Cantabrians Robbie Williams and Karen Baas were taking a tour of great European gardens when the most unlikely gardening idea struck.
Standing outside l’Hotel Biron, which houses the Museum of Rodin in Paris, looking down the long avenue of rustic planting towards the formal fountain, the pair realised the garden seemed very familiar.
“We thought, ‘this is just the right shape for our property’,” says Baas. “Then we looked at the trees and plants and thought, ‘these are all plants that we can grow in New Zealand’.”
So they did, recreating the precise dimensions and planting of the gardens surrounding the French museum on their own 10-acre (4ha) Clarkville, Canterbury, property.
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After some emailing back and forth with the museum, discussing their plans with its landscape designer and the people who maintain the garden, the couple were given permission to go ahead with their plans and recreate the layout and planting in every detail.
The only caveat is that they don’t use the garden for commercial gain.
“They have supported us right through, even sending us the original plans,” says Baas.
“We’re lucky enough that when we’re in Paris, we get early morning access out of hours to the garden to check all our measurements and plants are accurate. It’s just us and a few rabbits that hop out there.”
With no tourists or anyone else about, “apart from security”, the Parisian jardin, is “just beautiful in the early morning”, she says. Their Kiwi jardin is no less spectacular – and is also tourist-free.
When they bought the house in 2012, it was sitting in a paddock with grass up to their shoulders and little else except one or two cabbage trees.
“We thought we’d try to tidy it up, but then we took this holiday, and it suddenly hit us, that we could do this,” says Williams.
They started out by cutting the grass back. Then Williams turned the paddock with his tractor, raked and rolled it, and eventually levelled it with a laser leveller borrowed from a mate down the road. When it was perfectly flat, the couple laid the lawn that would become the main avenue.
“We borrowed a seed sower and Karen and I walked up and down, sowing all the seeds,” he says.
Planting the necessary trees around the edge came next. After that, the couple “just worked gradually from there”.
Baas was chiefly in charge of the planting, as she has always been an avid plant fan. Because they have a very specific plan, it’s often been a “hunt” to get the plants they needed, she says.
The garden design required thousands of very specific plants and trees – Bass guesses they have about 5000 plants and trees on the property now, some bought, some propagated, some grown from seed. All the plants are bio-safe and come from New Zealand.
“We’ve mostly been able to get the identical plants, but there’s a handful that we’ve had to make do with close alternatives,” says Baas. “The only extras really I’ve put in are paeony roses and paeony trees, because I love paeonies.”
The couple also planted a few acres of fruit trees at the end of the garden, which they hope will become a little fruit bearing wood in a few years time.
The signature plant of the garden, however, is the European Hornbeam, which has been extensively planted as hedges throughout the garden. A close second would be the romantic, blousy hydrangeas.
Three local contractors come once a year to help keep all the hedges and topiary looking trim and ordered – the job is just too big for them to handle on their own now – otherwise, it’s only them and their friends and family that get to see the garden. They hope that will change one day.
“The garden in Paris is used a lot by the community for various functions, and we’d like to think that someday this place might be used for that sort of purpose,” says Williams.
“We’re not aiming to make any sort of profit out of it. We just want people to enjoy themselves, and see a nice garden. You can’t just make the garden spring up overnight. It takes 25 years, really, before it gets properly established.”
In the meantime, they still have work to do to complete the design. Two pathways need to be cut along either side of the avenue, and in the adjacent garden, a replica of the Museum’s Garden of Orpheus, they’re putting in a little stream.
And always there will be more plants. Baas’ best tip for mass planting is to buy in bulk directly from growers, rather than nursery stores. The price difference can be as much as $25 to $35 dollars per plant. Overall, the couple are not sure how much the project has cost them over the past 10 years. However, they’re keenly aware of what it has brought them.
“I guess it’s a project that we embraced really, and still do,” says Baas. “It’s been a hobby, and it’s been a really fun hobby for a couple to do.”
Williams likens it to Wellington Botanic Gardens with its beautiful mature trees.
“Those trees take 50 to 100 years to grow into magnificent specimens. In another 30 or 40 years, this is going to be an incredible place.”
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