Julia Atkinson-Dunn is the writer and creative behind Studio Home.
Six years ago, I was renting a tiny, modern home with my new boyfriend on the outskirts of the Christchurch CBD.
Fresh off my move back to the South Island from Auckland, I loved stalking my local streets, sucking in the dry Canterbury air.
My favourite streets, lined with tiny Victorian workers’ cottages from the late 1800s, were just a few minutes’ walk from mine, and I would drag my feet suspiciously slowly up and down the footpath taking them in.
Amid all this architectural appreciation, there was one special property that sparked the tinder of my eventual gardening fire. The home on Hanmer Street, Linwood, demonstrated personality in every deliberate decision of its owner.
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There was the burnt orange front door, highlighted by the surrounding denim-coloured weatherboards. The wild, lawn-less front garden towering over the jagged pail fence, deliciously spilling plants up and over onto the narrow strip, pushing at the footpath.
If I walked really slowly in spring time, I could glimpse waterfalls of white wisteria beyond the back gate, while, in autumn, I’d admire the swathes of ornamental grapes hanging from the front veranda, burning their way to brilliance.
If you have ever blamed a lack of space as limiting to your gardening potential, I’m afraid to say, Robyn Kilty is here to shatter your misconceptions. Raised in a family of gardeners in Southland, Kilty’s first distinct memory was of her grandfather holding her up to smell a rose. She has gone on to make gardens wherever she has lived.
Kilty moved into the little cottage in 1993 – then a sad, leaky version of itself. She inched it back to life, replacing the roof, remodelling the kitchen and bathroom, adding an art studio extension and peeling back layers of paint to reveal honey- coloured kauri panelling. The interior is rich in colour, art, books and collections.
The cottage didn’t come with a lot of botanical flair. Long grass and two enormous, light-blocking pittosporums were the only plants growing in complement of a hickory aluminium shed around the back.
She created beautiful formal flower garden in ode to the cottage’s symmetry and history, before the Canterbury earthquakes caused huge damage to her property, rendering it uninhabitable.
Kilty lived for a year with her friend Penny Zino of Flaxmere Garden in North Canterbury. Fuelled by their mutual love of gardening, the pair made a trip to learn about naturalistic-style planting from Piet Oudolf in the Netherlands - a trip that ultimately turned a leaf in Kilty’s personal gardening aesthetic.
She returned with fresh eyes and ideas, promptly banishing lawn and unnecessary paths from her garden. The front bed was recreated with drifts of towering grasses and tall perennials in warm, rich tones.
Texture, colour and form rise and fall between the seasons, punctuated by piles of topiary balls, intriguing towers of muehlenbeckia, trained up stakes and beautiful mosaic work within the paths.
What fascinates me most is the masterful way Kilty has created zones in such a small space, working within a 314sqm section, of which the cottage steals a generous footprint.
While the front garden draws any passer-by to a standstill, through the back gate you are plunged into an extraordinary enclosed space. Burgundy iceberg roses and topiary play off against variegated flaxes and native ferns. It feels cool and secret, drawing you to the next “room” beyond. A pergola spanning between the house and fence offers you a grateful moment of shade.
In summer, the great canopy of white wisteria gives way to a sheltering ceiling of foliage and dangling seed pods. A hand-formed mosaic fountain trickles water constantly, adding a natural soundtrack for the art studio through French doors. In this space, you could be anywhere in the world.
“I like a certain amount of looseness and unruliness about my garden where I think many people are more interested in having a ‘tidy’ one,” Kilty says. “For instance – already Wisteria leaves are turning gold and dropping all over my paving. I don’t want to go out and rake them up, because to me they look natural and lovely lying on the brick paved areas. When they turn brown and mushy – that will be the time to tidy them away.”
The back of the section is lined with two wide borders of mixed perennials and grasses around a narrow path. Vegetables find their place amongst waving dahlias, fruit trees and rusty heads of orach. It feels romantic, modern and humming with life.
“I love a feeling of being engulfed by green and plants, as well as naturalness,” says Kilty. “But to achieve this within a garden, there is a certain amount of control required. As an artist I still need the colours and textures to blend together.
“Just because my garden space is small, I don’t just want to use small plants. I want drifts of tall plants [perennials] amongst my small spaces and along the pathways, because I like to feel swamped and surrounded with plants and garden. Also, I like to plant my garden so that there is something of interest all year round. Gardening makes me feel happy and fulfilled – and is also good exercise.”
Amid the million ideas that Kilty offers me in her vibrant garden, it is her reassurance that there is no one way to do it. That making a garden, of any size should remain a personal and light-hearted journey.
“Making a garden is such a personal thing, because we all visualise differently. For instance, many find great satisfaction in developing a smooth green sward of lawn, others from planting New Zealand natives, so that their garden reflects our native bush – all is perfectly legit.”
You can visit Robyn Kilty’s garden by appointment for $10pp, via robynkiltygardens.co.nz.You can join Julia Atkinson-Dunn on @studiohomegardening or at studiohome.co.nz