Atea - The Artists Garden

Atea is the garden of artists Jane and Phil Crosbie. Located in Pokeno not far from the Waikato river,  Atea occupies 35 acres of native bush, wetlands, pasture, wildlife garden and cultivated decorative gardens. 

Phil is a sculptor with a passion for native bush. Jane is a painter with her own studio/art gallery on Atea’s grounds, and a passion for gardening. Their dream is to turn Atea into a beautiful sculpture park in the future. 

Atea is a huge experimental garden, an unusual constantly developing property that defies gardening logic and doesn’t act the way ‘normal’ gardens should. It’s a wild and beautiful place where the owners seek to create a park-like setting that is as inspiring aesthetically as it is attractive to the wild life they wish to support. Supporting wildlife dictates the ethos of this dynamic garden.

Every garden begins with an idea, a vision, a dream. Jane dreams of creating a refuge, a sanctuary, her own version of paradise where nature and art work together to heal people. Atea is the Maori word for Heaven. 

Every garden has a spirit, an individuality, a personality, and a gardener has to get to know that spirit and personality intimately. That can take a lifetime, because gardening on a 35 acre scale is a complex relationship between the gardener and nature. 

Every large-scale gardener will tell you nature is a rebel, and nature has a sense of humour, an absolutely wicked sense of humour to match her rebellious spirit. In a large garden nature teaches you she is totally in control, she is always an education, and if you go to war with her you will lose, because nature is too strong.

The success of any relationship depends on give and take, so Jane aims for a win-win relationship where both her and nature are happy. But keeping nature happy makes for a complicated, unusual, sometimes chaotic garden because nature rules in favour of diversity and natural complexity.

It means you have to go with the flow, understand nature’s moods, and know when to let nature do her own thing. That can make for an unruly garden at times because nature survives by networking, by interconnections. Nature relies on a synthesis,a fusion of complicated inter-relationships.  Unruly by human standards, but rich, diverse and complex by nature’s standards. So you have to keep the faith, keep your eye on the big picture and believe nature will work everything out in the end.

To get the best out of your land you have to understand every microclimate in every pocket in every acre of your land, you have to know when to leave the land alone to be itself, heal itself, express itself, and when the land will support you expressing your creativity. It’s a delicate subtle education of infinite detail which can take a long time.

You have to understand that nature always knows best. You have to learn to trust nature, to allow the land to guide you, to let the land speak to you – and respect the messages the land gives you, to allow the land to dictate what you can and cannot do. 

It’s a different form of gardening to the norm. But when you let nature do her own thing, gardening becomes utterly weird and wonderful. Lots of strange things happen that defy science, defy horticultural principles from learned scholars, and defy the knowledge  and conventional wisdom of gardeners the world over. 

When you let nature become your friend and you don’t impose your will on that friendship, and you co-operate win-win, gardening becomes utterly unpredictable, a whole lot more exciting, a whole lot more fun, and amazing surprises happen that are not supposed to. Gardening becomes one massive creative experiment.  The rewards are infinite.

Over the last 25 years Phil and Jane have owned Atea, it has become a cultivated wilderness garden that honours the surrounding Waikato landscape. 

The cultivated areas include several varieties of garden: succulent gardens, informal cottage gardens, vegetable gardens, orchards, and wilderness gardens alongside regenerating native bush.

The essence of planting in the decorative gardens around the owners house is a calculated lack of obvious plan. The cultivated area is in effect a huge cottage garden with no formal structure, just curved paths of gravel surrounded by borders embedded with a profusion of succulents, shrubs and flowers, roses, lavendas, daisies, perennials, annuals, wild fruit trees, and flax everywhere. Flax everywhere because the owners love it when every tui in the neighbourhood comes to feast on flax nectar. So flax in several colours form the backbone of the borders to attract flocks of tui and other birds and ensure the garden is filled with birdsong all year round. 

Many of the garden’s plants grow wild with rampant reseeders propagating themselves, lambs ears, california poppies, cosmos, calendula, osteospermum, agapanthus, acanthus, aquilegias and silverbeet all reseed to pop up in the most unexpected places. Parsley grows every year like a weed in the gravel paths and is harvested for culinary use, and mint can be harvested throughout the flower borders. Chlorophytum, cannas, yucca, succulents, arctotis and irises spread themselves at will, as do wild fruit trees. Drifts of flowers growing wild fill the gardens.

There is a wild fruit tree orchard at the front of the house where every tree came from seeds and pips thrown over the deck by the owners’ children. Persimmon trees grow wild, among wild apple, peach, nectarine, avocado and loquat trees.  At the back of the owner’s house is the non-wild orchard. But the wild orchard cultivated by nature produces infinitely more fruit than its non-wild counterpart. 

Wild fruit trees pop up around the house of their own accord. Including a wild avocado tree that has started to bear the silkiest most divine tasting avocados at 6 years old from seed. According to conventional horticultural rules this can’t happen. Wild avocados are not meant to fruit till they are 12 to 15 years old, if they fruit at all, and when they do the fruit is not supposed to taste heaven sent, it’s supposed to be sub-standard. Wild peaches, wild apples, and wild nectarines start fruiting at 2 years old from seed at Atea, long before cultivated varieties. 

Atea has a natural fecundity and abundance. The owners have learnt when they let nature do her thing, amazingly the wild fruit trees are stronger, bear larger crops of fruit, and fruit faster than cultivated varieties of fruit trees. They also taste just as good. An added bonus is wild fruit trees revert back to ancient parent varieties that may no longer be sold at nurseries. 

What is even more amazing is none of the plants at Atea are watered or fed, few are pruned, yet many grow exceptionally. Plants are not mollycoddled. If they can’t survive of their own accord they don’t survive at all. Except for the vegetable garden. In summer the vegetables are watered sparingly because the property is on tank water supply and water is a luxury that cannot be squandered.
Atea is on a hill and prey to every blast of wind that rages through the Waikato, of which it gets a good deal. Fierce Southerlies from the Antarctic and ferocious Westerlies off the Tasman have been known to rip the garden to shreds. Winds so strong they rip mature trees out of the ground, part the remaining trees like lace curtains and tear every plant in their wake. 

The only mulch able to be used on the property are stones from the local quarry, because the owners rapidly learnt that within weeks of laying bark mulches, all the bark would be blown away by storm winds. 

In very wet winters the Waikato River floods and Atea can lose half its plants to phytopthora. Very cold winters with frosts down to minus 6 degrees can kill even more. Weeds grow gigantic at Atea and with kikuyu growing a metre a week kikuyu alone can be a major killer that smothers the gardens and has to be managed. Add to the mix rabbits which once ate an entire new avocado orchard overnight, and gnaw the flesh of every young tree and shrub, and possums that eat everything else the rabbits don’t – then hordes of wild turkeys, flocks of pukeko and pigeons, even peacocks thriving on the fruit gardens, you have a very dynamic fragile organic ecosystem. The conventional way to win is to kill everything in sight with sprays and poisons. The owners refuse to do this. They let the ecosystem establish its own biological controls and balance, exercising control over the fauna when necessary.

But despite many tribulations and setbacks over the years nature takes them all in her stride and comes back with a sweet determination to survive. Nature always evolves, adapts, and wins. 

When Jane and Phil want to get their creative juices flowing they sit in their garden with a cup of tea enjoying their park-like surrounds – listening to native trees rustling their leaves in the breeze – watching roses swaying in the wind – inhaling the soothing and sweet fragrances pervading the vibrant healing atmosphere – and their creative juices start flowing.

Artists Phil and Jane invite you to experience their unusual wild, complex, and sometimes chaotic garden, and their love of the natural world. Their garden is an extension of their artistic creativity, a view of their very private art worlds, and therefore an extension of art. They hope you enjoy Atea, their slice of Heaven.