The New Zealand gardening style

It was straight back to work here as soon as the statutory holidays were over. And by work, Mark and I refer to the nursery. We don’t generally describe gardening as work – that is our leisure and our pleasure (mostly). The nursery is the bread and butter which earns the money to keep the garden and the family going. And it is the time for cuttings. Usually we aim to have all deciduous cuttings in by Christmas (we rarely make that deadline so the over run is early in the new year) but several factors conspired against that this year. Not that it has mattered – the season is so late and so cold so far that we are effectively dealing with cuttings of the same maturity as usual.

But while I have been out in the nursery doing tasks which require little brain power, I have been pondering what makes New Zealand gardens different. At this time of the year, we get a trickle of overseas garden visitors and several of late have come because the British Royal Horticulture Society published an extended article on New Zealand gardens recently. It is with some pride that we note that on their top ten list of NZ gardens, they rate three of us in Taranaki.

French gardens are noted for their formality and parterres, with a heavy emphasis on low clipped hedges and colour. Italian gardens are remarkable for their stone work and formality and clipped and topiaried everything. English gardens set the standard for sweeping landscapes in the Capability Brown tradition with many large trees and the much admired herbaceous border. The Japanese are heavy on simplicity, symbolism and austerity.

So what about New Zealand? My initial list comprised:

  1. New Zealand native plants.
  2. Phenomenal rates of growth compared to most of the rest of the temperate world. One generation gardens which retain a sense of juvenility.
  3. The ability to grow a much wider range of plants than most of the rest of the world and a resulting passion for plant collections and variety.
  4. A degree of lushness, greenery and flowers all year round.
  5. Green lawns (in most areas).
  6. Design features which tend to be temporary or semi permanent only and which are not hugely expensive.
  7. An increasingly heavy use of ornamentation.

A love affair with our own native plants is comparatively recent. Indeed there are still heathens out there who think that our native flora is “boring”. Tell that to northern hemisphere gardeners who covet our tree ferns and cabbage trees. These are amongst the most highly prized sculptural plants overseas. I don’t think one has to be either/or – exclusively native or exclusively exotic. Most of us integrate some native plants as a matter of course. Our native flora integrates extremely well into gardens both formal and informal. I think one reason why New Zealand can not compete with the stunning autumn colour of, say, Canada is because our native flora is all evergreen. It is that which keeps a sense of lushness and greenery even in the depths of winter. Autumn colour is more spectacular when pretty well every tree is deciduous and there is not that permanent green backdrop which we have here as a matter of course.

I am sure I have written before about our phenomenal rates of growth here. Visitors from colder climates are always astounded at how fast our plants grow. Indeed, we have an inscription inside the front cover of our Hilliers Manual of Trees and Shrubs where the author wrote: “Double the height in half the time for New Zealand.” It only takes about ten years to get a very pretty tree and shrub garden established in this country, and most gardens are regarded as “mature” after twenty years. Maybe it is because we grow plants so quickly that we tend to be rather cavalier about mature plants and chop them down or hack them hard back to regain that freshness of juvenility. Combined with the mobile nature of our population where most people expect to move several times in their lifetime, gardens are often seen as fairly temporary affairs and there are few indeed which pass down generations. We don’t generally venerate maturity.

The British have long been passionate plant collectors and most of the intrepid explorers in past centuries who gathered a vast array of plant material were British. Many of the great gardens took huge pride in having rare and new plants. New Zealand gardeners tend to have taken on that value but it is a great deal easier here with a soft climate and we expect to see a very wide range of plants grown in home gardens. That soft climate also enables most of us to retain green lawns all year and often those who can’t do it by natural rainfall will resort to irrigation to achieve the look. I understand the green lawn is an American gardening value but we have made it our own, too. And most of us expect to see flowers and foliage all year round – no arid, grey-brown summer look of large parts of Australia or grey bareness of dormant gardens in an English winter.

While many of us complain about the expense of gardening, New Zealand gardens are not usually characterised by huge and expensive hard landscaping, or indeed by a sense of permanence. Retaining is often in ponga (rather than the stone walls of the old countries) which has both a natural and temporary look. We use timber in fences, trellis, garden edges, summer houses and pergolas. While tanalised timber is certainly durable, it lacks the look of solid permanence of the more traditional brick, stone, marble and concrete. This is not a criticism. It is entirely to be expected in a country where anything older than about 30 years is regarded as historic and having character and where most of our houses are built out of timber and not expected to last for hundreds of years.

The huge growth of ornamentation seems to be a peculiarly New Zealand characteristic too, but some of us would rather draw a veil of silence over this particular trend.

So yes, we are evolving a New Zealand style of gardening and we do not just mimic overseas trends. Our style is based on our equable climate, our environment and native flora, our do it yourself ethos and our social fabric along with an eclectic mix of overseas tradition. It is all just a reflection of what makes this country unique in other ways too.