Richard Swan | Property valuer

Medlands Beach, Great Barrier Island, January 2015

"Gardens can obviously enhance the appearance of a dwelling and certainly give a property life and soul. In my opinion, a place without established garden surrounds lacks character.." ... more words below images

Richard Swan Property valuer | Medlands Beach, Great Barrier Island, January 2015

Our garden surrounds our small bach on Sandhill’s Road, Medland’s Beach, Great Barrier Island. The section is a little less than a quarter of an acre. It’s a rather long and narrow site, facing virtually north - although it naturally slopes steadily to the south. It was a sand dune that has been excavated and retained in stages and has subsequently been heavily planted.  When excavating it was necessary to remove about 20 truckloads of sand from the front part of the section and this was relocated to the back of the site.  Two curved retaining walls were then constructed on the front part of the land and, together with my wife Anna Stone, we acquired 5 truckloads of topsoil which we moved by hand to stabilize the cut areas on the level front parts of the site.

Our bach was then constructed, in stages, and much of the dwelling was designed by Architect Chris Pollard.  We elected not to take advantage of the sea view directly over Medland’s Beach, however, due to the position created below the road the property enjoys total privacy and is sheltered from the inevitable strong winds which are common on Great Barrier Island. This shelter enables relatively quick growth.

Despite our interventions, the underlying land comprises sand and we continue to lovingly cart topsoil, seaweed and mulch onto the garden. I’m ever on the look out for supplies and if it looks like any of the neighbouring property owners have ‘leftovers’ which I can repurpose on our garden, I’m round there like a shot.

Anna and I have created our garden over the last 25 years and built it from scratch. The only plant on the property when we acquired it was a small Lemon tree which originated from a Barrier plant that had been growing up the valley for many, many years.  We initially placed a large corrugated steel tank around this sole fruit tree to provide protection. It has now grown markedly and appears to produce all year round. People come from far and wide when they want lemons.  We initially concentrated on planting the retained and adjacent level front parts of the site, however, over recent years we have created a small orchard on the rear part of the section and our fruit trees abut an unfenced neighbouring property which encompasses numerous more mature fruit trees.  Trees we’ve so far planted include various plums, one of which is known as “Duffy’s Jewel”.  My late father David Swan was an architect and we used to refer to him as ‘Duffy’ and so this is why I selected this particular variety. Plum trees are quick growing, although these plum trees haven’t produced a lot as yet - they’re probably only about 3 - 4 years old.  Feijoa seem to handle it well out here and we have planted a hedge of them whilst Apples are also looking to grow well.  Surprisingly, Apricots are also good. Traditionally they like cold climates to fruit, but so far our one tree is thriving.

Anna and I and our three children are mainly here in summer and we’re generally battling the heat.  I am the ‘family gardener’ at Barrier and my favourite time to work is around 6 or 7 in the morning.  I often do an hour or two each day and this involves transporting a lot of tank water around the property by way of watering can.  And then as a family the front garden is our living room every night throughout the summer.  Come winter it can be left all year, although the grass does get long and we often employ a strong Barrier local to cut it periodically and top various Olive trees and both the mature Bottlebrush and Banksia boundary hedges.

I’m not so much inspired by a particular person to garden but more by the location and the land, although I would have to say that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses and gardens have been an inspiration. I enjoy talking with my mother about gardening, she’s a great gardener and surprised and delighted that I’ve ‘acquired the taste.’ My Barrier neighbour is also very knowledgeable.  For me, when you commence with a blank site - that inspires the interest in gardening and there is no better way to learn than by doing.

It’s a bit upsetting when plants get destroyed by stock and these include the long haired black pigs that constantly roam wild.  They root, break branches and virtually climb trees.  We endeavor to deter them and my neighbor has stretched a solar powered electric fence wire across our rear boundaries to prevent access. I have often threatened to shoot to kill, but it is all talk as I don’t own a rifle.  There are no possum on Great Barrier Island so that’s a big help, although the bird’s get as much of the fruit as we do, but we don’t care.

With regards to a favourite tool, it all depends on the task. My small stainless steel trowel is great when weeding on the retained garden beds and, as I grow both older and weaker, the garden hoe has become particularly important as it prevents me from a lot of bending, and I can also use it as a crutch when necessary.  Lastly, I could not do without my sturdy pitchfork when transferring mulch around the section, however, if this tool is not in use I hide it away as it is most certainly a dangerous weapon and one I would not like the children to get hold of.

My number one gardening tip, my biggest chore, and my highest gardening moments all pertain to mulching. To be honest I’ve worked bloody hard mulching. Last summer I carried 25 fish buckets of bark chip from the local campground and this task took me about 6 hours. I love that type of manual work, although I must confess that after that particular job I developed a severe sweat rash and was unable to walk comfortably for days.  

I try to mulch heavily every year. Last year I did it with hay, which I purchased from a local farmer. Bales of hay broken into thick foot wide slabs. This year I have used mulch from a faraway landowners shredded Banksia trees. They were pruning heavily and I seized the opportunity. I hired a small truck and distributed 4 full loads around all the trees and plants on our property.  This proved to be a two-day operation and as a city slicker I was absolutely knackered at the end of it.  

It’s surprising how much mulch you can place around a tree leaving space around the trunk.  Mulching purportedly prevents weeds and when you dig into the mulch it’s surprising how moist it can get in the middle – all hot and steamy. So it prevents the surrounding ground from drying out.  I understand that it is best to mulch when the ground is both wet and warm, although this year when I mulched the land was bone dry so I didn’t have an option.

My number one summer gardening tip is to water heavily (if you are able) and mulch mulch mulch !!!!

What does your garden give to you that you couldn’t do without?
Gardens can obviously enhance the appearance of a dwelling and certainly give a property life and soul. In my opinion, a dwelling without established garden surrounds lacks character. When we initially built our bach the section was barren.  Anna’s cousin Charlie Stone later built a substantial stone barbeque for us in a central front part of the garden and when completed it was like we’d given the place a heart around which we could develop the garden itself.   The house opens onto the garden and both the bach and garden link with the fireplace.  In the summer we live outside.