Keeping a sense of place in a modern landscape

Bill Holden in a Martin’s Bay landscape he designed.



A guiding phrase in modern landscape design is “a sense of place” and it’s a philosophy Snells Beach award-winning designer Bill Holden has wholeheartedly embraced.

He says the idea is that you design something that is appropriate to the region and using the flora and fauna that occur naturally in the area, rather than try to copy the style, ideas and vegetation that might occur elsewhere.

He admits he has not always felt that way. In his early career, he did a lot of Mediterranean-style gardens. Now he cringes at the memory.

“Hideous things. I go back and have a look at them now and am so embarrassed about what I did,” he says.

“They were just wrong.”

But not only do they look out of place, the exotic plants that are introduced, seldom thrive in the local environment the way naturally occurring ones do.

He laments the tremendous overuse of introduced palm trees in recent years, which tend to grow too quickly, become unhealthy and quickly end up looking tired and tatty.

On the other hand, some exotics such as ginger and old man’s beard grow too well and turn into noxious weeds that are tough to get rid of.

“People are realising more and more that it is better to use local natives and in particular around this area, coastal natives,” he says.

Good examples include coprosma, pseudopanax, nikau palms, cabbage trees and flaxes.

A pohutukawa is a good choice for a larger tree, or to go a little smaller, try springfire, a spring-flowering variety of pohutukawa.

Sometimes natives require a bit of patience. A nikau palm might take more than 20 years to reach its full height, but it will look better and last longer.

Bill says that gardens featuring natives are also much easier to maintain. They occupy the spaces assigned to them comfortably, without requiring constant attention and weeding.   

Having said that, Bill remains comfortable with the occasional introduced plant, but says it should be used more as an accent or special feature, it shouldn’t form part of your palette of base plants.

Good exotics for a coastal garden include escallonia, viburnum and loropetalum, all great for adding a dash of colour. For ground cover colour try gazanias and arctotis.

Bill says citrus trees also do well in coastal gardens bringing in yet more colour, in addition to offering a plentiful supply of fruit.

But whatever you do, Bill says it’s imperative that the “sense of place” idea remains paramount.  

This even extends to the choice of rock in rock gardens. Bill says it does not matter what kind of rock you use as long as it comes from a local quarry.

He has a particular aversion to imported schist from Central Otago. “It looks beautiful in Central Otago, just don’t bring it to Mahurangi.”

Bill admits clients do not always see things the same way and he’s had a few tussles with the kind of client who insists on gardenias and magnolias everywhere and would like to create a Remuera garden in, say, Leigh.  

According to Bill, “They are barking up the wrong tree.”


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