The Look

Good gardening is a combination of design and plants.

In times past, design often took the back seat to plants. The classic Kiwi garden was typically a bungalow set in the middle of a quarter acre section with narrow borders around the house and wider informal borders around the perimeters. These perimeter borders were often sculpted in the Kiwi hosepipe style – snaking the hose around to create “natural curves”. Large lawns were regarded as necessary – space for children to play cricket, a trampoline, basketball hoop and barbecue. In short, they were utility gardens. Some readers may well still have gardens of this design and type.

New Zealand has always worked on a very large palette of plants and the better gardens were often distinguished more by the plant collections and how they were put together than by aspects of design. So-called “landscape gardens” were rare and usually confined to those who were wealthy. Our do-it-yourself ethic ruled strongly in gardening.

But how times have changed. Now the plethora of garden designers and landscapers graduating from our institutions have taken the higher moral ground and design rules supreme. It is almost compulsory to have a courtyard, paving, garden rooms, indoor outdoor flow, changes of level, at least one water feature and three sculptures placed as focal points. The family lawn has frequently disappeared from urban gardens as has the trampoline. Our children have moved indoors.

I chuckled to myself when one of this country’s foremost gardeners said despairingly that he was having to educate some of the experienced landscape designers he was working with on a judging project. They thought that the term “ornamentation” meant plants whereas any gardener worth their salt knows that ornamentation refers to the likes of urns and statuary whereas plants by definition are an essential ingredient of all gardens.

A good designer will give you a good design for your outdoor space. A really good designer will be like the architect who designs your house (and there is a great gulf between a house designed by a topline architect and a draughtsman). You will end up with something unique and dramatic, if that is the brief. An average designer should still achieve something that will compliment your house and lifestyle and be functional. A do-it-yourselfer will achieve something on the spectrum between cliched modern design and something genuinely creative, depending on ability.

Therein lies the rub. The design is only half the story and the problem is that many outdoor spaces are now stopping with half the story. Plants are selected from a narrow palette and are treated solely as soft furnishings outdoor. White sasanqua camellias (clipped to hedges or espaliered) and white standard Iceberg roses are the garden equivalent of the cream leather lounge suites from the Harvey Norman School of Design. Michelia figo, a narrow range of palms, lollipop bay trees, aloes, yuccas, bromeliads for underplanting – set dressing which can make outdoor living spaces all look the same after a while. Massed plantings are an essential ingredient in this approach to dressing the outdoor space. They have quick impact and are easy on the eye.

I don’t mind the pendulum swinging so far towards the design end of the spectrum, except when this is regarded as synonymous with good gardening. What sets apart a good garden is some genuinely creative plantings set amongst good design complemented by good management over time. If you want to be good gardener, learn from both the designers and the plantspeople.