Large gardens, small gardens and silver beet


In our Taranaki Rhododendron Festival over the past eighteen years, we have often heard talk of small gardens and how much people like to see them because they can relate to them. To be honest, we have felt a little defensive about this because our own garden is anything but small.

We open around six or seven acres of garden and are working on a further couple of acres of garden to open in a year or two. I stayed polite when faced by the garden visitor last week who said that some of the gardens were “so large they are parks, not gardens”. I had not thought to define a park or garden by size alone. I had always thought that gardens had areas which are intensively planted and gardened, while parks are essentially lots of trees and larger shrubs without the same level of detail.

True, the more traditional large country garden can be rather rambling and farm fences are pushed out to free up more land as the expansion takes place. One of the main faults is a lack of definition and form to ring the changes between different parts of the garden so it seems to ramble on. This is compounded by the repetition of the same plants throughout, especially when under planting is achieved by splitting up existing clumps of perennials and spreading them further. Far from giving continuity, the effect is often to make it all look the same. The challenge is to give form to this expanse and to ring the changes between different parts of the garden.

What lifts a large garden out of the rambling group, is the definition of different areas. In fact some good large gardens are basically collections of smaller gardens put together in one package. The description often coined is the much over used term of “garden rooms”. The skills lie in putting together these component parts to make a cohesive whole. In our garden, we have a defined rose garden, a rockery, subtropical woodland, formal areas and an informal park, to mention only some. We strive for changes in light and mood (moving from dark woodland into light areas) and for elements of surprise to discover as you walk around. Sometimes I would wish that garden visitors who say they like little gardens because that is what they have, would stop and notice that they are walking through a series of these and that they could gain much from looking closely at one small area, rather than thinking the large scale of the entire garden takes it way beyond their few square metres.

Small or large, all gardens benefit from an element of surprise. One of the basic maxims of garden design is that you should not be able to view the entire garden from the moment you set foot into it. This is easier said than done if you live on a small flat section. But what lifts a good small garden above other small gardens is often the ability of the owner to create suspense and surprise and to avoid the one shot view. Good small gardens don’t just consist of rectangular borders all around the house and a wavy mixed border around the perimeter of the section with the middle bits in lawn. The use of trellis, hedges or short fences can achieve a break in the line of the sight and allow a change in mood, style and planting. Clever focal points can direct the eye to one point and lead on, rather than exposing all to see at first glance.

That said, the challenge for a small garden is to avoid trying to cram too much in and to amalgamate too many styles and features in too small a space. It is arguably more important in a small garden to achieve some continuity by repeating the use of some plants. Define your style and try and keep to it. It may be pretty cottage gardening, or native, or dry gardening in coastal areas, formal, urban chic if you are into the House and Garden look with lots of white paving squares defined by mondo grass between, or any number of other styles. But if your garden is measured in square metres rather than in acres, you simply do not have the space to manage a number of different styles. Keeping it unified will prevent the eclectic clutter which is the failing of many smaller gardens.

Mark has often muttered that in his mind, gardens are not complete without a vegetable patch. He of course is a veggie gardener from way back. All winter we have been joking about his silver beet. I consider silver beet as suitable for stock food, rather than the dinner table. But each time I asked him what we had in the way of vegetables, he would offer up his humble beet. In desperation he started to call it chard, thinking that it may make it sound more acceptable. Well his chard is now bolting to seed and reaching for the sky but it may just have tipped a photo shoot our way.

We were approached as a potential location for photographing a French fashion catalogue for the Japanese market. This caused much excitement and amusement for our staff. Janet immediately offered herself as model and struck what she considered appropriate poses. “Babes,” breathed Dan. “Dan said it was for Playboy,” said a disappointed Lloyd.

When the scout turned up to check out possible locations (our garden is but one of half a dozen under consideration), he explained that they were looking for lifestyle image with a European feel. No matter that we have both a rating as a Garden of National Significance and Qualmark endorsement, it was the view of the silver beet bolting to seed with a glimpse of our almost-European (more British) styled house in the background that excited him most. It may be the maligned chard which sees us as the backdrop in an international fashion catalogue. We are waiting for further news on this one, but be sure I will tell you if it takes place.

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