How former movie executive Wendy Palmer created her whimsical Marlborough garden
Making movies in London one minute; growing grapes and welcoming guests to a rural garden the next. Life is full of surprises.
Words: Kate Coughlan Photos: Kate Macpherson
A worried Wendy Palmer stood on the deck of her restored Victorian villa, just north of Blenheim, staring across a sheep paddock onto row upon row of sauvignon blanc grapes.
The vines — in ramrod-straight lines that seemed to stretch to Marlborough’s Richmond Ranges way in the hazy distance — were the cause of her concern.
In her previous life in London as chief executive of the United Artists (a division of United States movie giant MGM) she moved easily in a world she knew well. She understood how to manage movie scripts, fund film deals and all the ins and outs of international distribution rights.
Her inner-city London home overlooked a small but perfect garden created by her brother and garden designer, Ross Palmer, who was fast making a name for himself among London’s horticulturally savvy.
Back in New Zealand in 1996 to visit her parents near Blenheim, Wendy had bought her first block ofbare Marlborough land and had it planted in grapes. Further trips home, and more land purchases and vine plantings followed.
So, there she was, in 2003, standing on the front deck of Welton House, worrying about those vines, and asking herself exactly why she was a farmer at all given she knew sod-all about growing grapes, except for what she liked once the grapes had been fermented and bottled.
The toddler about her toes, her daughter Maia, provided the simple and straightforward answer to the questions. Wendy had permanently returned home from London in 2001, forsaking that successful life of movies and fast-paced business for Maia.
“I wanted her to have a Kiwi country childhood and to grow up closer to nature. I wasn’t that keen on the distractions and potential dangers of life in London. I had seen one too many London kids skid close to the rails to feel comfortable rearing her in that environment.”
Wendy also loved her homeland and her childhood memories of growing up with three brothers in New Zealand.
“When I took a moment to ask myself what I knew about grapes, the answer was nothing. A lot about making movies but nothing useful about grapes. How to prune? No. When to spray? No. Why do they need spraying? No idea. What to do about weeds? Probably not pull them by hand?”
It was 16 years ago, but she vividly recalls that moment and its fathomless questions.
Then the miracle of rural New Zealand surrounded her. Friends of her father Pat, including well-known Marlborough wine family, the Marrises (John Marris and his son Brent of Marisco), and Murray Rose, helped steer her in the right direction. Not, she hastens to add, that they ever got her even close to steering a tractor.
“If things ever got bad enough that I had to drive the tractor between the vines, then God help us all. I’d be at the end of the first row, off in my little world, and then there would be an ‘Oops, that was a strainer post. Darn it.’”
She also found the perfect solution to her many questions in her vineyard manager Chris March. Not only that, she found his life is as ludicrously entwined with hers and her family’s as the roots of her most robust vines.
Chris’ family, another old Marlborough brood, lived next door to the bare land Wendy first bought in 1996 while still in London — land her father had been managing for her. When she and Maia moved home, it was into a small stucco cottage near her parent’s Bruntwood Farm, next to Chris’ family home and farm.
When Wendy decided the cottage was too small and bought Welton House, she learned it had been built by Chris’ great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother.
Then Chris’ family home came on the market and, as it was next door, Wendy bought it as independent accommodation. She calls it Eliza’s Garden Cottage after Chris’ mother Elizabeth March, another noted gardener.
Two years ago, Chris and his family bought the farm adjacent to Wendy’s parent’s old property, Bruntwood Farm, next door to Welton House.
“New Zealand and its two degrees of separation,” says Wendy of the support she’s had and the closeknit rural community within which she is now embedded.
Chris manages their vineyards jointly, keeping them perfectly tidy with not a weed in sight, and producing good crops of sauvignon grapes every year; and, perhaps crucially, with no need for Wendy to climb aboard any of the big machinery they own together.
The one-hectare garden of Welton House is similarly orderly thanks to the combined efforts of Wendy and brother Ross (now living permanently in Wellington after several decades of living and working in Europe and Asia); the full-time efforts of Nicola McDonald, a Wellington Botanical Garden-trained expert; Rachael Rossetti, who tends the one-hectare grounds at Eliza’s Garden Cottage five afternoons a week; and Richard Bryant, who keeps the lawns in order at both properties.
The grounds of Welton House, the much-extended and refined villa dating back to the turn of the century, have evolved under the guidance of this brother-sister duo.
It is their third collaborative garden; the first the tiny London city garden, the second a walled country garden in Suffolk and this one, the result of their efforts over the past 16 years. They say they seldom argue about what to do and cannot recall one serious disagreement about which direction to take.
“Working with clients is always rewarding as the garden design is a product of collaboration and the end result is frequently determined through this lens. The outcome is not predetermined,” says Ross.
“The most important element of this garden I believe is that it is fun and that the owner, my gorgeous sister, is happy with the results.”
Wendy sets great store by her brother’s professionally trained eye.
Ross, who has designed all sorts of styles of gardens in several continents (with a diploma in horticulture from Lincoln and a fine arts degree in garden design from Greenwich University) is more the modernist in garden design while Wendy has focused on developing a native woodland to the east of the house.
“I could be described as a modernist,” says Ross. “However, this would only pertain to built structures and elements of the layout of a garden. I do like things to line up. My planting design could never be described as reductionist modernism.
“I look for layered, complex, pretty. It is the juxtaposition and tension of soft organic forms with that of hard steel or beautifully milled timber that I think delivers interesting design detail.”
“Starting with big trees is great but, on the other hand, taking over an established garden is very tricky.”
With the help of local architect Jonathan Waddy, Wendy tackled the villa’s renovation and, within two years, was free to focus on remodeling the garden.
Initially, she wanted to buffer the sight and sound of busy State Highway One, which whistles away with trucks and cars, day and night, 100 metres to the east.
The trees gave the property an established feel from the get-go, but Wendy wanted to see how quickly she could establish a native forest — on a small scale, of course.
Her native woodland, now just over a decade old, is holding hands above her head and giving Wendy the biggest smile when she wanders its soft paths.
The award-winning garden Ross and Wendy have created has also flourished and, being so close to Picton, is now on the international circuit with cruise-ship visitors.
“I’m slowly building up that clientele. I enjoy it, and those visitors give me interesting alternative perspectives.
“And I am quite happy to let them wander into the house, which they appreciate as it doesn’t often happen — to see inside a private home. It makes the experience more interesting for them to see how we live in this country.”
And now, for the fifth year, there’s Garden Marlborough.
“It is a big thing being part of Garden Marlborough. You talk yourself into a completely comatose state during it and meet so many interesting people.
“When you garden, you like sharing your garden — it is not just here for me to sit in and have my cup of tea or glass of wine in the evening.”
Twenty-six years ago, the gates to Patsy Palmer’s Bruntwood Farm garden were opened as part of the first-ever Garden Marlborough festival.
Today Patsy’s son and daughter — Wendy and Ross — open their own garden, designed and developed together, to the increasing thousands who enjoy the iconic festival every year.
In the early days, the organizers were nervous they might not sell enough tickets to make a success of it.
They needn’t have worried. The region’s many beautiful and varied gardens have more than sold themselves — year after year. Tickets to the garden tours usually sell out.
Visitors from throughout Aotearoa and Australia come to see the gardens, to learn in workshops, listen to international speakers and enjoy the glamorous garden party as well as the Sunday morning fête at which they can stock up on armloads of peonies before heading home.
Welton House garden, on the Over the Plains Tour, is a collaboration between Wendy and Ross and is the third garden they have created together.
This year’s Garden Marlborough runs from 7 to 10 November.
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