil Peak and Mt Cardrona.
Paul loves Queenstown and its mountain views and says that the climate is perfect for his style of garden. The cold winters are similar to those experienced at Stonefields, but the weather is “softer and more forgiving. We are used to blazing hot dry summers where hydrangeas can only grow hidden in dark well-watered parts of the garden,” he says.
Initially Paul kept things simple by using only five plants in a green, white and purple palette – lavender, catmint, ‘Sally Holmes’ roses, buxus and Portuguese laurels. But everything is on a grand scale, from the 300 buxus plants to the recent addition of 120 ‘Snow Hill’ hydrangeas, which are white, of course.
“Paul decided where they should go and then I sent a photo to him. He said we needed to plant more. I said ‘I’ve just planted another hundred’,” says Margot, who’s happiest when she’s in the garden. “I’m out there all the time. I’m very hands-on.”
The pond was enlarged but left unadorned. During lockdown, Margot was thinking about what to tackle next and emailed Paul, asking: “Should we enhance the pond or leave it simple?” He shot back straight away: “Leave it simple.” Water lilies are slowly spreading over the pond, and Margot has added white water irises.
Every year there’s something new. Margot has planted about 1000 bluebells and plans to add more, and there’s a new wisteria-draped pergola that leads to a mown grass path in the woodland, which Paul is particularly pleased with: “It’s romantic and inviting.”
Margot admired the apple walk at Stonefields where a path lined with buxus spheres wends through the orchard. The apple trees at Birchwood were already planted so Paul came up with the idea of encircling the trees with buxus balls. Margot looks forward to watching the red splendour apples ripen and contrast with the green buxus.
During lockdown the apples went to the local Happiness House food bank. Margot believes gardens are for sharing too, so as well as hosting a couple of hundred people for Opera in the Garden (the event will run again next February), she plans to open her garden to visitors by appointment this summer.
On Paul’s suggestion they’ve thinned out an area of silver birches and Margot stacked the sliced trunks in sculptural piles, then wasn’t happy with their position and moved them all again.
While visitors are blown away by the garden’s beauty, she says it’s hard to appreciate it herself sometimes. “I’m always looking for what we could be doing next. A garden’s never finished as the old saying goes.”
Still, she can’t help but feel satisfied with a garden that fits as beautifully with its mountain backdrop as a tussocky garden would have.
“I can see why Paul brought in all the lavender and catmint, because in the summer you get that lilac haze over the mountains and it just blends beautifully.”