Total harmony

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A home and garden in Tarras are at one with the landscape

When Sue and Simon Nyhof settled in one of the most extreme climatic corners of the country, they weren’t fazed by the prospect of creating a garden on a blank, somewhat bleak, canvas.

The couple had been living at Lake Hāwea, a half-hour drive away, for 20 years so knew and loved the area. “We had done all we could to our property in Hāwea and were looking for another project,” says Sue. At the same time, their daughter and son-in-law were looking for a lifestyle block on which to raise their three young children. When a 5ha property came up for sale in Tarras, it was win-win all around. Simon and Sue subdivided 2ha off for themselves and revelled in the fact that they not only had a new challenge, but also grandchildren next door.

It’s a majestic spot, nestled into the bottom of a hill under a belt of gum trees with views to the mountains surrounding Lake Wānaka. The Nyhofs wanted a home that didn’t just sit on the landscape, but was immersed in it. And there was no question as to who would design their home. Architect Gary Todd had been their neighbour in Dunedin for 22 years. “He helped with our alterations there and designed our house in Hāwea as well,” says Simon. Their friend understood them well and the house was the result of a happy collaboration.

The 240m² two-bedroom house comprises three single-storey pavilions wrapped around an internal courtyard. It features cedar, schist, concrete and an abundance of glass.

In a region where temperatures range from -6C to 35C and it’s hard to stand up when the nor’westers are in full throttle, floor-to-ceiling glazing gives that feel of full immersion in the landscape even when indoors. The sheltered courtyard has views through the house to the garden and mountains.

They called their home The Gums, in a nod to the towering eucalypts behind (but not too close). “They bend and roar in the wind but so far none have fallen,” says Simon. A water race flows through the trees, adding its melodies to the rustle of wind in the leaves.

Sue and Simon set out to create a garden that was in harmony with the grand surroundings but added a quieter beauty closer to home. They started with the basics. “At Hāwea, we lived with gravel and dirt and muck for two years after building the house,” says Simon. “We decided this time we would get all those hard areas around the house done first.”

They moved in just before Covid struck, and the virus had a silver lining. “We had 48 hours’ notice before the first lockdown so rushed out and got heaps of plants and building materials. The local Mitre 10 had to get rid of plants before it closed so they were down to ridiculous prices,” says Sue.

They both love gardening and play to their strengths. “We know what each other does well and leave each other to it,” says Sue. Simon credits Sue with the vision and plant knowledge; Sue says Simon provides the muscle and landscaping know-how. Since retiring from the classroom and his role as assistant principal at Mount Aspiring College, Simon has been teaching metal and woodwork in the school’s workshop. Sue is a dab hand at Oamaru stone carving and her watercolours grace the walls of the house. Dotted through the garden are sculptures and upcycled finds as well as their own handiwork. “I like little surprises in a garden. Quirky things that are unexpected and make people smile.”

The most vibrant part of the garden is a colourful bank above a rock wall which wraps around the northern side of the house. “We’re lucky to have banks as it’s harder gardening on a flat space. Layering is the way to go,” says Sue, who is always on the lookout for plants with interesting foliage and texture.

“I’m always trying to get more winter colour. If I can get colour and structure for winter, summer’s easy.” Heucera is a winner and comes in many hues, while the orange spears of Libertia peregrinans intensify with the cold. Senecios, or angel wings, add an ephemeral touch with their soft grey foliage.

Other people’s rejects are welcomed into the diverse garden. “We’ve dug a lot of things out of friends’ gardens,” says Sue. “People know we will take anything and everything.” Not everything thrives. Lake Hāwea may just be a short hop away, but Tarras has an even harsher growing climate. “The frosts are harder here and it’s hotter and drier,” says Sue. Some years, they get as little as 15cm of rain. “Our soil is also quite sandy and silty so it doesn’t hold the moisture. It’s been a bit of a trial with some plants.”

Weeds are made of sterner stuff. “In the beginning, we spent hours and hours weeding. We knew we had to do something to make it easier,” says Simon. The solution came in the form of a mega-mulching regime, with a thick layer of wood chips spread over compost. “I don’t know how many trailer-loads of mulch we’ve spread. The old quad bike gets quite a workout.” The effort has paid off. Just three years on and that blank canvas is daubed with lively colours and sitting in happy harmony with its bold backdrop.

Q&A with Sue and Simon Nyhof

MOST SIGNIFICANT PLANT: The gum trees which give our property its identity. (Simon)

PLANTS THAT GROW WELL HERE: Natives, lavenders and roses. (Sue)

HIGH POINT IN THE GARDEN’S EVOLUTION: Sambo Stewart of Diesel & Dust took on the challenge of building a curved rock wall and did an amazing job. (Simon)

THING THAT CAUSED THE MOST DEBATE: The purchase of a load of old tōtara posts. I wanted something to give us instant height but Simon couldn’t see the point. We’ve put them at random heights creating a visual line through the garden and he’s now a fan. (Sue)

IRRIGATION: We use sprinklers every day during summer and all the trees have gravity-fed drip lines. (Simon)

THING I’VE LEARNED ABOUT GARDENING: The importance of compost, manure and mulch – and just how satisfying it is to create a garden. (Sue)

BEST PIECE OF ADVICE RECEIVED: Get all the hard areas around the house completed before moving in and make the best use of the sun. (Simon)

BEST MONEY SPENT: All the glass in the house design. (Sue)

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