Of Pee, Cloud Pruning & Landscaping versus Great Gardening

By ABBIE JURY

The ugliness of having tenants set up a drug operation and trample our happy memories of a house which used to be our family home is starting to fade a little now, thank goodness. It has taken up a lot of time and caused us huge stress and we are nowhere near finished with the fallout yet. But at least we can find aspects to laugh at.

Because of the first stage methamphetamine production that took place there, the house is now tainted with the term of “P House”. I was over with a photographer friend who was recording the damage and she was delighted when I pointed out a random outcome of having two male tenants. Clearly they had a policy of not overstraining the septic tank so they were in the habit of relieving themselves at various points just out from the house, including from the decking. Human urine is rich in nitrogen and the grass is outstandingly lush in that particular spot. Photographer friend recorded the scene – she felt we could use it as a joke Christmas card. Our Pee House.

I guess you have to be a horticulturist to spot these things. Readers with house dogs may see the same phenomenon on their lawns if their dogs are relatively inactive and do not go far from the house. The spots with dogs tend to be smaller than with young(ish) men but lush circles in the midst of otherwise ordinary grass are a dead giveaway. You probably have to live rurally or have a very private section to deliberately use this method of nitrogen replenishment. On our own lawn, we favour the more conventional method of broadcasting fertiliser – we have just used Bio Boost which is cheap and effective. It is the waste from our local sewage treatment plant turned into hygienic pellets and has a very quick response time.

Mark has just spent quite a few hours (more than he bargained on) applying the lessons we learned from our Italian tour earlier this year on a few selected camellias. Mine No Yuki was the major task. This white sasanqua is still beloved of landscapers with its dark foliage and white flowers. But our plant was some four metres tall and possibly five metres wide, encroaching in all directions. It is now the first serious attempt at cloud pruning.

We refer to this as clard pruning. This derives from former weather girl Kaye somebody on TV1 (I think she may now be a breakfast host but I never watch morning TV). Dear Kaye used to constantly refer to “haigh clard in the sarth”. Mark’s main complaint about his clard pruning (layered mounds of foliage in the Japanese clipped style) is the strain on his knees as he clambered up and down the ladder countless times to view the bush before he cut further. It will take a year or two for some of the mounds to thicken up to the desired state, but we are generally well pleased with the overall effect. It gives some form and focus in an otherwise featureless area.

We have been talking about landscaping of domestic gardening for the last few days. This was because I was given a copy of a new book, “Landscape. Gardens by New Zealand‘s Top Designers” to review for another publication. The text is written in somewhat breathless adulation of the twenty pre-eminent New Zealand landscapers whose work is featured but it was the claim that these were brilliant gardens which would stand the test of time which made us stop and think.

No, I decided. These are not brilliant timeless gardens. Some of them are brilliant and creative outdoor design, but wonderful gardens need not only good design but also skilled plantsmanship and gardening over a long period of time. These designs were predominantly for wealthy clients who are non-gardeners but want a relatively static outdoors environment which looks good. So expensive and clever water features abound. I can’t quite get to grips with how people can have unfenced swimming pools and get away with them in a glossy publication. But even the water features relied on dead water of complete clarity and purity – no algae or aquatic plants or life in these stylish water displays.

Plants played about sixth fiddle (well behind first violin – water features, second violin – paving and walls, third violin – expensive sculpture, fourth violin – outdoor dining, fifth violin – immaculate grooming. Need I go on?) In most cases, seasonal changes and flowers were non-existent.

Mark was moved to repeat his comment which I think is frightfully clever but you may need some experience to understand. “The bromeliad garden,” he noted, “has become the modern equivalent of the conifer garden of the seventies.” I shall write more about bromeliads another time, but being low maintenance plants for frost free areas with a strong sculptural form (and somewhat high priced), they are featured en masse in just about every trendy Auckland garden.

But gardening is a whole lot more than classy outdoor design. There seems to be huge gulf between landscape designers and gardeners. This does not worry me until landscapers start to claim the high moral ground of superiority. I have met a fairly large number of landscapers in my time and usually been a little shocked at the lack of plant knowledge. And increasingly they are operating from a very limited palette of plants. This is fine if they are doing outdoor spaces for non gardeners. Just don’t pretend it is a garden.

The gardens which stand the test of time, will, I suggest show the best of that achieved by very good landscapers – excellent design and strong relationship to the surroundings, practicality (at times that is sacrificed for cleverness or good visuals). But along with that they also need the best that is achieved by good gardeners – plants. Plants in good combinations and high health, maintained that way over time. Stonework and water features are no substitute for the organic growth and the softening of hard edges which can only be achieved by growing plants. And with the plants comes fragrance and flowers (for most), seasonal change, birds, butterflies and bumblebees. It is these living ingredients which give life to what can otherwise be a sterile outdoor environment..

Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.