An Asian inspired design transforms a steep site in the Waitakere Ranges

This clifftop garden found its full potential thanks to some traditional Asian inspired landscaping that complements its wild native bush setting


An Asian inspired design transforms a steep site in the Waitakere Ranges

A steep site covered with invasive weeds and heavy clay soil is not an ideal place to make a garden. Fortunately Auckland landscape designer Steve Dodds of Lanzscapes is unperturbed by such horticultural and topographical challenges.

When his clients first bought this cliff-edge property a decade ago, Steve relished the idea of creating a garden that combined his love of Asian landscape traditions with New Zealand native species. Both Steve and his clients were happy to overlook the site’s gradient, weeds and unkempt state given the property’s stunning views of the Manukau Harbour and its large stands of regenerating kauri and other native trees. They knew it had the potential to become a very special place indeed.


The one-hectare property is situated in the Waitakere Ranges, on the edge of the Manukau Harbour. Sitting above high cliffs, it features extensive views of the water to the east and west. The owners bought the site in the mid-1990s, drawn to its “natural beauty, sea views, scale, privacy and quiet, all within reasonable proximity to the city”, says Steve.


The site originally accommodated two dwellings – a large 1930s-era main house and a smaller, older, bach-like dwelling. These have both now been demolished, with a new guest house built on the bach site and a house currently under construction on the footprint of the old homestead.

Most of the semi-mature trees on the land are kauri, along with many other large natives including pohutukawa, kahikatea, rimu, rewarewa and puriri. Groups of mature rhododendron trees add colour to the green bush in winter.


“Like most of the Waitakere bush, these native trees all date from the late 19th century, having regenerated after the area was extensively milled and cleared,” Steve explains. “Of course these trees are now viewed as assets. Naturally the trees dictated the extent of all the construction on the property and they’ve also very much informed the general theme of the garden.”


Steve has been involved in the development and maintenance of the property since the couple first bought it. “Initially, the grounds had only been basically maintained, so were overgrown, with little coherence or form. It was only after bashing the site into shape and removing all the exotic invasive weeds that I could attempt to introduce some form and structure.”


As the soil is heavy clay, it had to be extensively amended before any new planting could begin. Plenty of compost and mulch was added to the soil and an extensive drainage and irrigation system installed.

The varied topography of very steep slopes with a large flat area at the top of the site for the new house meant Steve needed to construct stairways, terracing, paths and boardwalks to access the various areas of the garden. Built of timber, clay brick and stone, these man-made structures now merge beautifully into the vegetation around them, making as little impact on the root zones of the trees as possible.

Retaining walls were also carefully considered. “As the sloping site required lots of retaining, we decided to achieve a more flowing, organic-yet-permanent look by using natural rock instead of the usual timber retaining walls. As the gardens have filled in around them, they have blended into the landscape nicely.”


Standout feature

While the natural elements of this garden are undoubtedly impressive, so too are the built structures that connect its various components. Decks appear to be suspended in mid-air over the tree canopy, while timber boardwalks thread gently through the foliage.

Rather than build a conventional set of stairs to connect the upper and lower floors of the guest house, Steve constructed a series of elegant hardwood platforms that appear to float up the slope, just one of many poetic gestures the designer has made to turn this bush-clad site into a truly magical place for its owners.



The designer was very much led by the site’s existing native vegetation and larger trees when it came to establishing any new planting. Most of the planting is native species, complemented by other subtropicals that suit the site conditions such as palms, tree ferns, bromeliads, gingers, orchids and clivia.



The owners’ vision for their garden evolved gradually. Initially they just wanted the property to look attractive and be well kept with a few improvements along the way. However, as it developed, the natural potential of the site became more apparent, says Steve.


“The aim now is to create the ambience of a high-end resort. I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia and have been greatly influenced by gardens I experienced there. I’ve attempted to bring a little of that style into this project to produce a bit of a South Pacific and Asian mix.”

Words by: Carol Bucknell. Photography by: Todd Eyre.

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