This story is from the team at NZ House & Garden magazine.
When Sarah and David Caldwell bought a property on the outskirts of Christchurch, they bought a story based on a story and made it their own.
The place was called Bramasole, named after the Italian villa and garden that inspired Frances Mayes’ book and subsequent film, Under the Tuscan Sun, which centred on the purchase of an abandoned 200-year-old Tuscan farmhouse by an American woman looking to change her life.
The Kiwi version was drafted in 1998 by a couple relocating from England who wanted to bring a slice of European romance with them. The Caldwells’ chapter, started in 2006, was prefaced by an equally life-changing move with the farming family shifting from North Canterbury to take up a more urban existence.
Bramasole Down Under began with a bare plot in a rural subdivision in West Melton, 24km west of the city.
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Bramasole means “yearn for the sun” but it would be fair to say that the original owners found themselves yearning less for sun than shelter from the un-Tuscan-like winds that blast across the Canterbury Plains.
Landscape architect Robert Watson, tasked with the responsibility of designing and planting the garden, recalls that spring: “They were the worst nor’west storms I’ve ever known. Most of the topsoil ended up in the house.”
Trees and hedges form the framework of the garden, not only providing essential shelter but also the outline for a series of themed rooms.
Drama, romance and action can all be found within the green walls, with peeps of views between them adding a touch of mystery.
Citrus beds, an olive grove and Tuscan terrace set the Italian scene, while an eclectic mix of symmetrically laid-out gardens are connected by axes of mown walkways, herbaceous borders and a long covered pergola.
For the Caldwell family, Bramasole is as much a family playground as a garden with its swimming pool, tennis court and croquet lawn the most-used areas. “It’s the best hide-and-seek garden,” adds Sarah.
David and Sarah decided to move closer to town when their three daughters, Caroline, Annabel and Katie, were at primary school. “It was a chance to go and do something else,” says Sarah who, with David, set up a catering business in the city.
But the move was dependent on finding the perfect property. “We wanted a family home where we could live, work and play, where we could entertain our friends and family. We looked for ages and, when we saw this, we felt we had found a property where we could be very happy.”
The house and garden fill the hectare.
“There’s not a lot of wasted space,” says Sarah, who admits she was overwhelmed when they first arrived.
“I thought ‘how on earth can I do all this?’ For a long time we just made it tidy from a distance and if we kept the hedges and edges done, it wasn’t too bad. As the children got older and time allowed, we got more involved in the garden.”
The compartments make it manageable and also demarcate the division of labour.
“David does the hedges, edges, lawn and trees. I do inside the hedges,” says Sarah, for whom working in the garden has never been a chore. “I would far rather weed a garden than clean a shower. It’s great thinking time. I chatter away to myself. David says ‘who are you talking to?’ and I say ‘just me’.
“There’s a lot to do, but I’m not a perfectionist. I have to let things go a bit. You don’t want a garden to rule your life and this garden never has.”
They have made modifications rather than changes. “We have tried to faithfully keep the story alive, while also creating gardens and plantings of our own.”
In recent years, some brutal editing has been needed. “The trees are huge now and parts are very shaded. It’s hard to cut trees out but you have to be ruthless.”
The Covid-19 lockdown of autumn 2020 turned out to be a boon for the garden.
“The girls came home with their partners so there were eight of us in lockdown for six weeks. It was the best thing that happened to the garden. We felled trees and got stuck into some hairy areas,” says Sarah.
“I couldn’t have been happier. All my chicks were here. It was beautiful autumn weather. We played tennis every afternoon and cards at night. The girls even organised a half-marathon around the garden.”
At once intimate and convivial, the garden is designed both for quiet reverie and exuberant enjoyment and the Caldwells love nothing more than filling it with family and friends.
Bramasole comes into its own at Christmas. Sarah, a passionate cook and provider, sets up a long table under the pergola dripping with white wisteria, clematis and climbing roses.
The spread includes food harvested from the extensive edible gardens behind the house and the games last well into the night. “Playing sardines has become something of a tradition on Christmas night,” she says. Glow-in-the-dark earrings are donned and squeals echo through a fairy-tale garden that might be subtitled “eat, play, love”.
Q&A with Sarah Caldwell
Most significant plant: The English beech hedges.
Favourite new plant: I have planted several Kolkwitzia amabilis bushes, and love both the spring and autumn colouring.
Most-used tools: Leaf rakes and the hedge trimmer.
Most used part of the garden: Tennis court, swimming pool and under the pergola for summer lunches.
Favourite outdoor spot: Walking up the border gardens.
Plants that grow well here: Peonies, roses, irises, stocks and hostas.
Biggest gardening mistake: Not chopping back hard enough or chopping out altogether.
Best tip when starting a garden: Garden design is key.
The thing I’ve learned about gardening: Grow what does well rather than battling away with something that doesn’t thrive.
Help in the garden: Sometimes – I wish it was more! Last year we got a contractor in to do the hedges. It took them a day. It takes David five.
We love this area: Because it is close to Christchurch and the ski fields.
Climate: We can get extremes from hard frosts and snow in winter to 30C-plus temperatures in summer. We’re very sheltered from the easterly, but the nor’west can sneak in.