Dawn Picken spok' />

They say money doesn't grow on trees, but if you've planted a garden, you know those trees, shrubs and plants cost plenty. Dawn Picken spoke with local experts about common garden mistakes and ways to brighten a small section that won't cost a fortune down the track.

Drive past new housing developments throughout the Bay of Plenty, like The Lakes in Pyes Pa and Golden Sands in Papamoa, and you'll see section after section - some nearly done, others just starting.

What many of these spaces have in common is size. Some two-bedroom units in Golden Sands sit on as little as 154 square metres.

Other Papamoa new home sections and some in Pyes Pa offer little more than 400 square metres.


With such a small garden, planting faux pas can be magnified - and can easily encroach on your neighbours.

Mistake number one: Not preparing for growth

One of the biggest mistakes a homeowner can make, said our experts, is buying trees and shrubs that grow too large. Steve Webb, horticulture tutor at Waiariki Bay of Plenty Polytechnic and a long-time gardener, landscaper and arborist, says planning is key.

"Everybody wants fast growth...when people think about screening plants and hedges, it's easy to want to go for something that gets big fast, but that means you are going to have ongoing pruning to keep it where you want."

Leon Macefield, director of All Landscapes Tauranga, has been in the business 15 years.

He sees many people planting palm trees too close to homes, "...like in a garden bed against the house. The plant will grow five to 10 metres tall. It's not the height of the plant, it's what's growing underneath that's the problem. You end up with problems around the foundations of the house or pathways."

Leon said people fail to read labels and plant something like a pohutukawa without realising how big it'll get. Tree removal starts at several hundred dollars and rises into the thousands. "It's not planning ahead, just planning for the now."

He has also seen many new homes with lawns laid straight into foundations. "So when the lawn man comes around, he has to use a weed eater."

Rotorua landscaper John Brewer said even people who read plant labels can be misled. "If it says it'll grow two metres high that means in normal conditions in five years, it will be two metres high. That doesn't mean it stops growing."

John said shrubs still need to be pruned to look good, and there's no such thing as a no-maintenance garden.

PLANNED AND PLANTED: Small trees and shrubs can add interest to a tidy section. Photo/supplied
PLANNED AND PLANTED: Small trees and shrubs can add interest to a tidy section. Photo/supplied

Vicki Rule, director of Garden Mentors, said some vines start small, but develop a huge trunk. "Wonga wonga vines are a fast grower. It busts out their [homeowners'] trellis.

Knowing about the plant, what size it will get to, that's a key point people miss out on. It costs them because it can damage structures. Everything in Tauranga grows to twice the size it's supposed to."

Mistake number two: Jumping in too soon

Steve said people buying existing properties often want to overhaul the garden immediately.

"I think it's a good idea to live there for a while before you start changing too much." He said it's easy to rip out a tree in winter thinking it's misplaced, but that same tree could offer shade in summer. Steve remembers working as an arborist outside a Victorian villa where a beautiful 70- to 80-year-old magnolia soulangeana was going under the saw.

"I said to the people, 'What does it look like in flower?' and they said, 'Does it have a flower?' It was too late by the time we were having that conversation."

Vicki said it pays to get expert advice before taking the plunge. "The amount of information you have to learn to really know this stuff; it's a lot easier to just get someone in."

She also advises clients to plan outdoor living spaces so a patio for four people will actually fit four people. Walkways must be wide enough to navigate. "They can be quite bad mistakes, costly mistakes. If it costs $2000 to do a patio, but if it's too small or is a shape that doesn't work, you'll have wasted money and have to add to it."

Mistake number three: Not knowing what plants need

Vicki said you can spend "a truckload of money" buying plants that eventually die. "If it's sunny, don't plant hostas, they're not going to grow. A lot of people won't think about what the plant needs. Maybe it needs free-draining soil and they'll plant in clay."

She said ignorance of plant care also results in dead or sick flora. "Sick plants are more susceptible to being attacked by bugs, so you're always having a plant that needs nurtured, or you're constantly replacing it."

Vicki said homeowners who buy greenery that doesn't fit with the overall look of their home and garden also end up ripping out gardens after a year or two. "Those are the most expensive and most common mistakes."

Small-space gardens

Coastal areas in the Bay of Plenty are defined as sub-tropical. Even in winter, you can plant vegetables such as beetroot, broad beans, lettuce, celery and peas.

Waiariki Bay of Plenty horticulture tutor Steve Webb, who comes from a long line of nurserymen, is nurturing his daughter Ella's green thumb. The nine-year-old Otumoetai Primary school student checked out a library book about how to plant a 'no-dig garden.' It's a garden built on top of the ground where soil is fed from above.

The online site, no-dig-vegetablegarden.com, said it's ideal for small spaces and sites that start off with poor soil or invasive weeds.

"She mowed the lawns and put in layers of grass clippings, compost, then newspaper, more grass clippings, pine needles, lime and a final layer of compost and planted it all out," Ella's father said. Ella now has broad beans, spring onions, beetroot and leeks growing in her plot.

Other tips for making a small space unique and private include buying decent-sized plants and having a feature fence, according to All Landscapes director Leon Macefield.

BACKDROP: Your garden can provide a background for your style. Photo/supplied
BACKDROP: Your garden can provide a background for your style. Photo/supplied

He suggested using a combination of schist, rocks, and pillars with timber inserts.

"Another idea is to use planting as a fence. Using similar materials from the house in pillars, then having hedging in between the pillars." He also suggested pleaching. "It's like having a large shrub, but chopping the lower branches off so you can under plant... you can get more colour and different textures in the garden."

Garden Mentors director Vicki Rule said small spaces might not require small plants. "Having a decent focal point is far more important than having 20 different little plants that create more busyness. Treat it like an interior room, say you want one focal point." She suggested creating a feature wall, using light and mirrors and creating spaces linking the inside with outdoors.

Another Waiariki Bay of Plenty horticulture tutor, Shane O'Leary, has ideas for designing small gardens. They include planting dwarf fruit trees, allowing your neighbour's fruit tree to pollinate your own, borrowing landscapes from neighbours by planting similar trees, using multi-function furniture that doubles as storage and using vertical surfaces such as walls, fences and pergolas as growing areas. Hanging baskets also save space.