Elegant and peaceful

Gillian Vine gets excited about Southland.

After years in the doldrums, the Southland Open Gardens scheme has been revitalised.

The driving force behind it is Lynne Huggins, of Invercargill. She found visitors often asked what gardens were open and decided something needed to be done, so - with support from Venture Southland - the new-look scheme was launched late last year.

Lynne explained that the decision of the organising group was that there would be no formal assessment process, although a number of gardeners asked that their properties be visited ''to see if they were good enough''. In addition, in an effort to give a good geographic spread, the owners of several gardens known to be of high standard, were approached to take part.

What has delighted the group is the consistently high standard of the properties put forward, although Lynne admits she would like the owners of more small gardens to become involved, as the majority on the list are large.

Most gardens have been designed by their owners, as is the Cleland garden, at Pukerau. What is somewhat different here, though, is that Arne Cleland - as well as owning Pukerau Nursery with his wife, Jenny - is a professional landscaper with a staggering number of awards to his credit.

The nursery is familiar to those looking for natives to grow singly or in bulk and Arne offers one of the most comprehensive selections anywhere of native broom (Carmichaelia) and daisy (Olearia) species.

His professional passion for natives is reflected in the garden at home but there is lots more, so much that the garden seems much bigger than its .4ha. Yet, despite being larger than average, the garden has been developed to be an easy-care one, with careful choice of plants and close planting helping achieve this aim.

Started 20 years ago, when the house was built, the site was ''a bare paddock; not a tree'', Jenny says. First up was the shelter belt behind the house, ''an absolute must'' to get a good garden in the area.

Other trees have been added, including a little grove of birches, originally nursery stock that didn't sell. Attractive year round, this area really shines in winter and spring when the hellebores, narcissus, bluebells and trilliums planted under the trees are flowering.

''Bluebells look so good under birches,'' Jenny says.

Trilliums, which she describes as being ''as tough as old boots'', flourish, as does the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), often a difficult plant to grow successfully.

Groundcover is important and she recommends Epimedium as a good choice for dry shade, as is Pachysandra terminalis. Symphytum grandiflorum, a yellow-flowered form of comfrey, is another but tends to be rampant, ''so I wouldn't put it just anywhere'', Jenny cautions.

Like the nursery, the garden features natives, including some of New Zealand's 23 native brooms and 34 tree daisies, and has a neat little low hedge of Lophomyrtus around the vegetable garden. One of Jenny's favourites of the daisies is Olearia hectorii, whose flowers smell like ''peaches and passionfruit''.

''And it's a really good doer,'' she adds.

''Seed [of these tree daisies] came from the Hokonuis, where there are some very old specimens.''

Other less-usual natives include Chatham Island flax and bog pine (Halocarpus bidwillii), while the local red tussock is also used effectively. Clearly, foliage texture and colour have been important in choosing plants, as well as using Hokonui natives. Sculptural elements include a weathered hyper tufa sculpture, appropriately named Teardop.

Around the large pond, natives and exotics live in harmony, giving interest throughout the year. In spring, a white-flowered dogwood (Cornus) contrasts with a maroon-foliaged Japanese maple (Acer) and pink rhododendrons.

The final seal of approval comes from the bellbirds, which nest in this elegant and peaceful garden.

See it
The Cleland garden, Pukerau St, Pukerau, is one of almost 20 properties in the Southland Open Gardens scheme. Admission is $5 which is donated to Breast Cancer and the Arthritis Foundation. The garden is open only by appointment; phone (03) 205-3801 to book a visit. For the full list of open gardens, see www.southlandgardens.co.nz.