When Amber and Istvan Lengyel moved from a modern, low maintenance property in the hills of Havelock North to their historic home in the village of Ongaonga in Central Hawke’s Bay three years ago, the decision was driven by two of Amber’s lifelong passions – history and gardening. “I wanted to go back to my mansion roots and I wanted more land so I could get back to cottage gardening, big gardening, really getting my fingers in the ground,” she says.
* How to live your best life – a couple from North Auckland show us how to do it
* Views or art? It’s hard to know where to look to see this Wellington mansion
* Historic Napier tennis court transformed into a flower garden
Covering over half an acre, the stretch certainly had enough soil for Amber to play around with, but it was challenging. “When we got here the house was a mess, the gardens were a mess, and the coach house was a big mess,” says Amber.
The top priority was securing the property with new gutters, rewiring, and the pruning and removal of trees. Amber had renovated older homes before, so the couple took the inevitable hiccups with ease. While restoring the derelict coach house, they found that the extent of the drill damage meant that they were unable to implement their original plan to convert it into shelter.
As a project and change management consultant, Amber has a knack for new opportunities and has instead transformed the coach house into a multifunctional garden room. One half will have space for Essential Oil-Copper Still Still, a garden design service, and the eco-gardening workshops Amber is developing. The other side is The garden room of the coach house Shop selling artisanal garden-themed products. The garden also opens for local events like Central Hawke’s Bay Spring Fling.
The couple lived in England for several years (Istvan is Hungarian; Amber is a Kiwi) and spent most of the weekends visiting gardens and historical sites in the UK and Europe that were instrumental in influencing Amber’s gardening style. Joining the Ongaonga Historical Society has given her the opportunity to pursue her love of the past: “Understanding kinship, community and connectedness is important for my path,” she says.
Her fascination with the old days doesn’t mean Amber sticks to the old rules. A big part of her vision is to undermine traditional gardening ideas by pushing the lines between formality and wilderness.
Scattered sugar peas and sprawling ‘Albertine’ pea roses mix between arches, box hedges and standard lavender. The rugosa roses ‘Alba’ and ‘Typica’ are underplanted with daffodils and poppies. “I go weeding down there and then I see the bees and butterflies and beetles. It’s really cool to see that, so I’ll leave her alone, “says Amber. It has a no-spray policy for weeds, pests and disease management. Beer, eggshells, and copper tubing are used for slug and slug control, and she uses soapy water on aphids before removing them by hand.
Cardboard boxes of stones and pieces of wood were used as weed mats to kill the grass for the long hut border, which caused consternation among visiting craftsmen. “It took about five months and they kept asking me what kind of garden it was. There is probably some leftover cardboard in there, ”she says.
Although she brings plant knowledge from high school horticulture classes, practical knowledge from her two grandmothers, and her own experience, there is still more to learn. The adaptation to the harsh climate after many years of frost-free gardening was a shock. “I was taught some bad lessons by nature,” says Amber. There were many discouraging losses, including lavender and three gorgeous plumbago topiary.
The garden is also situated on an old river bed so the soil is variable – some areas have rich fertile topsoil and in others it is just stones and rocks. Amber says, “The ground is uneven too. I am happy to work with the rise and fall of the country, but Istvan would prefer to smooth it down so that it is tamed and orderly. “
After the completion of the two greenhouses, which Istvan himself built from recycled materials, they will be used to overwinter plants in pots. One of the first residents will be a new Seville orange that Amber wants to establish in a pot before planting out. “Citrus fruits are hard to start with here, but once their feet are in the ground they are pretty good,” she says.
Istvan already knew in the planning phase that he wanted to build a 20 m long pergola in addition to the greenhouses, which arches over a grass walkway. He helps out with some of the bigger gardening jobs, but with a demanding career as an AI robotics instructor and an avowed lack of a green thumb, Amber does most of the work in the garden.
That fits in with her hands-on approach to gardening, but she says, “Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking to balance the tension between getting the joy and getting a job.”
Then, when all gardening projects are done, does she have time to sit back and enjoy her creation?
Amber laughs and says, “Maybe, but I thought that when I’m done I might get bored.”
Questions and Answers with Amber Lengyel
Most important plant in the garden: It has to be the roses – I love them. There are roughly 80 and they cover all types – from heritage to modern. My favorites are the rugosas.
Tip for other gardeners: Experiment. Use pots and let the plants sit for a while to see if they like a position.
New favorite plant: Peonies now that I’m in a climate to grow them in.
Favorite plant combination: Every season, I love having a variety of combinations of plants. I love the late fall pops of clematis ‘Louise Rowe’, ‘Princess Alexandra of Kent’ roses and white gaura.
The most commonly used tool: My Felco secateurs.
Most used part of the garden: The more than 20 m long cottage garden and the terrace under the coach house. The new terrace is fantastic in both winter and summer.
What i learned is: Right plant, right place. Have fun and be creative – there are no rules!
Time spent in the garden: When we first developed the website it was a full time job. Now there are highs and lows due to seasonal demand, but an average of around eight to ten hours a week.
Garden irrigation: With good mulching, I only water once every seven to ten days. Pots, baskets and the vegetable patches are watered twice a week. We collect as much rainwater as possible in tanks. With drier summers due to changing weather patterns, we need to be knowledgeable about water.
Are you opening your garden to the public? The Coach House garden rooms are open during workshops and events. The garden is also a place for wedding photos – thecoachhousegardenrooms.co.nz.