Meadow, meadow. Three meadow styles.

It was like an Impressionist painting but in real life – a pictorial meadow at Trentham

It is compulsory that every garden in Britain have a meadow. Well, not quite law, perhaps, but certainly lore. We have watched the rise and rise of the meadow on our trips over the past decade. The trend is also evident in many European and North American gardens though it is not a style we have embraced in New Zealand yet. For years, I thought it would not work in our fertile and lush growing conditions. It has taken several visits looking at northern gardens to better understand meadow gardening.

In this country, we do not appear to have progressed past the point where we see ‘meadows’ as dense sowings of annual flowers loosely described as ‘wildflowers’. That is plants like the red corn poppies, cornflowers and cosmos, though they are certainly not wildflowers of New Zealand. But there are different approaches to establishing a meadow.

A perennial meadow, the work of  Professor Nigel Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent

If you want to see flowery meads at their prettiest, type in ‘Pictorial Meadows’ on Google or Facebook and prepare to be blown away by the beauty. This is the commercial arm of the work that has been done though the landscape department of the University of Sheffield, spearheaded by Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough. It is a whole subsection of the naturalistic gardening movement that is so dominant in Britain and elsewhere today, to the extent that it is now referred to as the ‘Sheffield School’. It has layers of complexity and sophistication that take it way beyond the scattering of a few random seed mixes, predicated instead on sustainable eco systems with a whole swag or research going into their seed selection.

We were delighted by the perennial meadows which were the work of Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent, just as we were entranced by the Hitchmough Missouri Meadow at Wisley in its early days. This is wildflower gardening taken to new heights altogether. Their annual meadows are glorious but it is the long term meadows that are environmentally significant. The maturing plantings around Olympic Park in London are an example of those.

Molinia meadow at Bury Court with pink Trifolium incarnatum (Italian clover)

At the other end of the scale are tightly managed meadow gardens. The pre-eminent Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf does some these creations. Beautifully refined meadows of shimmering molinia grass with restrained use of flowering plants. Interestingly, the owner of one of these Oudolf meadows, John Coke of Bury Court, told me that it was the highest maintenance area of his garden, to keep it looking that good. There is a lesson in there somewhere but it looked charmingly simple.

A natural orchard meadow in a private garden in the Cotswolds, designed by leading UK landscaper, Dan Pearson

Maximum brownie points are earned by those folk who encourage natural meadows in their garden. In other words, they stop regular mowing of the grass or cultivating the area and let plants naturalise.  The Royal Horticultural Society does this in large areas now. We particularly noted it at RHS Rosemoor but also in private gardens, often in an orchard area. Over time, there will be an increase in plant diversity in these meadows that evolve with minimal management. It is also the style of meadow that New Zealanders will find most problematic. For we are more likely to judge it as weedy, with rank, overgrown grass.

The problem is that the wildflowers in a natural meadow – be they daisies, dandelions, buttercup or clover in the initial stages – are deemed weeds here whereas they are genuine wild flowers in their home environments. We tend to apply different standards to long grass and wild areas than we apply to gardened areas and ‘proper lawn’, where imported plants are absolutely fine.

Natural meadows have been encouraged in areas which appeared to have been previously mown grass at Rosemoor

What all these meadows have in common is a concern with bio-diversity and ecologically friendly gardening, providing habitat for all manner of living organisms, insects and animals, while looking attractive at the same time. All these meadows are alive with insect life – buzzing with bees and attracting many butterflies along with a wide range of other insects.  The RHS has taken a lead in educating people on the environmental benefits of meadows. Generally, plants as close to their natural form as possible are used (so species rather than overbred hybrids).

A meadow garden is simulating the wild but modifying it to a garden setting. It has some history in English gardening and was espoused by the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Fertility is kept low to reduce competition from overly vigorous grasses and it is usual to incorporate yellow rattle, a parasitic plant that weakens the roots of grasses. In autumn, the meadow is mown and left to lie for about ten days, allowing the seed to fall. The area is then raked to keep fertility low and left to come again in spring. There is minimal cultivation, no spraying and extremely low intervention.

Our meadow at home is progressing. In autumn, the long grass was cut with our sickle-bar mower and we had some debate about whether we could just leave the long grass in situ. But there was so much that it resembled hay and, in the end, we raked most of it up once it had dried. It may take effort at the time, but not mowing the area every few weeks certainly reduces the carbon footprint and allows greater diversity in that environment. And we love the look.


This is the article that led to my resignation from The New Zealand Gardener magazine – irreconcilable differences when it came to photo selection. The article will not, therefore, be published in the November issue. 

Trentham Gardens again


The unexpected romance of an olive grove

Stand back. For I have found the most impossibly romantic olive grove. It is at Villa Adriana near Tivoli, which is relatively close to Rome. Adriana is the expanse of ruins that are somewhat quaintly described as Hadrian’s Villa. At about a square kilometre in area, it would be a mistake to think of it as Hadrian’s country retreat. It is more akin to an estate that was likely on the scale of a town. It is an enormous site where there is still much archaeological excavation to take place. On the day we visited, the temperature was in the mid thirties, the place was nearly deserted and there was not a breath of wind.

Unless you are a scholar, there are only so many ancient Roman ruins that enthral and only so many times one can ooh and aah over the wildflowers growing amongst the tumbled stones before shade and a cool beer start calling. But then we came across the olive grove.

I use olive oil; I eat olives; I can even enjoy dipping a tasty bread finger into a bowl of high quality, single origin fresh olive oil. But I have not been convinced about the romance of the olive grove before. The vast olive plantations of Spain I had seen were industrial production.

I was once told by somebody overstepping all personal boundaries that I lacked any romance in my soul. This was because I had described the mass vineyards of sauvignon blanc in Marlborough as being industrial horticulture. When my critic looked at them, I am pretty sure he saw the quaint little family vineyards of Italy whereas I saw hectares of tanalised timber and corporate investment. That searing dismissal of my finer feelings came back to mind as Mark and I wandered the Adriana olive grove. I just wanted to photograph every tree. Here was romance and antiquity in its original form.

I have no idea if it is still managed as a commercial operation but the lack of olive stones beneath would suggest that the crop is gathered. These were venerable trees clinging tenaciously to life down the centuries. I did a quick net search and found that at least some of the Adriana trees have been given monumental status.

“A monumental olive trees has an aesthetic destination, since production efficiency is undermined due to the elevated costs to maintain them. Often, producers will use these secular trees as emblems of an olive oil produced from younger plants of the same variety. “These plants are icons of a territory, a heritage, a tradition, a culture,”

As I read that quote, I think it must have been translated from Italian but it captures the flavour. It continues:

“An interesting fact about dating monumental olive trees is the difficulty in calculating the age because the inner part of the origin area tends to disappear due to diseases over the centuries. The wood keeps growing laterally but is internally hollow, often making it impossible to calculate the exact age, leaving scientists to estimate using available data.”

From the Olive Oil Times

The age of some of these Adriana olives has, apparently, been calculated at around 660 years. So they don’t date back to Hadrian, just to the fourteenth century. And the hollow centres are a typical feature.

Seen in 2014 at RHS Wisley

At least the monumental status may protect these trees from the ignominy of being dug up and shipped over to Britain for sale with a huge price tag. Instant maturity for English gardeners wanting to pretend that they are living in Italy at £1700 for a relatively young plant of a mere 70 years.

Lacking the rose tinted glasses of the former colleague who thought the vineyards of Marlborough were “romantic”, it is going to take a lot to convince me that the recent olive plantations of New Zealand are anything but utility until those trees are nearing a century of age at least.

But where are the panda bears?

Our stands of giant bamboo are a never-ending source of disappointment to us. That is because they are enduring proof that the cargo cult does not work. The cargo cult is that school of thought that says “build it and they will come”. We often see it espoused in this tourist backwater where we live. Build a café/gondola/light rail/cruise ship terminal/tourist hub (strike out any which do not apply) and visitors will arrive. Well no panda bears have arrived here, is all I can say. I even checked that they eat Phyllostachys edulis – it is not their favourite bamboo but they will eat it.

We have one stand of giant bamboo confined on a small island in the stream where it cannot leap for freedom. The other is on a boundary and each spring we have to dig out the new shoots which pop up across the boundary fence. They grow extremely rapidly and would colonise the neighbour’s paddock if left to their own devices. This is Phyllostachys edulis and the second word is a clue – it is edible for humans as well as panda bears. There are many edible bamboo varieties – 110 out of 1575 known species. Apparently.

I tried blanching and freezing a few shoots last spring time and they stored well. Bamboo shoots are not exactly full of rich flavours and are more of a subtle and textural addition to stir-fries. My home prepared version is easily equal to tinned bamboo shoots, maybe superior because I keep them slightly crisper. This spring I am preparing more because I can see they would be a pleasant addition to salads and platters as well.

Top photo – prepared shoots waiting to be blanched. Bottom right, a bucket load of fresh shoots only yielded enough for 14 meals. Bottom left – the shoot is sliced lengthwise and then peeled.

Mark brought in bucket of young shoots and it yielded 14 packages for freezing – each being more or less equivalent to a standard sized can. They are easy to prepare. I slice vertically and then peel off the outer layers until just the lattice centre remains. At this stage, as Mark said, they rather resemble a pagoda in form. I slice them into centimetre thick lengths.

The pagoda look of a fresh bamboo shoot

I checked the internet for recipes. Bamboo shoots can be bitter and are not palatable fresh and raw. But I covered them with cold water and added a tablespoon of sugar, bringing them to the boil and simmering them for about eight minutes. I then discarded that water and covered them with fresh, cold water and a couple of teaspoons of salt. They were then brought back to the boil for another couple of minutes, then cooled and packed in meal-sized quantities, adding a little of the cooking brine. They are in the freezer. That is all it took. The bamboo season is but brief and we are eating freshly freshly blanched baby shoots this evening with dinner.

Bamboo scaffolding on a Hong Kong street

Each time we transit Hong Kong, we pause in awe to admire the bamboo scaffolding that often encases high rise buildings. It seems unlikely that Health and Safety inspectors in the western world would ever accept the use of bamboo scaffolding but it has a proven track record and would be a great deal lighter and easy to assemble and move than the heavy pipe scaffolding used in this country.

New Wave Hedging

Le Jardin Plume – a modern garden near Rouen in Normandy

Green walls. Or hedges as they are usually called. We were amazed at the tightly clipped, breaking wave hedges at Le Jardin Plume in France, having never seen anything quite like it. They contain the feather garden for which the entire property is named and as such, perform both a practical and aesthetic function. On that practical level, they shelter the very large perennials which could otherwise be beaten down by summer thunderstorms and, presumably, winds sweeping across the flat landscape. And the tight clipping and distinctive form are a complete contrast to the dynamic waves of grasses and tall, slender perennials.

In the same garden the green walls in le jardin d’ été (the summer garden) are less unusual but still performing the dual function of both restraining and protecting extravagantly loose plantings while providing a sharp contrast in style. The hedges are the structure and form within the garden.

Veddw – a garden in Monmouthshire in the Welsh borderlands

We visited another heavily hedged garden in this northern summer just passed. Veddw is in the Welsh borderlands and the owners have used hedging throughout to create the form and structure they were after. In one of the hedged enclosures, they have done a gentler take on rounded shapes,  evocative of their wider landscape of rolling hills. It is a sculptural approach where the interest lies in the shapes and reflections in the black pool, not in the plants themselves.

Veddw again. A garden defined by hedges

Most of these northern hedges are buxus, yew or beech. In New Zealand, we are generally less favourable towards beech because it is deciduous. Yew is deadly poisonous to stock and also does far better in drier climate than our high rainfall and humidity of Taranaki which tends to kill it off with root disease. Which leaves buxus, now much afflicted by the dreaded blight in many gardens.

Tikorangi – the view in September of a Fairy Blush hedge and the historic totara hedge

Our personal preference is for flowering hedges. Indeed, we pulled out a well-established and perfectly healthy buxus hedge to replace it with Camellia transnokoensis. It is all to do with winter blooming – the single camellia flowers provide pollen and nectar at a time when there are few other sources of this food. Our favourite camellia for clipped hedging is ‘Fairy Blush’, partly because it is our cultivar and the first camellia Mark ever named. It is also scented with the longest flowering time of any camellia we grow, coming out with the sasanquas in autumn and flowering right through to spring.

The aforementioned C. transnokoensis has a shorter flowering season but attractive dark foliage and small, pure white blooms. The third camellia we have made extensive use of for hedging is C. microphylla, even though it flowers earlier in autumn – pure white flowers again and small leaves that clip well. Both these two species set seed. If you can find them growing, you may well find seedlings germinated around their base. Or check for seed in autumn if you are a patient gardener who is willing to put a bit of effort into a free hedge.

All our hedges are flat topped affairs, lacking the panache of both Le Jardin Plume and Veddw but I am eyeing up a somewhat redundant length of buxus hedging and wondering about reshaping it to an undulating caterpillar.


I have been told that New Zealand features more hedges per average garden than most other countries. This may be to do with our being a windy country. Equally, it may be that plants are relatively cheap here and require less capital outlay than building a wall in more permanent materials. However, what may have started from pragmatic origins is a far more environmentally friendly option these days. My advice is to pick a hedging option that will only require clipping once or twice a year and if you are going to be adventurous with the plant selection, do some research first. Hedges need to be from plants that will grow back from bare wood and some less common selections like miro (instead of yew) and Magnolia laevifolia (formerly Michelia yunnanensis) can take a fair number of years before they achieve the dense appearance of a hedge.

We are pretty proud of our remaining length of totara hedge, planted around the turn of last century by Mark’s grandfather or great grandfather and kept clipped for nigh on 120 years.

First published in the September issue of NZ Gardener – my penultimate or maybe final column for this magazine. 

White gardens for the new age

I have only seen the white garden at Sissinghurst once and, to be honest, it did not inspire me at the time. I need to go and have a second look but certainly leading English landscape designer, Dan Pearson’s comments on white gardens in general and Sissinghurst in particular, rang true for me. “Too many whites together in one space”, he wrote. Vita Sackville West called it her ‘grey, green and white garden’. Maybe over the years, more attention had been given to the white flowers at the expense of grey and green tones?  Or maybe it was just the sheer size of it and the tight constraint of all those neatly clipped hedges and edgers that did not inspire me. And the memories of all the customers I met in the trendy nineties, mostly of the Ladies Who Lunch brigade, buying plants for their white gardens. There must have been an awful lot of such gardens going into aspirational New Zealand real estate back then.

Sissinghurst white garden from the tower on our one and only visit in 2009

I opened my heart more to the contemporary white gardens we saw on our recent trip.  The Sissinghurst model is not the only style and it is now an historic garden from a different era. Too often the reinterpretations of Sissinghurst White can be stiff and contrived, relying mostly on clipping and rigid shrubs. Such style is not ‘timeless’. The original is historic. The copies and reinterpretations are more likely to be ‘dated’.

The white entrance to the functions barn at Bury Court. Eagle-eyed purists may note the touch of pink in Lilium regale

Bury Court,  south of London had a big wedding market – and the best setup I have ever seen to accommodate weddings and functions without compromising the essentially private nature of the garden and its residence. It was entirely appropriate that the small garden at the entry to the functions centre (a converted barn of some antiquity and great style) be white. So too were there white feature plants in strategic places which allowed for photos, but these were integrated in wider contexts of colour. The emphasis at Bury Court was on contemporary plantings of frothy or bold  perennials and grasses.

The white avenue of Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy was an ephemeral affair – a good photo opportunity, Mark calls such plantings. Spectacular, the essence of simplicity and of brief duration, but no less charming for that on the day.


The white border at Parham

Parham House had a white border, too. Here the context was one of colour controlled, contemporary, herbaceous borders. These were generous borders, both wide and long, one in blues and another in yellows while others were mixes of hot colours. There was also rather a lot of white statuary. Similar to the smaller white garden at Bury Court, Parham’s white border is a summer feature of voluminous perennials – soft, full and lush.


Simplicity at La Torrecchia

La Torrecchia, near the more famous Ninfa Gardens south of Rome, was an early Dan Pearson garden and showed a restrained use of white plants. The artfully simple self-seeding plants in the full light at the back of the villa were mostly white or grey and a delightful example of understated charm. I liked even more that the pale blue chicory was allowed to remain. The white purist would have pulled it out for failing to conform to the colour requirement but it added to the simple charm. There were plenty of white flowering plants used at La Torrecchia but not in the formal, contained style of Sissinghurst. Rather, they were spaced to lead the eye through the garden – plants used as markers for garden wayfarers.

Dare we mention that the white rose opens from yellow buds? Purity in white is rare

The pinnacle in my book is the advanced gardening skills that see the colour composition change over the seasons. We looked at Beech Grove Gardens at the Barbican in London in June (the work of Professor Nigel Dunnett and his team) when yellow phlomis, tawny kniphofia (red hot pokers) and Verbena bonariense were dominant. I was astonished to see photos of the same garden in the first week of September when it was largely white with Japanese anemones, the white wood aster (A. divaricatus) and the white barked birch trees (betulas).  It was a dramatic change to what we saw in early summer and an interesting design decision to turn a cool autumn garden to white. When you think about it, the light levels start to lower dramatically in autumn in that northerly climate, so a white autumn garden possibly shines even more.

The first section of the auratum lily border gets planted and mulched

I have never coveted a white garden myself. I have, however, recently planted a new border. Most of it is beautiful, bold auratum lilies of Mark’s raising – pushing towards 40 metres of them so that took a whole lot of bulbs. The lilies are in many shades of pinks, whites and deep carmine reds. But because they will all flower at the same time, I have added white umbellifers to flower either side of their blooming season. White umbellifers have been a hot fashion item in UK gardens for at least the last decade and show no signs of abating popularity. Think cow parsley and carrots – give or take. So far I have only put in two different ones and I still need a tall one to tower above. Plus any other white umbellifers that come my way. I just want them to seed down and gently fill the space around the lily stems. They will be my white garden.

Umbellifers! Still at peak popularity

This particular column was started as my contribution to the January issue of NZ Gardener magazine (yes, contributors are required to work some months in advance). With recent events culminating in my resignation this week, I have adapted it and decided to post it to follow on from last weekend’s work on white flowers






Shades of white in the world of flower gardens

“The arums make the white of Persicaria polymorpha a very definite cream and highlight the problem I had with Sissinghurst of putting too many whites together in one space. White flowers always have something else in them, be it blue, pink, mauve or even brown, and these off-whites soon look grubby when they are shown up by the purity of something like Zantedeschia aethiopica. A cream rose such as Rosa ‘Nevada’ needs to be with the right partners, and, since it fades to pink, it is a shame for this ageing process to feel muddied by wrongly placed companions.”

Natural Selection, A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson (2017)

I have been drafting a piece about contemporary white gardens for a publication, so my mind has been on white blooms. Yesterday, in the post-election hiatus and the gloom of a wet, grey day, I headed round the garden with my vintage flower basket to pick a selection of white and largely white flowers.

Ringing in my ears were Dan Pearson’s words above, even though I had read them so really they should have been flashing in front of my eyes – visible rather than audible, so to speak. I had not really got my head around the different shades of white before. Neither, I am sure, had the many women whom we used to describe as being of the Remuera genre back in the 1990s, but who would be known as “ladies who lunch” these days. These were the ones who were hellbent on putting in a white garden, à la Sissinghurst. They were numerous and, in our peak retail days, we met a fair number of them. I recall some for whom white flushed pink was out of the question. Candidates for their white garden had to be pure in hue. White and nothing else. I wish I had the Pearson quote back then. There are many, many plants that open from a pink bud to a white bloom.

Never did I hear any of these women getting their heads around the different shades of white. Nor indeed the role of cream and where creamy white becomes more cream than white. Let alone where cream crosses over to palest yellow. It is spring here, so we have a number of rhododendrons in flower. Of the maybe ten different white rhododendrons I picked, only one was what I would call pure white.

Is Narcissus ‘Thalia’ (on the left) acceptable in a white garden, though it is cream, not white? If ‘Thalia’ is acceptable, how about the narcissus with the pale lemon corona and white petals? And if that lemon corona is still okay, does this go across to ‘Beryl’ and other poeticus hybrids with white petals and small coronas which are somewhat stronger coloured and into the yellows and oranges? Where is the cut-off point? I tell you, this white garden business is fraught with problems and judgement calls.

Are green flowers permissible? If so, why not the white Moraea villosa with blue peacock eye markings or Lachenalia contaminata or Onixotis triquetra which are white with maroon markings? If the latter two are not acceptable, does that rule out the white rhododendron with maroon spotting. Is it not sufficiently pure? Is it okay for a white rhododendron to open from a soft pink bud? No? How about a soft lemon bud or one with a green cast?

I laid all the whites out to peruse and Mark walked into the room. All he wanted to do was to add yellow to lift the scene. I have never wanted a colour themed, pure white garden. It is just not our style and it is hard to stop it being a little flat, a little lacking in energy or pzazz. But if you want one, maybe start considering the importance of different shades and textures of white.

White is not always whiter than white and not all whites are the same. Detail matters and never more so than when you are taking on somebody else’s idea in your garden. Without that attention to detail, you will only ever have an inferior interpretation of the original but without the originality.

Postscript: Should I mention to overseas readers that the white arum lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, can be found listed on every weed reference site in New Zealand, though I am not sure how widely it has been banned outright at this point? It is generally seen as a sign of poor land management to be growing it. Pure white it may be, valued it is not. It joins the giant gunneras and even the erigeron daisy as a botanical crime here.  

Why so very grey, New Zealand?

Why so grey, New Zealand? Each time we fly somewhere, Mark looks out the plane window and winces as he sees the sea of grey roofs. It is quite a while since we had to re-roof a house, but I assume roofing is available in other colours? It is not compulsory to roof in grey, is it?

As we drive around the countryside, he groans at the modern new builds which are pretty much grey. Grey walls and grey on the roof with grey paving. Fortunately, we lead such a non-suburban life that he rarely has to enter modern city suburbia or he may despair at the symphony in grey. I would not dare take him looking at carpet but again, the choice in carpet colours in this country these days is about 95% prison grey with a few options in mud.

The Australian version is at least  in shades of warm sandstone

It is a cultural thing, this world of colour. We swung by a new suburban area near Canberra on our last visit. There the houses were all the colour of warm sandstone which seemed preferable to the cold grey of home.

Welcome to Italian suburbia

A day in modern suburban Italy was a revelation. This is Fiumicino near Rome airport. It is still suburbia but it is like an explosion of colour. All those flat planes of rendered plaster are painted. In colours other than grey. These are not even utility paint jobs. There are often different colours used and different paint finishes to add textural variation. It was a revelation to see a society where colour is part of daily life.

A choice of grey or black cars in the UK

Colour, colour everywhere in suburban Fiumicino

Even the cars in Italy were generally coloured. When driving in England, we took to photographing our rental car when we parked, to make sure we could find it again. Because, as Mark said, in the UK you can have any colour of car you like, as long as it is grey or black. We were looking at Tesla electric cars while travelling (because we are planning an electric car purchase at some stage). All Teslas were in grey or black until Mark got positively excited to tell me he saw a white one. I want my next car to be powder yellow.

It is a different world of colour

What is it with colour, I wonder? And I do not know. We live in a place with remarkably high sunshine hours and intense clarity of light. Where we are in Taranaki, there is some debate on exactly how many sunshine hours we get. The rate shot up when the measuring was automated a few years ago and despite having the machine retested and recalibrated, there still seems some anxiety about it. But even if we take a mid figure, we come out around 2400 hours a year. Compare that to London at 1400 hours pa and extremely sunny southern Europe at around 2800 hours pa and there is no doubt that we are on the high side as far as daily sunshine goes. We also have a bright clarity of light that is different to most of the rest of the world (and one of the highest rates of skin cancer as a result). You don’t get SAD (Seasonally Affected Disorder) due to low light and lack of winter sunshine in our neck of the woods.

In New Zealand, this building would likely be in two shades of grey

So why, oh why, do we want to surround ourselves with grey? I can not think that grey ever lifts the spirits, raises a smile or puts a spring into a step. Given that the dominance of grey and colour neutrals is not determined by either raw materials or climate here, it must be driven by cultural factors. We were not always so grey and restrained in this country yet somehow that colour has become synonymous with “good taste” and “contemporary modernity” here. And maintaining resale values. I bet a disproportionately large number of those modern grey houses have neutral *magnolia* walls indoors (aka half way between white and cream) with grey carpets.

I know we were on holiday in Italy and that always makes things appear different, but it is the sheer vibrancy and colour that is a part of daily life throughout much of southern Europe that makes me want to return, time and time again.