This story is from the team of NZ Home & Garden magazine.
If there’s one thing a hungry rabbit loves, it’s native seedlings. One day you have hundreds of small kahikatea sprigs and the next day you have none.
That’s why Derek McLuskie and Anne Hynds named their serene Featherston garden Dead Rabbits Run. “Because when we first came here, the place was overrun with rabbits,” explains Anne. “Serious.”
Needless to say, the first thing on the to-do list when these ardent conservationists bought their 4 acre block of extensively grazed land 12 years ago was to get rid of the pests. Firefighter Derek shot as many as he could and laid humane multi-purpose traps for the rest, catching possums, rats, mice, stoats and a weasel. “I would never want to be cruel to the rabbits, but you definitely lose your temper,” he says.
Which begs the question, what drew them to these barren paddocks in the first place? And the answer? It was because of a beautiful fragment of ngahere – original bush, perched on an earthquake slope.
Now that once-struggling remnant is the focus of their magical and slightly otherworldly garden. “The native trees set the tone,” says Anne. “Everything has to bow to them in some way.”
What a difference 12 years of predator-free gardening has made. Kererū, korimako (bellbirds) and pīwakawaka are frequent visitors, while ruru (moreporks) and kārearea (native falcons) swoop in, looking for a meal among the hundreds of sparrows that nest in the night-scented lemon grove.
When the rewarewa, or native honeysuckle, is in bloom, says Anne, “the tūī just goes crazy and you hear the sound of the bees swarming to the flowers.” Little geckos have returned to bask in the sun. “They’re so cool,” says Anne. “You really become attuned to the animals that inhabit the garden.”
Not that they are purists. Far from it. The first thing this couple planted was a pine windbreak. “The wind is fierce here,” says Derek. “Even coming from Wellington, we didn’t really appreciate what we bought.”
And around the house is the “romantic garden”, planted with everything a traditional gardener’s heart desires.
The house itself, simple on the outside, contemporary on the inside, was originally part of the Taratahi Agricultural Training Center and has been moved into the property by the couple. Given that Anne has spent her career in education, this somehow seems appropriate.
“It was just a rat-infested dorm room,” says Anne. “Honestly, I’m sure the neighbors freaked out when it was first moved because I freaked out. But Derek had a vision of what it could look like.”
There’s even a bit of a his-and-hers feel to Dead Rabbits Run. “We help each other all over the yard, but we also have our own domains,” says Derek.
Anne welcomed the chance to finally transplant her much-traveled collection of potted plants directly into the Wairarapa soil, including two 30-year-old maples – maples were her mother Verna Hynds’ favorite plant. The romantic garden, set against the huge old rewarewa trees, tītoki and tōtara, contains magnolias (her grandmother’s favorite), rhododendrons, camellias, roses, peonies, espalier trees and oakleaf hydrangeas.
Plus, “I just fell in love with dahlias,” says Anne. She would like to add a shepherd’s hut to this space, surrounded by fragrant plants. “Of all the roses we buy, we may not know their names, but they must have a strong scent. We love that sense of perfume.”
Derek’s domain includes the fernery, his bonsai and the clivias splashing color through the dry forest shade. And a stumpery, which is “an old Victorian idea of using all the old gnarled roots,” Derek explains. “You clean them up and just throw them on the floor.” It’s amazing, he says, what ferns and mosses and mushrooms grow out of rotting wood.
Their garden, says Anne, has a “braided approach”. Because her whakapapa is Irish, Scottish and English, and her gardening grandparents loved cottage gardens, she has a soft spot for many exotics.
“Our ancestors came here from other places, but Aotearoa is our home. And there is something about the peculiarity and uniqueness of those native plants. So we plant things that complement them: we braid – weave – that sense of the native with the exotic.”
The native treasures may be less flashy, but they are there. “We have some native orchids in one of the trees,” says Derek. “There’s quite a bit of variety, but if you don’t know how to look for them, you won’t see them. They hang from the tree like a scruffy fern.
“Once a year, for about a week, they have these beautiful little flowers, but you have to climb the ladder to see them properly.”
As much as you might want something right away when you start a garden, Anne says, “I think we’ve learned to sit back and see how things grow and what goes with what.” And these two aren’t going anywhere. “We often talk about how we’re going to be carried out of here in pine boxes, aren’t we, dear?”
But Derek doesn’t even want to travel that far. “We’re going to build a tomb here,” he says.
Q&A with Anne Hynds & Derek McLuskie
We are especially proud of: Obtaining a QEII National Trust covenant to protect the native shrub, which can best be described as a lowland old-growth remnant. (The stretch)
We are working with Trevor Thompson from the trust on a restoration and planting plan. It was encouraging to see more native birds in the garden. (Anne)
Favorite garden tools: I always have a pair of pruning shears in my back pocket. (The stretch)
My new lightweight wheelbarrow for mulching and weeding. (Anne)
We are influenced by: Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush in Wellington and the Wellington Botanic Garden continue to inspire us. (The stretch)
Our visit to Queens Park Botanic Gardens in Invercargill, particularly the Japanese Garden, has left us excited to create our own rock garden. (Anne)
Our garden philosophy: Our garden continues to evolve, as does our philosophy. We still have so much to learn, but there are so many knowledgeable people eager to help – we enjoy being part of a larger gardening community. (The stretch)
Is the garden open to the public: Yes, for the Hydrotherapy Garden Tour in November, raising money for forest restoration at the Pūkaha National Wildlife Center. (The stretch)