Barry Cox, who runs a tree relocating business in Ohaupo, decided that his backyard was missing a church like the ones he had studied and admired on travels to Europe. So he decided to unite his passion for ecclesiastical architecture with his skills as a landscaper who specializes in replanting mature trees using a tree spade.
After starting construction in April 2011, the Tree Church Gardens are now available for public visits and private events. The Tree Church that can seat 100 people is formed almost entirely from living trees with thick leaves covering its shady interior.
Connecting his love of trees with a desire for an income, Barry started Treelocations, a business that moves large trees (up to 6m tall) using a specially designed tree spade – a huge machine that resembles an apple corer. Mounted on the back of a truck, it works by digging down and under the tree to scoop up cleanly the whole plant, including its vast root ball.
There are only three such tree spades in use in New Zealand. "People know how much I love trees," Barry told stuff.co.nz, "so they call me when there are trees that would otherwise be cut-down or removed. I go and kind of rescue them."
Trading trees, growing and moving them for clients deepened Barry's connection and knowledge of them over time, reinforcing his decision to surround himself with these stately plants. Rehoming semi-mature trees has enabled Barry to accelerate the landscaping of his own property, giving it the look of a project 20 years in the making rather than just four years old.
"I walked out my back door one day and thought, 'That space needs a church' – and so it began. I cleared the area in April 2011 and made the iron frame, drawing on all the research I had done over the years of studying churches. I wanted the roof and the walls to be distinctly different, to highlight the proportions, just like masonry churches," he told stuff.co.nz.
The Tree Church was originally “designed to show how an instant garden can be created” using a tree spade, Barry writes on his website, adding that the church and a labyrinth walk are “a welcomed retreat from society.”
However, what was once his backyard retreat is also now available for photo shoots, events, and has unsurprisingly become a popular wedding venue.
Alnus glutinosa 'Laciniata', or cut-leaf alder, was chosen for the roof. The variety is flexible enough to be trained over the temporary iron frame; in a few years the main branches of the alder will become the frame itself. It was important to have a sparsely foliaged deciduous type for the roof to allow the light in, especially in winter, otherwise it would be too dark for guests to see and the floor of grass would die.
The altar has special significance: it comes from Barry's family church in Shannon, and is made of marble from Lake Como in Italy, from where his ancestors hail, according to stuff.co.nz.
The walls of the church are Leptospermum macrocarpum 'Copper Sheen', an Australian tea tree whose foliage is thick and textured, with a color that resembles stone. To keep it looking lush, Barry trims it every six weeks.
A 'Dublin Bay' rambling rose weaves its way around the top, chosen for the colour and romance it brings as well as for its long flowering season – the first blooms appear in October and it can still be in flower in June.
The church is set within a low border hedge of Camellia 'Black Tie', a dense hedging plant that requires little maintenance except for regular clipping. At the pathway entrance a pair of wrought iron gates, formerly on the Cox's family farm, set the tone for respectful behavior.
Perfectly proportioned Acer platanoides 'Globosum' rise out of the camellia hedge and stand sentry either side of the gateway. These lollipop-like trees do not grow very tall and sport bushy tops that require a little pollarding to keep them looking uniform.
Across the walkway from the church a double-lined avenue of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii or Himalayan birch, with their snowy-white, lacquered bark, leads to a labyrinth, the design of which is based on the walls of the ancient city Jericho [a city in the Palestinian Territories and is located near the Jordan River in the West Bank] in 460BC. Lined with mondo grass, Barry has had to discourage pukekos from pulling up the freshly planted juveniles.
The Tree Church and grounds were officially opened to the public in January 2015, having bowed to pressure from relatives, friends and local garden clubs. It wasn't his original plan – he just wanted to grow a Tree Church for his own enjoyment, and realize his study of ecclesiastical architecture – but when his nephew asked if he could get married in the church, Barry couldn't say no.