Bill rocks at winning school garden design

The gardens were designed to anchor the buildings to the landscape, while giving students somewhere to play and sit.

A multi-year project to design and install gardens across two sites at the redeveloped Warkworth School has won national recognition for local master landscaper Bill Holden.

His Design and Landscape business was awarded three medals for the school gardens in the Registered Master Landscapers’ 2023 Landscapes of Distinction Awards – a silver in the section for commercial projects up to $100,000 and bronze medals in commercial design and horticulture.

Holden says creating the school gardens meant being a part of the entire redevelopment process, dating back to 2015 when the new junior school was built on the north side of the Hill Street site.

“We had to be involved with the whole building project, and work in with the contractors, with school hours and submit the design for approval by the Board of Trustees,” he says.

“That all presented its own challenges, but we managed to work around everything.”

Designing gardens that are going to be used by several hundred children every day requires a slightly different tack from, say, landscaping a new house, Holden says.

“There were two key things – there had to be plenty of seating and there had to be durability from a planting perspective.”

There also needed to be plenty of tracks and pathways, as well as raised veggie beds on the junior side.

“The key thing was that the gardens should assist children’s activity and movement, and to soften the buildings in relation to the landscape – to make sure the buildings were anchored to the landscape with plenty of planting and make sure there were plenty of places to sit,” Holden says.

This brief allowed him to bring in one of his favourite materials – rocks, in this case from Matakana quarries.

“I placed them throughout, so it allowed the kids to hop across or jump from one to the other, with plants growing around the base. Rocks were the main hard structure and it also gave a bit of a sculptural element.”

Holden says one or two teachers were initially unsure about the wisdom of mixing small children with hard rocks, envisaging lots of falls and accidents, but so far there had been zero.

“There’s no reason why children shouldn’t navigate challenges,” he says. “When I went there to take photos for the awards, I just sat back and watched when all the kids came out for playtime and they headed straight for the rocks and were jumping all over them, so that was quite satisfying.”

The planting used on both school sites is mostly natives – coprosmas for ground cover, with some non-native Canary Island ivy for durability, plus two kowhai trees – as featured on the school logo – and titoki trees to soften the garden areas. There are also two tall tanekaha trees either side of the central stairs on the main two-storey senior school building.

Holden says though the whole project has been challenging, it’s also been very rewarding. It’s also ongoing – as well as replacing the odd plant or tree, Holden has adapted a footbridge to the veggie beds to cope with storms, after the first one was washed out during a flood; it is now hinged, so it can be lifted out of harm’s way when bad weather threatens. And he is just about to design and install a new nature walk area on the southern edge of the senior school.

Holden also won two silver medals and one bronze in the awards for designing a beach house garden in Omaha.