Until recent times, maybe only a decade or so, New Zealand gardens used to be all about plants. Sophisticated design concepts were rarely seen and terms like spatial relationships referred to Cape Canaveral. These days garden design is cock of the roost and plants are very much a secondary consideration for many people.
Good design is ageless and not to be derided in any way, but I mourn the devaluing of the role of plants in a garden. Frankly, you can only get so far with clipped hedging (usually buxus, sometimes lonicera or teucrium), renga renga lilies, mondo grass (be it black or green), catmint groundcover (nepeta) and white standard roses (be they Iceberg or Margaret Merrill). Maybe kumquat or mandarin trees in planter boxes or large containers. You can achieve a perfectly nice, tidy garden using those run of the mill plants which are in everybody else’s garden as well, but it is never going to be anything special, no matter how good the design framework.
To lift a garden above the ordinary, good design needs to be complemented by interesting plants combined in interesting ways. Mind you, I would say that. I have always believed that mass plantings of a single variety are best in public parks and on traffic islands. I find it exceedingly dull in home gardens. It takes more gardening skill to marry together a whole range of different plants but that is the fun part of gardening.
Start with trees. You can not magic up instant trees. You can buy advanced grade specimens but they are still going to be juvenile and take years to reach maturity. There is simply no shortcut with trees so the sooner you get them planted in the right positions, the sooner you will see some results. And make at least some of those trees good long term specimens. Some trees just get better with age, others look better in youth and get scruffy and past it too soon. Learn to tell the difference so when you cut out the short term filler trees, you are left with some good specimens. Pretty trees such as many flowering cherries, Albizia julibrissin, the blue flowered paulownias and some of the pillar conifers are great for quick impact but rarely age gracefully. Really good trees will take future generations into the next century so they need to be chosen carefully for the right position and given time to grow. They don’t have to be forest giants but you may need to do some research to make good choices. Not a day goes by here when we don’t mentally thank Mark’s great grandfather who left us a legacy of fine trees planted in 1880, and his father who added to it with many rare specimens in the 1950s. Trees give stature and backbone to a garden, be it large or small.
Search out treasures. If you have ever been on a garden safari where you visit many gardens in quick succession, you may have noticed how they can start to look very similar and meld in the memory because they use the same palette of plants. With an ever diminishing range of plants being offered for sale in this country, this scenario is going to get worse, not better. It clearly doesn’t matter if you don’t mind having a garden that looks the same as everybody else’s, but as a nation we tend to favour an element of uniqueness. We don’t want to live in a street where every house is identical, even to the floor plan, but we are leaning in that direction when it comes to our gardens. Good gardeners regard the sourcing of rare or unusual plants as being like a treasure hunt.
Experiment with plant combinations. While it is easy and quick to plant a swathe of the same plant, putting together a mix of different foliages and flowers that please the eye is more satisfying. Done well, there is an overall harmony which is pleasing at first glance while the detail invites you to linger and look more closely. Done badly, of course, it looks a hodge podge but you can always learn from that. If you are mass planting using only one or two different varieties, there is no reason to linger and look – you are just after the first glance impression.
In brief, the two rules of thumb in creating good combinations are to think of layering so that not everything is the same height and to get contrasts in foliage. Grasses are never going to look dramatic planted alongside other grasses but combined with a big leafed plant like a canna lily, a Chatham Island forget-me-not or pachystegia, they will have a great deal more zing. Plant combinations are about more than trendy colour toning.
There are a fair number of good designers around whom you can pay to give you a well planned garden in terms of the use of space but good designers who are passionate and knowledgeable about plants are as scarce as hens’ teeth. Good gardens are usually owned by good gardeners who know a great deal about plants themselves. And it is the plants which give the dynamic aspect to a garden and so bring life to the space.