Secrets of a dry garden by Megan Wraight

Weathered timber and golden grasses in the hot Central Otago sun.

Weathered timber and golden grasses bleached by the Central Otago sun.

A common problem for many New Zealand gardens is drainage and the channelling away of excess water. But what about when landscaping is required for a dry climate where there is likely to be a lack of water for lengthy periods? Megan Wraight talks us through such a project in Central Otago in New Zealand’s South Island.

This landscaping project centres on an existing home in rural Central Otago. The building is a sleek, contemporary prism designed by architect Paul Clarke that floats gracefully over the shallow clavicle of two gentle hills. Sheltered and protected by the rolling landscape, this family home captures spectacular views of the Southern Alps.

The site has been transformed from a nondescript paddock into a series of outdoor rooms with an ephemeral stream and sprawling grass plains. A key concept in the client’s brief was to blur the edge between the domestic garden around the house and the paddocks.

We planted native grasses right up to the house and the lawn is allowed to dry out and yellow in the summer. This highlights the seasonal changes and adds a layer of authenticity in this special environment. The orchard extends across the paddock, expanding the garden’s influence and horticultural qualities beyond the immediate realm of the dwelling.

Blending domestic spaces

Landscaping immediately adjacent the house reflects the building’s simple, contemporary geometries. The main entry and the paved courtyard are introduced with a series of decisively simple linear lines and extrusions. The deck rolls away to reveal an in-ground spa pool.

A large gabion wall designed by the architect borders one side of the courtyard. This not only adds wind protection but also acts as a heat sink, absorbing the hot summer sun and re-releasing energy in the cool of the evenings.

Gabion wall

Steel mesh gabions are filled with local Cardrona River stones.

Ephemeral watercourse

An ephemeral stream is one that dries out in summer, but comes alive in the wetter winter months. The stream course is enhanced by the insertion of small weir walls that create shallow pools. Dustings of reeds and rushes behind each weir emphasise the site’s gentle, gully-like topography.

Plant selection for the dry climate

The Central Otago climate is one of extremes. Searing hot summers give way to dry, snowy winters. All the groundcover plant species are indigenous to the area and are well adapted to thrive in these conditions.

Trees were chosen for their hardy nature and botanical features such as the shiny mahogany bark of Prunus serrula that creates a striking contrast in the snow. Additionally their seasonal transformations underpin the rhythms of the region.

Farm gate

A Dean Westrel stone carving adjacent the farm gate.


We allowed the geometry to loosen beyond the house. This creates a play between the organic forces of nature in the form of a Kowhai Glade and the transient stream course, and the more ordered dimensions of the orchard. These fruit trees flourish in the Central Otago climate providing an abundance of produce as well as flowing seasonal colour shifts in autumn and spring.

The design blurs the edge between garden and paddock.

The design blurs the edge between garden and paddock.

Site plan.

Site plan


Written by Megan Wraight of Wraight + Associates

Project – Garden Design, Central Otago, New Zealand
Photos – Simon Devitt

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