This Blenheim garden is a magical wonderland

Home » Victoria Spence » This Blenheim garden is a magical wonderland

11 August 2022

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Exuberant colour, homegrown vegetables, cricket on the lawn and cubbies made out of native plants characterise this Blenheim garden that has grown up with its family.

Who lives here?

Viticulturists and winemakers Claudia and Bill Small and their three children, Ted, 14, Sylvia, 11, and Penelope, 10.

A yellow weatherboarded house covered in greenery.
Claudia loves it when the wisteria along the verandah flowers in spring. IMAGE VIA JACOB LEAF

Where is it?


A bee on purple flowers.

When did you move in and what was the garden like then?

“We moved here in 2010. The house was built in 1947 and sits on 2600sqm of land. When we arrived, the garden had a walnut tree, beech, kōwhai, lots of brown trellis, and a volleyball net. One of the first things we did was
to move the garage and driveway. The kitchen and living area looked out onto them, and Bill suggested we move them around to the other side of the house. Initially, I thought that was a crazy idea because it would be too expensive, but then Bill’s parents, who were amazing gardeners, came and visited and said, ‘You should move the garage.’ And so we did, and we’ve never regretted it. I mean, who needs a north-facing garage?”

A treehouse sitting in a full garden.
Bill built the tree house from offcuts from the original garden. IMAGE VIA JACOB LEAF

What was your inspiration for designing your garden?

“After moving the garage and doing extensive renovations on the house, the garden area was pretty much a builder’s yard filled with mud and other crap, so we resowed the lawn.

Then we started planting. First, we wanted to establish natives that grow locally, so we planted a long border with hebes, cabbage trees and flaxes, and grew a pittosporum hedge. It was a big job, and the kids were really little at the time, so we hired our friends’ au pair for a few days so we could get all the planting done. Then I planted flowers like penstemons, achilleas and sedums in between. We also put in a vege garden and planted an orchard. We mapped out a plan for our garden but it’s changed over time as we’ve worked out what looks good in reality, as opposed to what looked good on paper.”

Freshly picked purple potatoes in a garden.
The Smalls love growing vegetables such as asparagus and purple potatoes. IMAGE VIA JACOB LEAF

How has the garden evolved over the last 12 years?

“A few years ago we put in a freshwater swimming pool where our vege garden was, so we chopped down the orchard and dug a new vege garden there. I’ve also developed a really bright perennial garden toward the back of the house.

Purple and yellow flowers in shrubbery in front of a house.
A wild mingling of blue eryngiums, yellow achillea ‘Gold Plate’ and purple Verbena bonariensis. IMAGE VIA JACOB LEAF

I inadvertently planted a large, bright yellow achillea there called ‘Gold Plate’, not realising how exuberant it would be! It’s almost taken over the entire garden bed but it’s so bright and cheerful it makes me smile. I also grow blue eryngiums and echinops, purple Verbena bonariensis and a bright pink penstemon, which is a gift that keeps on giving because penstemons flowers for months. It’s definitely more bonkers in there than we planned, but I love it.”

You’ve also created a perennial garden along either side of your swimming pool. Tell us about that.

“The water table in Marlborough is really high, so when the pool was being dug we hit water really quickly. Because of that, we had to make the pool higher and build up a deck around it. We really wanted a garden around the pool, and luckily our neighbour gave us lots of free topsoil. Bill had to wheel in barrows and barrows of it to fill it up. We planted a griselinia hedge along one side for privacy all year round, then I planted a bed of purple and yellow flowers inspired by a pool garden I’d seen in a book by British gardener Penelope Hobhouse. I’m really happy with it because I’ve chosen flowers with the same tones but different shapes. It’s an ideal spot for perennials because the plants die down in winter, then re-emerge in spring, which is when we start using the pool again.”

A garden path framed by hedges.
A clipped griselinia hedge appeals to Bill’s love of sight lines and symmetry. IMAGE VIA JACOB LEAF

Do you have your own areas of responsibility in the garden?

“Bill is into sight lines and symmetry and also spends quite a lot of time in the vegetable garden and making compost. I like flowers more than Bill does, and I love weeding, which is lucky because there’s quite a lot to weed. But if I don’t feel like doing it, I don’t! The kids mow the lawn with a push mower for pocket money.”

Do the kids spend a lot of time in the garden?

“The kids play a lot of cricket on the lawn. They really like it when we cut down the dried harakeke flower stems – they like to make forts and cubbies out of them. Just the other day, Penelope made one out of toetoe and sticks and things she found in the garden. She made a sign out of a broken bit of pot and wrote ‘Penelope’s whare’ on it, then spent the afternoon reading in it.”

Three tents pitched on a lawn.
The kids love camping out on the lawn so much that Penelope camped out for most of the 2020 lockdown. IMAGE VIA JACOB LEAF

What advice do you have for anyone who is starting a new garden?

“With gardening, you’ve got to chill out. Some things will work, some things won’t. You learn to live with the failures – which is generally an important life lesson. Currently, I’m redoing areas that aren’t working so well any more, where the trees and shrubs have got so large that they’re shading other plants out. Gardening is so good for your mental health. There’s always something that’s going to be amazing each year but you don’t know what it’s going to be. I love my garden.”

A thriving garden with small barbecue in background.

Subscribe & WIN!

Subscribe to WOMAN+ for only $19.99 for the year and you’ll have a chance to WIN 2 Nights for 2 at JetPark Rotorua +
an Evening in the Polynesian Spa.

*You can unsubscribe at any time. By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.