Heroic despatches 4: A Restful Green Heart

???????????????????????????????One of the delights I appreciated at the Heroic Gardens Festival was this quiet, simple green space in the back garden owned by photographer, Gil Hanly.

I have written before about the green breathing space As a sorbet between rich dinner courses refreshes the palate, so too do simpler areas in a complex or busy garden allow a little space to draw breath. Generally, I have seen lawns used to achieve this quieter space.
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Gil Hanly’s was a complex and mature garden with many points of interest. Her vegetable garden was a tour de force but in addition to that, there was a lot happening all through her garden. And out from the house was this charming green space of deceptive simplicity. A grove of palms underplanted with mondo grass fringed a dark natural-shaped pond in the shade, creating a restful, central heart to the garden. It was simply lovely. I can only apologise for failing to take more notice of which palms were used. I lack any expertise on this plant family and always defer to Mark who was not with me on this trip. With hindsight, we wonder if they are Hedyscepe canterburyana but that is only a guess.

The sauntering ducks are bamboo, collected by the garden owner on a trip to Asia (she may have said Vietnam).

147??????????????????????????????? The little temple by the water (left) is, I am told, by artist, Bronwyn Cornish. For me it evoked the very old villa visible in a ravine in Sorrento in Italy (right) which I photographed back in 2008. Anyone who has been to Sorrento (the jumping off point for Capri) will have seen this sight. In the Hanly back garden, the whole effect was understated but hugely effective.

Unrelated, there was also a huge plant of our very own Cordyline Red Fountain growing elsewhere in the garden in an area which was bold with colour.
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Despatches from Heroic Garden Festival 3: Gaudi-esque meets Hollywood glam

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????I find garden ornamentation a source of slightly masochistic fascination. We prefer very little ornamentation in our own garden and even then lean to the natural look. Back when we were university students – way back when – we used to entertain friends and visitors with gnome garden tours as viewable from the streets of both Palmerston North and Dunedin. Caversham was a particularly happy hunting ground. But brightly painted little concrete things in my own garden? I think not.

I have been gently pondering the notion of the crossover from heavily ornamented gardens to folk art and it was with this in mind that I made a point of searching out a particular garden in the Heroic Garden Festival last weekend. It promised a “Gaudi-inspired” house with a garden that “exudes Hollywood glam with a hint of the unexpected”.
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It wasn’t folk art. Not at all. Nor was it particularly heavily ornamented, at least not compared to some others. It had panache – not necessarily easy to achieve in a garden with a kidney-shaped pool, an Astroturf lawn and a lot of solid colour. It did evoke the spirit of Hollywood glam in suburban Auckland but with a wry sense of poking fun at itself.

???????????????????????????????The plantings were fine, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. The Heroic Garden Festival, for those who don’t know, has its roots in the Auckland gay scene. Gay men, as far as I can see. I have yet to fathom why gay men are such a powerful force in gardening whereas gay women have not made their mark in the same way. There appears to be a secret rule book that says that gay men in Auckland should create tropical gardens (the Ubud hotel-style, I have described it in the past) dominated by bromeliads, palms, cycads, the tractor seat ligularia (L. reniformis), bromeliads, maybe a banana palm. Oh, and have I mentioned bromeliads? After you have been to several gardens, the plantings start to meld in the mind and achieve a certain state of uniformity.

It is how the whole package fits together that stays in the mind – the design, the extension of indoor living to the garden outside, the style and ambience and the attention to detail.???????????????????????????????
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This Castor Bay garden had its own unique style. The tone was set by a white gnome in a glass dome giving you the finger as you arrived. I laughed. The first tulip lamp I encountered was bright orange and I am sure the vulgar orange celosias in the nearby bed were entirely deliberate. Further round was a bright pink lamp set against a terracotta wall. There were some brave calls made, contrasting with more restrained accents.
???????????????????????????????I don’t know much at all about Gaudi and Catalan modernism is beyond my ken. Certainly there was a northern Spanish arts and crafts ambience to the house which was charming. The borrowed view to the sea was also a clever device which did not appear as if it could be built out.

It is always refreshing to look at gardens which bear no resemblance at all to one’s own. Some folk say they go garden visiting to glean ideas for their own place. I like being challenged and entertained whether or not it has any application to my own garden. This whole garden made me smile. All credit to the owners, Aaron Hill and Troy Little.
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February in the garden

Giant allimns at Mount St John in Yorkshire

Giant allimns at Mount St John in Yorkshire

February can be a quiet time in the flowering garden for us. It may sound bizarre to those who live in drier climates, but the mid to late summer period is largely green here. We don’t irrigate and rarely water anything except the vegetable garden. That is the advantage of summer rainfall. It is currently the hydrangeas that bring the most summer colour.

We have never gone in for summer bedding plants and any annuals are self seeded so more inclined to make a show in the earlier months of spring and summer. There aren’t a lot of trees and shrubs that bloom in midsummer and most bulbs peak from later in autumn through to spring. Essentially, it is perennials that give the summer colour and we have only just started getting to grips with that group of plants on a larger scale.

We have made two trips to England to see summer gardens.  We do late winter and spring gardens that we do so well here in the temperate north but summer gardens have been a steep learning curve for us. What is interesting about the modern English plantings – heavily influenced as many are by Dutchman, Piet Oudolf – is that they have shaken up the labour-intensive classic herbaceous border into styles which are more sustainable, easier to manage and contemporary in style. This means they are cheaper to run, too.

Geraniums, linaria and one of the white umbelliferous plants of the Queen Anne's Lace type at RHS Wisley Garden

Geraniums, linaria and one of the white umbelliferous plants of the Queen Anne’s Lace type at RHS Wisley Garden

Our conditions are not the same so there is a trial and error process. We are looking for a midline.  Mass plantings of a single variety, a trend much favoured by modern landscapers both here and overseas, are not for us. Frankly, we find them dull in most situations. But too often, underplanting with perennials may aim to be ‘cottage garden style’, or maybe layered, but descends instead into a mismatched hodgepodge of little merit. There is so much to learn.

It is the different plant combinations that make a garden zing for us. Not only must plants be compatible in growth habits and growing conditions, but there is the complex issue of getting a succession of different plants to take the display through the whole season. We don’t want a summer garden that looks brilliant for three weeks. We want it to look good for up to six months and okay for the remainder of the year. That is a whole different ball game.

Baptisia and buddleia in the plantings designed by Penelope Hobhouse at Tintinhull, Somerset

Baptisia and buddleia in the plantings designed by Penelope Hobhouse at Tintinhull, Somerset

February will show me whether I am on the right track with my most recent efforts last winter, reworking a couple of areas of the garden. It must be the third or fourth time I have redone one particular area so I am hoping I have it looking better this time. I have gone for much more grouping – larger blocks each containing maybe three different bulbs and perennials to try and take each block through the year with something of interest. Pansies, nigella, white cosmos, linaria, alonsoa and poelmoniums are allowed to seed down to break up any rigidity between the blocks of planting because I want a soft effect, not hard-edged designer style.

I am not going to show it in photographs until I am happy with how it is looking. So my photographs this month are all of combinations that caught our eye in English summer gardens. I would like parts of our garden to look a bit more like these and a little less green in February.

068 - CopyFirst published in the February issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Not Exactly Italy. Despatches from Heroic Garden Festival 2.

“Against the uniform sheet of snow and the greyish winter sky the Italian villa loomed up rather grimly; even in summer it kept its distance, and the boldest coleus bed had never ventured nearer than thirty feet from its awful front.”
Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence (1920)

Coleus, I regret to inform you, appear to be staging a comeback if what I saw in Auckland at the weekend is any guide

Coleus, I regret to inform you, appear to be staging a comeback if what I saw in Auckland at the weekend is any guide


I have done two trips to Italy. The first was a major garden tour in the north, in most elevated international company so it was the full immersion experience where we got to meet head gardeners and, in some cases, garden owners. Why, we even had a reception with the Principe and Principessa Borromeo on Isola Bella. For those not in the know, the Borromeo family have an aristocratic pedigree, wealth, power and influence even today which is beyond the average New Zealander’s comprehension.

Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como

Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como

On my second Italian trip, we were in the south travelling from Sicily to Rome with some incidental garden visiting along the way. The Italian gardening that most of us see is historical and traces its origins to times of much greater personal wealth and power. Yes it is hugely impressive but not, generally, because of the actual plants and gardening. It is the magnificence of the stone structures, the grandness of the villas – which can be very austere – with imposing formality in garden design. Most of it rests on the confident use of space and proportion, delineated in stone. Literally. There is not a hint of tanalised pine to be seen anywhere. The quality of light is also very different to our hard, bright light in this country.

Yes, there tends to be a very restrained plant palette and the same plants are seen in most gardens. I remember writing at one point about the ten plants that show up in every garden. Many of the historic gardens are clipped and groomed to within an inch of their lives and plant health isn’t always great.

Talking to the head gardeners and garden managers, the restricted plant palette is largely climatic. It is not an easy gardening climate, being cold and dry in the north in winter and hot and dry in summer. Further south, it tends to be just dry and dusty. If they could, they would grow a much wider range and that is evident in some fine gardens like Isola Madre and Villa Taranto.

Villa Cimbrone  in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast

Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast

The recently-retired head gardener of Ticino Botanical Park on the Islands of Brissago in Lake Maggiore sought out Mark at the time of our visit. He then stunned us a couple of years later by pedalling in here, unannounced, at Tikorangi. He was biking the country. We really liked Ticino. It was a small island with a villa that seemed more domestic in scale and it had a fine stand of Taxodium distichum growing on the lake edge. His comment to Mark, when he visited here, was: “You must have been very disappointed in Ticino.” He was looking at the range of what we grow compared to the conditions he knew.

So it is a mystery to me as to why New Zealanders, in their quest for “Italian styled” gardens would want to take that restricted plant palette as a mandatory, defining characteristic. This is a country where we can grow almost anything.

The grand historic reality

The grand historic reality

The modern domestic reinterpretation on the other side of the world

The modern domestic reinterpretation on the other side of the world


And can you achieve a domestic version of the grand, historic Italian gardens In New Zealand without the pivotal grand villa and the grace and proportions of a major estate let alone without the historic stonework? I mean, Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como has a genuine Ancient Roman fort in remarkably good condition at the top of the garden. Difficult to top that as a garden feature. And the grand gardens often have landscape vistas of astonishing beauty.

I don’t know anything about contemporary Italian garden design but neither, I suspect, do most New Zealanders. I can say that my limited experience of current domestic gardening in Italy showed a certain leaning towards what they saw as the “romantic English style” – less formal, more frothy and trying the broaden the plant palette.

Not only do New Zealanders on the quest for an Italian-style garden go for a limited range of plants, with the historically questionable exclusion of colour and bloom, they take a simplistic interpretation of hard-edged formal design without acknowledging that this is the garden design of the super powerful and super wealthy Italians in centuries past.

I could suggest that the Italianate gardening that I have seen in this country is to Italian gardening as a dinette is to a dining room, a kitchenette to a kitchen or as marblette is to marble.

All this is because I visited a garden during the Heroic Garden Festival that billed itself as “transport yourself to Italy…”. I don’t think so. It was a beautifully presented, immaculate garden, very hard edged and clipped with “a controlled palette of plants”. The fact that it is not to my personal taste is completely irrelevant. I can respect the determination and focus that goes into creating and maintaining that sort of garden and it was done to a high standard. I am sure the owners are very proud of it.

But Italian, it is not. I think what we bill as Italianate in this country is more Miami hotel-style reinterpretation of Italy. The Italian inspiration is distant at best.

The real deal in Italy

The real deal in Italy

More Miami than Italy in Auckland

More Miami than Italy in Auckland

Mid summer gardens. Despatches from the Heroic Gardens Festival 1

Cannas - not my favourite plant but they can be used well

Cannas – not my favourite plant but they can be used well

I think I can claim to be a vastly experienced garden opener after more than two decades on the front line. But I am a novice when it comes to being on the other side during a garden festival. There were 26 gardens open for the weekend. I managed ten of them in two and a half days, plus two that were not part of the annual festival. Five a day is plenty.
Eupatorium, salvias and gaura planted in generous swathes

Eupatorium, salvias and gaura planted in generous swathes


I won't be planting Rosa Tropical Delight

I won’t be planting Rosa Tropical Delight

I started at the Auckland Botanical Gardens. I wanted to look at their rose gardens where they are growing them without spraying. I hoped that I might get some ideas on healthier varieties to try here but I realised that their dedicated rose beds are in such an open position with full sun and free air movement that the lessons were not really transferable to my sheltered, confined rose garden area. And, to be honest, traditional rose beds leave me cold and roses are not my favourite flower in their shoulder and off-peak seasons which often last about 49 weeks of the year.
B I G swathes - here of asters, Joe Pye weed and cannas

B I G swathes – here of asters, Joe Pye weed and cannas

Old style amenity strip planting

Old style amenity strip planting

But the perennial beds were a delight. Yes you need space for these. Planting in big swathes is what gives the impact. I am not talking the garish stripes of old-style amenity bedding, although unfortunately that is still in evidence so I guess some people must like it. It was the big beds with voluptuous, billowing plants, carefully selected for flower colour and foliage combinations that are at their peak now. Even the canna lilies, which don’t rank in my personal top ten – or even top one hundred favourite plants, looked splendid as the tall back row of the chorus.

The joyous sight of golden rudbeckia

The joyous sight of golden rudbeckia

Compact, dwarf zinnias do not make my heart sing. Spot the interlopers.

Compact, dwarf zinnias do not make my heart sing. Spot the interlopers.

Mark often despairs that the modern breeding of many annuals and perennials is to get smaller, more compact, tidier plants allegedly better suited to suburban gardens and, I would add, floral clocks and traffic islands. These dwarf plants will never have the impact of a big, bold, swathe of golden rudbeckia. They made my heart sing.
Underplanting on the orchard hillside - rudbeckia again

Underplanting on the orchard hillside – rudbeckia again

???????????????????????????????It was the hillside of rudbeckia in Lynda Hallinan’s garden that I liked the most. She has underplanted her orchard trees with a sea of gold and very lovely it was too. Her planting of a white umbellifer (maybe Ammi majus?) with a semi double golden cosmos was equally gorgeous on a day in high summer. At least, I think it was a cosmos. Annuals are not my area of expertise. Lynda’s scale was of course smaller than the Bot Gardens, showing that it can be done in a mid-sized domestic garden.
White cosmos in a front garden

White cosmos in a front garden

Aside from a rather lovely patch of white cosmos in another garden, that was about as good as it got in the summer garden stakes. Of course it is different in tiny urban gardens on very expensive real estate. When your lot in life in life is limited to square metres, most will opt for year round appeal. In Auckland, this tends to mean palms and bromeliads to the exclusion of seasonal highlights and change. I will return to Auckland tropicana in the future.
The pondside wild garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens

The pondside wild garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens

It was entirely a reflection of my current thinking that I found the wild pondside garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens so deeply appealing. I am sure some will see this sort of gardening as weedy eyesore but they probably like the garish amenity planting in stripes and will whip out the sprayer at the drop of a hat. I applaud Auckland Botanic’s willingness to explore contemporary directions in sustainable gardening and healthy eco-systems which we have yet to see appearing in many private gardens in this country.
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Something to see here – garden mirrors

Spot the mirror 1.

Spot the mirror 1.


I have never been a fan of mirrors in the garden. But look at these in a small, private garden I visited in Auckland yesterday. It is owned by a retired couple and is not open to the public.
The trompe l'oiel of the world of garden mirrors

The trompe l’oiel of the world of garden mirrors


Spot the mirrors. I failed entirely to work out that they were mirrors until the owner made a comment that they often trick people and I then saw our reflections. Until that point, I had assumed the garden continued on and there was a further “garden room”, or maybe two, beyond. It is very cleverly done especially with the door opening in to the mirror – creating an effect akin to a trompe l’oiel. These installations were beautifully executed in their subtlety.

I am still not convinced that mirrors are a good idea in the hands of those less skilled but I may have to review my earlier blanket dismissal of them. I just have not seen them used well before and I think this is probably an exceptional example.

The bougainvilleas were repeated throughout the garden, carefully managed in small spaces and looking vibrant.

The bougainvilleas were repeated throughout the garden, carefully managed in small spaces and looking vibrant.

Tikorangi Notes: Thursday 12 February, 2015 Wildflowers or weeds?

Pretty by the road to town. The convolvulus IS a problem and agapanthus come in for a lot of criticism in NZ.

Pretty by the road to town. The convolvulus IS a problem and agapanthus come in for a lot of criticism in NZ.

Feeling the need to head my site with something more pleasing than the industrialisation of our beloved Tikorangi in my previous post, I flag wildflowers and roadsides. We have been talking about this a great deal over summer and clarifying our thinking. In New Zealand, these are often – in fact usually – seen as weeds for we are still a pastoral countryside where unrelenting green fields are deemed to be the desirable state. And of course our roadside flowers are almost all introduced plants, a few of which run amok.

Who wouldn't covet the oast houses at Bury Court?

Who wouldn’t covet the oast houses at Bury Court?

It was interesting watching BBC Gardeners’ World a few days ago. We seem to run about two years behind here so any UK readers may not remember the episode where Carol Klein visited Bury Court and the owner spoke about how he wanted his garden to echo the nature. The nature to which he referred was the hedgerows, meadows and road verges.

We visited Bury Court late last June. Naturally we coveted the lovely oast houses but the garden was also a delight and we learned a great deal from it. We could see the echoes of the English countryside repeated in a managed fashion.

To New Zealanders, nature is more likely to evoke images of our verdant and dense native forests and bush. It is a different perception of the environment altogether and it is taking some thinking to move preconceptions away from weeds to valued wildflowers that contribute to the eco system. Of course the pasture grass that we value so highly for our grass-fed stock is no more native than the wildflowers that grace our verges but the latter still get a bad rap here. I will return to this topic.

More Bury Court. Is this not lovely? I think so.

More Bury Court. Is this not lovely? I think so.