This sub-tropical Auckland garden will transport you to paradise

A series of terraces, lush planting and enhanced outdoor bathing options have lifted this steep inner-city site to subtropical superstar status

sub-tropical garden

Dealing with an “incredibly challenging” steep site, a swimming pool in disrepair and major privacy issues is not an easy ask for any landscape professional. Fortunately, talented designer Kirsten Sach was more than up to the job when software company CEO Nathalie Morris came to her for help.

Kirsten had made a beautiful garden at the front of Nathalie’s Auckland home two years earlier and the homeowner was confident the designer could create the private sanctuary she dreamed of out the back. Her faith was not misplaced and now the Grey Lynn resident and her pooch, Pixie, spend many happy hours relaxing in their inner-city paradise.

sub-tropical garden

The site

When Kirsten first saw the property, the back area was very steep with a disused old pool filled with dirty water and mosquitoes halfway down the slope. “The lower slopes were not retained and were waist-high in weeds,” she recalls. “It was overgrown, unloved and the access was terrible. There were large trees overhanging the area near the house which made the space dark and uninviting.”

sub-tropical garden

Before Nathalie bought the house, its back garden had been the subject of a TV makeover show that focused on renovating the concrete pool, originally built in the ’60s. “Despite this, the pool was at the end of its life so we had to do something,” says Nathalie. “The existing planting lacked harmony, and the area below the pool was unusable sloping ground.”

sub-tropical garden

Design brief

At the top of Nathalie’s list of requirements was replacing the pool with a hot tub and an outdoor shower, both of which would get a lot more use. She also wanted a usable, inviting, terraced garden. “Access was really important, so I designed generous new paving and more spacious decks to replace the old, rotted ones,” says Kirsten. Bringing in more light was also essential.

sub-tropical garden

“I wanted to design a garden that looked great viewed from the balcony above, improve the access stairs with a new handrail, and provide better access so the garden would be used. There is a disconnection in regards to indoor-outdoor flow so the design needed to draw you down into the garden and create spaces that could be utilised well when entertaining, or for family time.



Kirsten worked with Adam Evans from Urbis Landscapes to achieve the difficult task of creating more usable, flat lawn space. “The garden was very challenging with an incredible 4.5-metre drop from the upper paved level down to the rear boundary,” she recalls. “This meant retaining in terraces and lawns to avoid handrails. The retaining walls were kept under a metre, which creates a nice flow down the garden.”


Nathalie was keen for the same lush, subtropical, contemporary feel of the front garden to continue out the back. Screening was also high on the agenda. “The back garden is essentially in a valley, with neighbouring houses from all around overlooking it, so a key part of the brief was to use planting to create privacy,” she explains.

To achieve the look of a “light and airy oasis”, Kirsten selected smaller-growing palms such as sugar cane palm (Dypsis baronii) and bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii). Colour was restricted to flowering cannas and bird of paradise (strelitzia) on the lower slopes.

sub-tropical garden

“Planting needed to be fairly low-maintenance, although we used hedging on the boundaries to maximise space and give a clean, contemporary look to the garden,” Kirsten says. “I kept a few of the existing trees like the titoki over the lower deck and the Canton lace (Radermachera sinica) up close to the house, as the client loved the birds in the tree and it does create a dappled shade at certain times of the day.”

And how does it work for Nathalie now the garden has settled in? “The trees and hedging have grown so the garden and hot-tub area are now very private,” she enthuses. “In the warmer months, it is lovely to relax in the garden with a cold drink, with the greenery all round, and watch the different types of birds flying through the valley.

“There are various areas of the garden that you can sit in, which all provide different perspectives. It’s very tranquil. And then in the winter there’s nothing better than relaxing in the hot tub!”

Words by: Carol Bucknell. Photography by: Helen Bankers.

Home experts are just a click away