The fact that Kiwis are DIYers at heart has its downside when it comes to landscaping says Steve Strawbridge who, with his wife Rochelle, is a Wellington Zones landscaping consultant. “People tend to head straight to the local garden centre and select plants they think will look great only to find they’re wrong for their particular landscape.”
Like the rest of New Zealand, the history of landscaping in Wellington is comparatively new. The first settlers landed at what was to become Petone in 1840, and while flooding of the Hutt River soon caused them to relocate to Thorndon and Te Aro, those new-New Zealanders quickly established gardens to support their families. Seeds and plant stock from Britain and Australia were traded and within a short space of time, plants were also sourced through international networks. The result was what Winsome Shepherd, author of Wellington’s Heritage – plants, gardens and landscape, has described as ‘remarkable horticultural collections’. Those same networks provided stock used in the establishment of the 25-hectare Wellington Botanic Garden in 1868.
The landscape today is vastly different to that, which greeted the first colonists. Urban growth in the region has seen the original forest cover disappear; Wellington City Council estimates around 95% has been lost and is actively encouraging replanting of native plants and trees with advice, plants and support.
It’s a landscape that offers up huge variations. Put a spade in the ground over much of the area and it will reveal a mixture of thin, rocky and clay-based soils formed from mudstone, sandstone and greywacke. Sandy soils predominate along the coastline and new developments are characterised by clay, which is “hard and dry in summer and soft and gluggy in winter,” says Steve.
The region’s climate is temperate marine; average summer temperatures are around 20 degrees (seldom over 25’) with winter daytime averages of around 11.5 degrees. Frosts are not uncommon in the hills and in Hutt Valley. Rainfall in the area averages around 1265 mm.
However, capturing excess water and disposing of it correctly is an important consideration, particularly where it can impact on neighbouring properties, says Steve. “But in hot, sandy areas, such as the Kapiti Coast, supply can be an issue. Because they have metered water there, clever environmental water conservations and design is required for planting and irrigating.”
Then there’s the wind that’s made Wellington world-famous. New Zealand lies in the path of the ‘roaring forties’, as the prevailing westerlies in the area between latitudes 40’ and 50’ south, are known. These winds are deflected by the central ranges and funnel through Cook Strait, becoming faster and stronger. Locals can expect gusty north-westerlies in spring and summer with southerlies, dragging cold air up from the Southern Ocean, during the winter months. (Average windspeed at Wellington Airport is around 29km/h; by comparison, ‘windy city’ Chicago can manage just 18km/h).
“Wind is a huge issue for the whole Wellington region and needs to be considered when planting, as well as when we’re looking at installing outdoor living areas,” says Steve. “You need to create protection from the wind and use planting that will cope with the mixed conditions.”
With four major fault lines running through the greater Wellington region, the area is also prone to instability. Resource consent is needed to avoid poorly engineered excavations or areas of fill that can cause instability on neighbouring properties and sediment that can pollute waterways. “It’s important to ensure the stability of land next to the site will be maintained and managed.”
But perhaps the biggest environmental challenge for landscapers is the hills with their steep residential sites. In addition, the density of houses can add to the cost of getting materials, machinery, and manpower on and off sites. Steve says they use a lot of cranes and Hiabs to gain access and, although most concrete is pumped these days, difficult sites mean extra work, time, and labour, for all the trades involved.
A landscape project in the Wellington area can mean dealing with any one of five different city councils. It’s a hard one, says Steve, with individual councils often having special bylaws that affect design. The Strawbridges work closely with designers to ensure the requirements are understood and met. Issues around decks and retaining walls are probably the most problematic, says Steve and it’s not unusual to see aspects of a design changed to ensure compliance.
The type of landscaping done across the region varies, says Steve. “In Kapiti, for example, the sites are generally larger and flatter and homeowners are focused on maximising outdoor entertaining. Retaining of properties is another busy area of work with people trying to make the most of the usable area on steep or uneven sites.”
The wider availability of more cost-effective products is also seeing an increase in the popularity of urban family courtyards. “Introducing lighting and heating can create a cosy area for sitting and dining in the cooler months, and as these often come with crisp, wind-free evenings and clear skies, these ‘rooms’ are starting to be utilised all year round.”
And while the trend towards edible gardens is also evident across the region – more clients are asking for designs that incorporate some form of edible garden, says Steve – low or no-maintenance gardens and outdoor living areas remain a priority for many time-poor homeowners. Zones can solve this issue with regular visits from their maintenance team, which will not just prune and tidy, but replace plants that have completed their life cycle.
Wellington’s landscape can definitely provide challenges that add to the cost of a landscaping project. But achieving great results doesn’t always involve huge expense. “turning those landscaping dreams into reality is about understanding the region, wind and all, and getting a great brief from clients who really know what they want,” says Steve.
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