Huka Lodge garden spectacular
Huka Lodge completely captivates Bill Adams
There’s a gardening analogy out there somewhere that refers loosely to seeing the big picture and missing the details but maybe I am getting that confused with stopping to smell the roses — my head a muddle of such thoughts after a guided walk through the 6.9ha of established gardens at Huka Lodge.
I am in sensory overload and far from the place of my arrival, face pressed against the car window, child-like, in awe of the park-like surrounds. My first thought was one of pleasure that I didn’t have to mow the expansive lawns, my second thought one of wonder at how many people it must take to keep the grounds so pristine.
“A team of five” says head gardener Elaine Tocker (above). “Three full-time on the garden and two on lawns and hedges.” Softly spoken and obviously at ease in her surroundings, Elaine’s gentle nature sets the pace and tone of our stroll through the gardens.
The newly established reflection walk — a labour of love and accreditation for her two young apprentices was the starting point and the first of many surprises. A mulched track with ponga edges through native bush leads on to and around a grassed clearing complete with a Japanese torii gate — gifted from the garden of local guest Jacqueline Holt, providing a serene space for yoga practitioners seeking their way toward zen. This area of contemplation came about after storms in 2010 and 2011 felled many large, old trees requiring the destroyed gardens around them to be cleared. “We took out trailer-loads” says Elaine, “it was an absolute mess.”
Some of these shockingly large tree stumps remain as evidence as we wander the manicured paths of this garden that was created with little budget. Elaine proudly explains, “We moved plants that were ailing or not doing so well in other spots, the rocks and sleepers were also found on site and one of the team who was separating flax at home brought a whole lot in.” The path leads us back to freshly trimmed 3m-high Leighton green cypress hedges dividing adjacent areas into private spaces for tennis, swimming, croquet, petanque and car parking.
With a 94-year-old history this garden comes with its own legacy but one that has evolved through the more recent designs of landscape designer Suzanne Turley. Mature trees towering above us display this history but the balance of opposites — old and new, informal native bush and formal manicured lawns illustrate her carefully considered influence. The garden does not compete with itself nor with the crystal-clear Waikato river that runs beside it. There is a subtle transition from water to lawn to bush with the lodges settled on the edges of the latter. They do not announce themselves, although the views from inside back out toward the river scream in return.
While predominantly decorative, there is a working element to the garden, with a large grape-covered framed herb garden used by the restaurant. The storms also demolished an extensive orchard but a scattering of surviving apples, plums, medlars and quinces have been transplanted to suitable spaces. I learn that chives planted around fruit trees help with blight and Elaine has planted a lot of thyme around the base of trees, “because the chefs use a lot of it, particularly lemon thyme”.
Impressively, for a garden that experiences minus -6C frosts in winter, there are citrus — 1 big lemon, mandarins, kaffir lime and yuzu.
As the garden has been developed by Suzanne, many of the flowering plants have been replaced with natives and Elaine approves. “It has been a big help, they were very labour-intensive.” Two main gardens still have flowers, including 1000 tulips that flower in spring, making the Alan Pye Cottage hot property in September. There are pockets of daffodils along the river and magnolia foliage and flowers are well used by the housekeeping team. Cherry trees also provide plenty of blossom in spring and the viburnum lining the drive and pond area put on a changing display from white in spring to deep red in autumn.
It truly is a garden of quiet surprises and an astonishingly beautiful reason to stay at Huka Lodge. Elaine is always happy to give guests a guided tour and there are scheduled, ticketed tours for the wider community that provide funds for baiting.
The Department of Conservation has a scheme on both sides of the river to eradicate rats, stoats and weasels. The trapping has brought all the birdlife back and we were joined by several fantails, chattering and playing around us on our frequent stops. All part of what makes this garden extraordinary.
Elaine keeps the lodge kitchen well stocked with edibles. Executive chef Paul Froggatt picks a few favourites:
Pineapple sage: Used for its heady aroma, for icecreams, infusions and sauces. Particularly good with pork.
Winter and summer savory: Winter savory is a lot stronger in flavour (almost aggressive) than summer savory. Used with lamb and in ricotta tortellini.
Lovage: Another kitchen favourite that has a celery/parsley flavour combo.
Lemon Thyme: I’m a very much a lemon thyme chef — it goes into a lot of dishes.
Elderberries: We pickle the berries and use the juice. We also use a lot of elderflower syrup.
Garlic: Grown mostly for the sweet, purple garlic flowers.
Honey: Hives on the property provide honey for breakfast.
Huka Lodge have a series of special events targeted to food lovers including a Weekend of Pure Extravagance (May 18-19), Four Hands Collaboration dinner with Paul Froggatt and Nic Watt (July 28) and the Big Red Dinner with guest chef Analiese Gregory (August 18). Find out more at hukalodge.co.nz