Violet Hill Farm: a secret hideaway in rural Auckland.

They say gardening runs in the blood and this certainly rings true for me. The influence of my nana Florinda Lambert pervades most aspects of my home garden and on reflection, has subtly guided my career. She was a passionate and talented gardener.

I still remember as a 10-year-old, spending all weekend pulling weeds for the eagerly awaited reward of a trip to the local plant centre to choose a small bundle of bare rooted seedlings wrapped in newspaper ready to pop into the bare soil. These fond memories, along with the little bit of magic I believe every garden contains, combine with the gardening necessities of moisture, mulch and muscle as the core of what is making it all work at my garden, Violet Hill Farm.

As an ecologist and landscape architect by training, my country property search was driven by a few non-negotiables. It had to have existing forest or large trees – now that cows have been excluded, a lovely block of regenerating kahikatea- and nikau-dominated lowland forest is a constant delight. It had to be north-facing – light is so important to a garden and it now bathes the space and house all day. Finally, it had to have some contour – I’ll never regret a bit of effort on the hills for a well-drained, interesting form and an elevation that allows for dramatic borrowed views.

Renee Davies' garden is an eclectic mix of ideas and inspiration.
Renee Davies’ garden is an eclectic mix of ideas and inspiration.

But breaking in 6.25 acres of disused clay dairy paddock north of Auckland is taking a lot more time than I ever would have anticipated and has, out of necessity and ambition, become an all-consuming lifelong project. Despite the restrained approach I usually need to take when designing gardens for others, my own garden is a bit of an eclectic mix, an expression of the classic dilemma of a designer: far too many ideas and too few lives and gardens!

* A chef’s garden
* Build yourself a pergola! See our step-by-step guide
* A riverside retreat in Whanganui

My garden ambitions inevitably outweigh my budget, so a large proportion of the materials used in my garden is scrounged and upcycled:

* A water feature is made from the lid of an old copper water tank and some copper pipe.
* Old chimney bricks and some river pebbles become rustic pathway features.
* Old crockery make for great mosaic path inserts and an old timber ladder supports a kiwifruit vine.
* Pavers past their use-by date in someone else’s garden become the entry courtyard for the polytunnel.

This is a lot of the muscle aspect of the garden! Lots of hard work, but surprisingly successful outcomes can be achieved within a constrained budget; all that’s required is some good old Kiwi ingenuity and time commitment. Sitting quietly placing river pebbles into pathways is a remarkably calming activity that I highly recommend.

I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Many a plant has been relocated and the design is tweaked on a relatively regular basis as new and more refined ideas manifest. Despite this, the garden has proved to be very resilient to evolution and without the challenges and changes, it wouldn’t be as much fun.

I’m a sucker for anything rural, rusty and gorgeous – so lichen-covered totara posts and rusty steel implements are always put to good use. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in what I call the Taranaki (my hometown) shed corner: upcycled timber disguises what was a mundane steel garden shed, with an old axe for a door handle and a selection of fibreglass baths used as garden beds. Shade-loving and potential garden thugs thrive while being contained among them, water chestnuts (Eleocaris dolcis), nettles (Urtica dioica) and coriander (Coriandrum sativum).

Upcycled bathtubs at Violet Hill Farm.
Upcycled bathtubs at Violet Hill Farm.

When I first started creating the garden at Violet Hill Farm, I wanted a colour theme for the structural components. The house is white with a…