I was reading an interesting review on line when I came across the following comment: “… New Zealand gardens are getting more conservative with time”. I have not gone back to the original source yet, so will not attribute the comment except to say it is apparently local to Hamilton. It certainly gave us food for discussion here.
Are our gardens getting more conservative and less adventurous? On balance, the unanimous opinion of two was: probably not. We are currently in the meshes of a deeply conservative garden fashion where mini Sissinghursts are all the rage (clipped buxus hedges and balls, white standard roses or bay trees, the odd limbed up hornbeam that claims to be pleached) but it is only a fashion. It too will pass.
What has changed, we suspect, is disposable income, the trickle down of wealth and status to the hoi polloi and the linking of garden to fickle fashion. In other words, the democratisation of gardening. In centuries past, garden fashion was dictated by the rich and powerful across the globe. From the Islamic water gardens, through the classic revival of Italy, the British landscape tradition of Capability Brown, the Arts and Crafts revival in Edwardian times – none of it had anything to do with the common people.
Now we have a whole breed of property owners, some of whom are gardeners, who want an outdoor environment which complements their lifestyle, marks their social position and brings some level of reward in pleasure or productivity. And just like everything else, the cycles have sped up. Clothing fashions change. Colours change in interior design. Why would we expect gardening to be timeless?
Some of us can remember the conifer garden of the seventies – the first instance of a mass fashion in gardening that I can recall. It wasn’t just conifers. It was the meeting of small conifers and the easy-care pebble garden that gave us a certain genre which is widely regarded with horror these days.
We were already in the plant nursery business when flowering trees and shrubs took a dive in the eighties. It was the time of the cottage garden, filled with a froth of annuals, perennials and roses. Anecdotally, we attributed it to the sharemarket crash of the time. Back in those days, you could buy three or four perennials for the price of one good tree or shrub. The price of woody plants has never recovered and these days you can pay about the same for a good perennial as you do for a woody plant which has taken at least five times longer to produce.
But cottage gardens are not low maintenance and in due course they morphed into the short-lived fashion of minimalism – large rocks, ground cover scleranthus and three vertical plants, one of which should be a sanseveria or yucca. That was a fashion driven by a new breed of landscaper who knew about design and space but not plants.
Somewhere along this timeline, natives became the vogue and we saw a fair number of Idealistic Young Things who would only buy a plant if it was a native.
Then we had the tropical garden – lots of palms, clivias, vibrant vireya rhododendrons and that burgundy aeonium with the unpronounceable name (Aeonium “Zwartkop” and I don’t think I ever spelled it correctly in years gone by). The trouble is that most of us do not live in tropical climes and those tropical gardens didn’t take winters too well.
The Auckland bromeliad garden has survived a little longer and is still de rigueur in some circles – for all the world the conifer garden of the new millennium. The overseas trend of prairie or meadow gardens has largely bypassed us in this country. It is damn difficult to do a prairie garden unless you live in prairie conditions with dry, hot summers and dry, cold winters.
Enter the edible garden and the Bright Young Things who would only buy native plants in the past decided they would only buy a plant now if it was edible. Raised beds, nasty mulches of used woollen carpet, no dig gardening, watered down organics – aiming for self sufficiency in food has never been easier, or so it is widely claimed. I know I am not alone when I say many of us have tired of vegetables dominating the gardening media. There are not many aesthetics when it comes to vegetables which are utility things at best.
Gardeners who weren’t into growing vegetables followed a parallel path with their recreations of suburban Sissinghurst, sometimes adorned by a pretty potager if they wanted to adopt both fashions. Even the gals at the New Zealand Gardener appear to think that vegetables have passed their peak and they are onto new branding with Grandma’s flowers – from dahlias to rhododendrons if recent pieces I have read are any guide.
The hope here is for the next fashion trend to be sustainable gardening and to see a revival of romantic naturalism replacing suburban Sissinghurst. Gardens don’t freeze in time any more than their owners do but by definition, few people are trend setters and most people are followers of fashion.
First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.