This story is from the team at NZ House & Garden magazine.
Graham Thomson always wanted a chunk of land with native bush and a stream. A practical man, it became quickly apparent that to achieve his dream, he’d need a bigger bank balance or a way to think outside the square.
So he bought a 20ha block of hilly pasture near Waiuku on Auckland’s Āwhitu Peninsula and started from scratch to plant his own bush, shrub by shrub. As for the stream, well he created that himself too.
For years his wife Ann milked 45 dairy cows while Graham ran his painting firm. Then came retirement and a chance to experiment with their land, now downsized to a manageable 2.6ha.
These days Graham’s bush is still thriving on its hilltop site. But it’s not the main attraction that brings garden clubs by the coach load or silver nomads overnighting in their campervans.
They’re coming to visit the part of their property called Angrason Gardens, a voluptuous patch of exotic loveliness full of palms and bromeliads that pulsates with colour and fragrance.
An avenue of stately washingtonia palms welcomes you at the entrance, a scene-setter for what’s on offer further on. Two soaring giant bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) near the gate almost dwarf those driveway sentinels and the other varieties of impressive palms threaded through the garden. “We couldn’t afford big trees when we started,” says Graham. “These washingtonia were all a couple of feet high, and all I could get at the time, too.”
Nīkau palms look fat and radiate vigour. There’s an expanding collection of fragrant vireya rhododendrons and some unusual perennials including Brazilian plume (Justicia carnea), a heart-shaped begonia and Mexican petunia (Ruellia simplex). And thanks to bore water, the bubbling naturalistic stream feeds a necklace of ponds that are alive with aquatic plants.
The gardens at Angrason are a celebration of a love of plants and applied creativity, an oasis bursting out of its mainly green rural setting.
It’s been a slow burn though, says its driving force: “a stop and start garden”, says Graham. “And as you can see, I don’t like square things or straight lines.” Between the house at the bottom and the bush at the top, Graham has gradually replaced paddocks with interlocking garden beds, whose curves he mapped out with the hose.
“It took a long time to get it all done, a bit at a time,” says Graham. Not to forget unexpected time out in 2008 for a triple heart bypass. “I’m fit as a buck rat now,” he declares.
Graham downplays the design process as “think as you go”, with ideas about plants evolving as his knowledge and confidence grew. “Because it took such a long time, your ideas change.” Yuccas? Been there, done that, with their thuggish spongy bark and voracious growth. And in a frost-prone area, the process was as much trial and error as anything. Nowadays frosts are rare because the garden has created its own microclimate.
But the planting is not the full story – the practicalities are impressive too. The secret ingredient to nudging those washingtonia into impressive growth? Fish guts; Graham is a keen fisherman in his spare time. Everything except the bromeliads gets regular meals from a banquet of sheep and chicken pellets, blood and bone, and liquid fish fertiliser. “I don’t do compost, I’ve no time.” Instead, Graham buys it locally and has it delivered by the truckload. Abundant water is another weapon in the arsenal.
Narrow bridges over the stream dictate that Graham mows by hand, the old-fashioned way. As for dropped palm fronds, they’re piled on to the back of their truck and shifted to a big hole where they can slowly decompose out of sight.
Ann may say she knows nothing about gardening – “he’s the planter, I’m the gofer” – but she’s out there with him every day, weeding and primping. Bark mulch is Ann’s friend, deterring weeds and retaining soil moisture.
The couple joke that they should carry megaphones to stay in touch. What with the owl garden, the day lily garden, the tanker track garden, busy lizzie lane, the big gazebo and the little gazebo, five ponds, the stream and four bridges, it’s not hard to lose each other.
But by naming each area and yelling, they have devised their own locator system. The soundtrack for these workers is a chorus of native birdsong, plus a 25-strong CD collection of country music piped through discreet outdoor speakers.
Joining the South Auckland Bromeliad Group opened a whole new world of plant material and garden visits for Graham. Neoregelia ‘Angrason Towers’ is a bromeliad hybrid he hatched in his potting shed and is now sought after by collectors.
Bromeliads may be great in the garden beds but the mosquitoes breeding in their watery folds are a trial. Ann’s made her own mozzie deterrent, a 50/50 mix of Dettol and baby oil, which she slathers on her skin before heading out with the tools.
The Thomsons don’t go overseas – the world comes to them – as they’ve always owned animals that you really can’t leave and there are thriving fruit and vegetable gardens to tend.
Graham balances out his love for duck shooting by breeding partridges and pheasants. And Louey, his pet alexandrine parakeet, can often be spotted perched on his shoulder while Graham is doing what he loves best, gardening.
Q&A with Graham & Ann Thomson
Watering the garden: Handheld hose, and a bigger one for the lawns. Luckily, we have a bore. (Ann)
Most significant plant: Bird-of-paradise which are more than 10m tall, scented vireya and frangipani, the broms. (Graham)
Favourite palms: Umbrella (Hedyscepe canterburyana), the sugar cane palm (Dypsis baronii) and the chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis). (Graham)
Favourite plant combo: From the top bridge, looking down into the patterns of the vriesea bromeliads. (Graham)
My best tip: Bromeliads lose colour if you feed them. Treat ’em mean. (Graham)
Most-used tool: My leaf blower. (Ann)
Do you open your garden to the public: Yes. On gardenstovisit.co.nz, and for motorhome and campervan groups. (Ann)
I love this part of New Zealand: Because I was born here. (Graham)
Help in the garden: Ann. (Graham)