His passion is evident in the pristine rows of graded native plants in the extensive nursery here. There are some advanced specimen trees – large pohutukawa, mature trunked nikau and other coastal trees. It’s a stop-start tour, with Russell talking about particular favourites, and exclaiming over form, flower or berry.
A few years ago, he was part of a group opposing the expansion of a local quarry on to the flanks of Mt Tamahunga. The research involved gave Russell a deeper understanding of the area – he feels hugely fortunate to be able to use his work to rehabilitate the fragile ecology of the region. There are endangered Hochstetter frogs here plus majestic 700-year-old matai and Northern rata.
But Russell is also well-versed in subtropical or European gardens, and he’s created many other types too, via a little sideline business – he became one of the first ‘greensmen’ in New Zealand around 25 years ago. He’s been responsible for all greenery on-set on some exceptional feature films.
Stephen King’s Tommy Knockers, was first; Hercules and Xena followed. For the Narnia movies, Russell went to the Southern Alps and Prague. A Northern European forest was created in a covered horse arena in Waitoki, north of Auckland. A career highlight was Mr Pip, set in Bougainville. “It was a very challenging shoot,” he says. “But the true story was unbelievable. I’ll never forget the environment and the people.”
Russell also worked on The Light Between Oceans, an emotional drama set in Australia. The Cape Campbell lighthouse, east of Blenheim, was utilised and Russell and his team spent six weeks in pre-production growing vegetables on under cloches to put together the lighthouse-keeper’s extensive vegetable garden – and turfed a lot of tyre tracks. Most recently he did Ridley Scott’s Alien Covenant, filmed partly in Fiordland.
Russell’s core business covers every aspect of garden and landscape design, construction and ongoing management. But what really lights him up is native habitat restoration and reconstruction. He and his team recently spent weeks in harnesses on a steep cliff above Daniel’s Reef in Leigh, hauling out agapanthas, pampas and other garden escapees which have turned into noxious weeds. They planted hundreds of coastal natives from the Outer Space nursery in their place. “This country really only has a thin veneer of so-called ‘NZ Pure’,” he says. “Our ecology has been vandalised – the current crisis in our waterways has shown that. It’s good to take steps to improve it whenever we can.” He’s not evangelical about it, but if he can plant an avenue of puriri instead of poplars, he’s a happy man.
Russell likes to ‘Re-Veg with an Edge’ where possible – restore native revegetation with some clever added value. At Leigh, they put in steps, tracks and viewing platforms, uncovering an ancient pohutakawa swamped by Cape ivy in the process. “The client now has an environment he can interact with,” he smiles. “The whole cliff will become established bush, providing food and habitats for native fauna. For me, it’s deeply satisfying: it’s a legacy for the future.”