Autumn Colours in Canterbury

by Anne

Spring in Canterbury is always a special time with flowering plants of all descriptions from cherry blossom to magnificent rhododendrons and azaleas capped off with lilac and white wisteria dripping off verandahs and pergolas. Autumn, however, has its own delights with settled sunny days, red, orange, and golden foliage, and crunchy leaves underfoot. We had clients in Auckland who had missed out on our Spring tour because of Covid restrictions and were keen to join us so it was an easy decision to repeat our tour from 30 April to 5 May 2022.

Once again, we were very pleased to have Christchurch based landscape architect Robert Watson as our expert guide. Robert created or developed almost all the gardens we visited, and we could not have been in better hands to understand the owners’ vision and commitment and appreciate the results they collectively achieved.

On our first day, we set off for Mel and Chris’s West Melton property, Casa Rossa, which started its life as a shingle pit and has now been transformed into a magical estate. Featuring an Italian-inspired home and an outstanding garden, this property is an absolute tribute to its owners who thoroughly deserve its 5-star rating from the New Zealand Gardens Trust. After coffee and pastries, it was a joy to wander through the grounds and discover some new surprises installed by Chris since our last visit. We are quickly learning that a good garden is always evolving. As Rudyard Kipling noted – a good garden is not made by sitting in the shade!

From Casa Rossa, our trusty driver Alan transported us through Tai Tapu and Little River up to the Summit Road overlooking Akaroa harbour on one side and the northern bays on the other. This narrow, winding road provides access to many delightful destinations around Banks Peninsula and Pigeon Bay is definitely one of them.

Our next stop, the luxury Lodge Annandale nestles on the shore. First, we were treated to lunch served al fresco in the sun at a long table, Italian style. The retiring Head Gardener David and Mark, his successor, then toured the property with us, showing us how our expert escort Robert’s design had been transformed into the stunning grounds so admired by visitors to the Lodge.

On our second day, we travelled north through Amberley, the home town of war hero Charles Upham VC and Bar, passing numerous vineyards before making our way through the limestone Waipara Hills to the small settlement of Culverden.

Our first garden of the day, Coldstream, was waiting for us along with a delicious morning tea provided by Vicki, who is not only a great cook but also the gardener in chief. The colours in this 5-star rated garden were superb. Even the eels in the large pond came up to have a look. One of our party got into discussion with Vicki’s husband Andrew and learned that the farm had a special Italian log splitting machine. We duly went to inspect the machine (because it was Italian!) and were given a full demonstration of the machine in action. Not something we townies see every day!

From Coldstream, we drove to Flaxmere, the 6-star rated Garden of International Significance and were delighted to renew our acquaintance with the owner. Penny Zino’s name is known by all serious gardeners in this country and for good reason. The maintenance of this outstanding garden in the face of marauding sheep, droughts, extreme temperatures, and ferocious winds is a true labour of love and it remains a photographer’s delight.

We were accompanied around the garden by Penny and her grandson and Dougall, whose canine interest was piqued more by a wandering hedgehog than the magnificent Autumn colours on display. Leaves are of course abundant at this time of year and one of our party excelled himself by offering to scoop some of the offending foliage from the crystal blue swimming pool. We were fortunate to enjoy a delicious home-cooked lunch in the homestead too, complete with Penny’s famous salad dressing. It was a happy bunch that climbed into our minibus for our return to the city in the late afternoon.

Day 3 dawned fine and sunny again, reaching a balmy 24 degrees in the afternoon. Our first stop was the Sign of the Kiwi café overlooking the Canterbury plains on one side and Lyttelton harbour on the other. This stone building café has an interesting history as it was built in 1916–17 by Harry Ell as one of three staging posts erected on the Summit Road for the rest and recuperation of weary walkers. Today it is much frequented by lycra-clad cyclists as well as motorists stopping to enjoy a coffee and in the case of the cyclists a well-earned scone.

Our destination was the world-famous property Ohinetahi in Governors Bay. This magnificent property overlooking the harbour was developed by renowned architect Sir Miles Warren, his sister Pauline and brother-in-law John Trengrove and then generously given by Sir Miles to a Trust for the future enjoyment of visitors from New Zealand and all over the world. The garden is a stunning mix of planting and sculpture in a range of different settings. You can walk over a swing bridge into natural bush, sit in an amphitheatre overlooking the harbour or potter about through a range of formal and informal gardens.

There is also a gallery containing original works by well-known contemporary New Zealand artists and we were very fortunate to have art expert Jenny Harper as our additional escort for the day to tell us about them. Jenny and Robert are both Trustees of the Ohinetahi Trust and they were the perfect duo to show us around. We were then treated to lunch in the green room overlooking the rose garden and filled with exotic pieces of art collected by Sir Miles during his lifetime.

Loudon farm is only a short drive from Ohinetahi on the oad to Diamond Harbour. The owners Sarah and Philip were there in their summer clothes to greet us on what was a day to rival any we had had during the previous season. We went for a woodland walk on the hillside above the beautiful old homestead and admired the splendid Autumn colours. After exploring the garden and admiring Sarah’s abundant vegetable garden, our hosts generously provided afternoon tea and a glass of wine, and we enjoyed sitting on the verandah in the sun.

The next day dawned with the promise of sun after an early sea mist and we set off with Alan on the road south to the Mid-Canterbury town Ashburton. On the way we enjoyed a coffee at the quaint Dunsandel country store, which is a bit of a legend in the area. Our next stop was the 6-star Trott’s Garden created by the Trott family and now run by a charitable trust. The chiselled knot gardens are the highlight of this extensive garden although the glorious herbaceous borders come a very close second.

From Trott’s we travelled for about 30 minutes towards the coast to Longbeach Estate, which has been in the same family for four generations. The gracious Heathcote Helmore homestead, sweeping lawns, old oak trees and extensive gardens complete with a delightful historic chapel make this the perfect spot for weddings and special events. Penny was the perfect hostess, telling us about the history of the property as we had lunch in the cook shop before taking us for a walk around the huge garden in which she spends countless hours each week. When the sea mist rolled back in as the afternoon progressed, we hopped back into the minibus for our journey back to Christchurch.

Whether it was sea mist or fog the next morning, I am not sure, but it was certainly a day that brought to mind John Keats’s Ode to Autumn – “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…” I am sure you know the one. There was not a breath of wind, just a gentleness in the air as the mist lightly touched the ground. We could not have chosen a better place to visit today than Broadfield Garden, a 6-star garden of International Significance. This majestic garden over 3.5 hectares was designed by our escort Robert 20 years ago and it has matured into a very special place lovingly tended by its owner David. There are kauri and beech forests here as well as formal and informal plantings mostly of New Zealand natives. We were astounded by the variety and the lushness of the planting and here some mention must be made of fantails. Everywhere we had been during the week we had seen lots of these delightfully friendly little birds darting about but at Broadfield they positively danced around us. Who could blame them? They were in their perfect habitat.

The programme today was a little different because we wanted the group to have some free time before our Italian dinner in the evening. Our dinner was held at Francesca’s Italian Kitchen where we feasted on some delicious Italian food and wine under Beniamino’s tutelage in delightful company.

The last day of our tour dawned bright and clear with no sign of the mist of the previous day. We drove out to Tai Tapu to Otahuna, which is one of Canterbury’s premier lodges. Originally built for Sir Heaton Rhodes in the late 19th Century, this Victorian mansion offers luxury accommodation, glorious gardens and outstanding cuisine. We sat down to an exquisite brunch in the beautiful dining room and I wondered if Prince Charles had sat on my chair on his visits here! Afterwards, the Head Gardener Steve and Robert escorted us through the Dutch garden, the orchard and enormous vegetable garden answering our many questions.