The small but mighty downtown Auckland garden

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Jacqui and Phil Dixon don’t have a green thumb between them, but when it comes to their own garden, they wear hearts on their sleeves.

Walk into their home in Auckland’s downtown Freemans Bay, and you’re immediately drawn along the hallway by something special beckoning you from behind. Their elegant glass-walled living room pulsates with a vivid panorama of shining foliage. “People don’t expect such a green and lush image,” says Jacqui.

Phil and Jacqui Dixon in their garden in Freemans Bay.

Jane Ussher / NZ Home & Garden

Phil and Jacqui Dixon in their garden in Freemans Bay.

“We love it – it’s like a constant gift and we have neither the desire nor the talent to do anything but enjoy it. It’s a bit like a work of art. We don’t want to interfere with this.

This narrow jungle belt is more like a trompe-l’oeil – a trick of the eye – than a traditional landscape painting. The feeling of abundance is an illusion as the Dixons’ garden is about as deep as a tub and only as wide as the house, with or without a narrow path on either side. Dominating this leafy profusion is a pair of China doll trees (Radermachera sinica), under which seemingly every shapely leaf nature has invented, mixes and mingles in a sleek, evergreen display. Subtropical is the label on the box, with plants from around the world rubbing shoulders with local heroes such as ponga.

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And given that its owners are suppliers of premium artisanal ingredients to chefs and gourmet cooks through their Sabato boutique, it’s tempting to look for a gastronomic analogy. A tasty bite comes to mind. But it could have been so different when they moved in seven years ago.

At the time, the garden looked tired and needed some attention, which they didn’t have the skills or time to sort out. The job keeps them busy seven days a week on the retail side, with plenty of after-hours outreach events for chefs and taste makers. And before Covid, they traveled a lot, with annual trips to Europe to ensure a continuous supply of taste treats. Plus there’s a bach from Bay of Islands waving them off.

So they could have been forgiven for ripping it all out and starting over, say with a fake lawn and a mural on the garden fence.

The difference here is that these guys have a passion for excellence, so the garden equivalent of a bouquet of silk flowers on the kitchen bench wouldn’t be enough.

Besides, says Phil: “There is a calm that gives the lawn. Without it, you lose all the interest of the garden. Jacqui says, “We wanted to live with something alive. And they were never tempted to change it.

Enter Martin Keay, plant connoisseur and professional gardener to a list of stellar clients, whose wife Donna Hoyle is the creative force behind all of Sabato’s distinctive print designs. “We’ve known Martin and Donna for about 27 years,” says Jacqui.

The success of this garden lies in the fact of nourishing it, watering it and sheltering it from the wind, explains its caretaker, Martin Keay.

Jane Ussher / NZ Home & Garden

The success of this garden lies in the fact of nourishing it, watering it and sheltering it from the wind, explains its keeper, Martin Keay.

A typical Martin Keay project consists of hard-to-find plants, but there’s nothing particularly unusual here. And he’s good at looking after small gardens, as well as larger plots.

Featured with a tired backyard: “Everything looked a little yellow when I started,” Martin refined the mix by “constantly adjusting”. He eliminated the laggards, installed the irrigation, fine-tuned the plant selection and “the secret to my success – feed, feed, feed.”

To play on the wow factor, he presented a selection of massive plant pots from Artedomus. When it comes to ladder in a small garden, you can never have too big a pot, he says – even if it was a squeeze to get them down the side of the house. Oversized but not over the top, these pots contain the smallest variety of ponga, Dicksonia squarrosa, softened by bed companions such as ornamental taro, as an example of Martin’s signature layered planting.

This layering effect is helped and encouraged by mature groups of bamboo and palm trees behind the fence, thanks to their neighbors. Martin calls this the Japanese concept of the borrowed landscape, shakkei, in which you accept and play existing elements that go beyond your own boundaries.

“This garden is a miracle,” he says. “It’s a fantastic example of exactly what you can do in Auckland. It’s so small and so sheltered. Everyone should do it. It really is part of the house. Despite (or because of) the shock it causes, “this garden is a small, sober oasis”.

Jacqui and Martin credit former owner and renovator Jo Legat as the inspired designer of the garden. “It’s not Martin’s garden style, but he’s a plant scholar, and he’s been so smart in the way he’s improved what was originally here,” says Jacqui.

Martin says the garden requires little maintenance; he devotes about eight hours a month to his maintenance. Edibles are next on Martin’s list of projects.

“The vegetable garden will come when it does,” explains Jacqui. “We’re fans of lettuce, arugula, spring onions, spinach and silver beets. Limes, lemons, cherry tomatoes, and passion fruit would be great, but our efforts to grow passion fruit have yet to work. Jacqui says that even after nearly 30 years in the business, their lives are busier than ever. “We thought we would work less now. Thank goodness for their peaceful green sanctuary.

“It’s a very restorative garden to look at, and certainly the height and the many layers give a feeling of restful privacy. We love the look of all the different plants and the bursts of color that appear depending on the season. A plethora of nice surprises.

In summer, the garden “is a lovely place to do my Naam yoga meditation practice”. Other times, she takes him inside, with the garden in view. “It’s beautiful, calming, abundant, and green – a great tool for meditation.”

Q&A with Jacqui Dixon

Favorite plant: The shiny tractor seat factory (Ligularia reniformis).

Best advice for the garden: Bring in someone, like Martin Keay, to always look good.

We love Freemans Bay because: It’s a lot of fun. We know quite a few people on our street, so we socialize and eat both at home and outside.

We love flowers: But don’t buy them often. We let our Tom Dixon lights and artwork be a feast for the eyes. If we buy flowers, Vida Flores is our choice.

How would you describe your garden: Subtropical, with a real sense of abundance. It’s therapeutic to experience.

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to catering: Prego is a three minute walk away, Ponsonby Bistro is pretty much the same, and the Ponsonby Hotel is a few minutes more. We appreciate other little gems, like a local Japanese joint, Yuzu.


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