A garden by the sea is restoring a little of New Zealand
as it used to be, in more ways than one, writes Tom
Bright splashes of light play around recent plantings in the
gully running through Gail Oats' and Ian Marechal's coastal
As much as anything achieved so far on their 8.5 hectares
above Taieri Beach, the life-giving light is evidence of the
Back when the pair moved on to the then gorse-infested
section that runs from Akatore Rd down to a secluded beach,
the gully presented as an undifferentiated tangle of old
Almost incredibly, a huge old cabbage tree that now rises
regally from the bush remnant was then submerged, unseen.
Gail chuckles as she recalls her efforts over several years
to fight her way through the choking vine, discovering
treasure after treasure in the murk: native fuchsia, ngaio,
tall pittosporum trees, manuka and kanuka.
There is now a track running the length of the gully, which
is being planted out in hostas, lilies, polyanthus, flowering
fuchsia and hydrangeas, among a mix of other natives and
exotics, as an understorey to complement the bush.
''After three or four years the vine breaks down really
quickly and makes this beautiful floor mulch,'' says Ian,
lifting a handful of the rich brown humus, proof that all
that felled vine has not died for naught.
But the reclamation of the gully - and the return of native
birdlife it has brought - is just one part of the
conservation-minded makeover Gail and Ian have undertaken in
the past 10 years.
''We wanted to get a traditional Kiwi New Zealand rural look
happening and we also wanted to improve the quality of the
habitat for native birds, insects, bees and butterflies and
moths,'' Gail says.
''The other thing I wanted to do here by the coast is to show
you can have a coastal garden that's lush and leafy and
To that end, several distinct gardens are growing and
spreading across what were once rough paddocks, creating
oases in the surrounding farmland.
But before we get to that, there's the story of the house, a
classic Kiwi villa that once sat in South Dunedin's Richmond
Gail had been looking for the right property, with the right
house, for about three years when she came across the Taieri
Beach section. It was perfect, except there was no house.
Specifically, there was no old farmhouse. So they decided
they would bring the one they were living in. Ian cut it in
two, hinged and collapsed the roof for the shift and off they
went - also taking the house piles and a pile of bluestone
that supported the chimney in Richmond St. The latter is now
used to good effect in the garden.
The house, now back in one piece and painted in a bright
palette for its seaside habitat, looks for all the world as
if it has been there forever.
Not that Gail is recommending the approach.
''If you are going to move a house, don't move one you are in
love with,'' she says a little ruefully.
The second major structure on the property is the
deceptively-christened ''shed''. It is, in fact, a large
wooden building, constructed by Ian, and sometimes mistaken
for an old school hall. It was designed to fit in with the
nostalgic Kiwi idyll of the place, and incorporates native
timbers, beams from the old St Kilda borough town hall and
sash windows from a decommissioned Corstorphine church
''If you are lucky enough to live in a beautiful place with
outstanding natural beauty you should be trying to enhance
that and add something to it,'' Gail says of their decision
to steer clear of utilitarian tin.
Along with the house, they also brought their South Dunedin
cottage garden. It needed to go in sooner rather than later,
somewhere it would survive.
A mound of dead gorse cuttings was planted with a climbing
rose, and the Richmond St garden went in around it. The
transplanted cottage garden now sits just above the native
bush gully, out of the way of the worst of the northeasterly,
flowering in hues ranging through the spectrum.
To provide some structure around the property's several
garden plots, ''hundreds and hundreds and hundreds'' of trees
have now been planted: cabbage trees, pittosporum and ngaio,
pohutukawa. These are complemented by exotics, many of which
were chosen for their colour; among them maples and conifers.
Then there are the 600-700 flaxes.
The big-canvas landscaping is Ian's vision, says Gail.
''I wanted to garden but not quite on that scale,'' she says.
Gail and Ian's approach to combining colour and structure is
illustrated along a long bank separating the drive from their
bog garden, where a line of silver birches is planted for
autumn colour, in front of a row of contrasting evergreen
blue ice conifers.
While determined not to let their location limit their plant
choices, neither have they turned their backs on coastal
On the leeward side of the house against a clay bank, Ian has
created an ''underwater garden'' featuring seaside staple the
ice plant alongside a playful mix of other succulents, set
among pieces of driftwood, rocks and beachcombed flotsam.
That big cabbage tree saved from the vine is now the
centrepiece of an oriental-themed rock garden, inspired by a
cotoneaster twisted by the weight and cloak of the old man's
beard to resemble an oversized bonsai.
Other themed areas include a ''rosealea'' garden, featuring
roses and azaleas and those brick piles from under the house
in Richmond St.
The generosity of other gardeners in sharing clippings has
been key, Ian says, when taking on such extensive
The environment has proved tough and they've learned lessons
as they have gone along, he says, helped by the fact they had
no electricity for the first 12 months. They and their plants
''As time goes on you get in tune with your environment,'' he
''And you start to understand the nature of the environment,
the climate, the rain.''
Shelter belts went in early as a necessity, but will in time
become topiary features in their own right.
In the meantime, burgeoning insect life, supported by the
gardens, has helped birdlife flourish. Natives share the
property with introduced farmland birds, while coastal
travellers, gulls, terns and spoonbills, pass overhead.
The vision is taking shape, a little bit of a New Zealand
that once was. Indeed, there's another twist in that tale.
For after buying the property, Gail realised that it was once
part of the farm owned by her great uncle and aunt, Bill and