Because I garden extensively, I have a lot of thinking time. Not for me the IPod and little headphones to fill the solitary quietness. I prefer to hear the birds and be aware of all my surroundings while I talk to myself and ponder.
My thinking this week has been coloured by a book I am reading. You will have to wait a little longer for the full discourse on “The Bad Tempered Gardener” by Anne Wareham. I am still digesting the contents but it has certainly focussed my attention on some of my least favourite areas of our garden. I had figured that in one area, the fact that I didn’t enjoy gardening it at all was an indication that all was not well there.
What got me thinking was the oft repeated message in the book that it was better to keep to a more limited plant selection and to shun the bits and bobs effect of one of this and one of that. This particular viewpoint is so much at odds with a great deal that I have written that it has taken some reconciling. I have often bemoaned the boring and limited planting schemes of so many New Zealand gardens and the simple fact is that neither Mark nor I have any interest at all in visiting a garden with a totally restrained use of a very limited number of different plants. Similarly, I have been critical of the ever diminishing range of plants on offer to the home gardener as nurseries continue to refine their production. To us, a garden that is all form and no plant interest is boring. To the author of this book, a garden that is all plant interest and no form is just as bad.
As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. And that was what led me to A Revelation. The messy borders and beds I dislike maintaining and sometimes find myself walking past with eyes averted, are frankly messy beds with too many bits and bobs at ground level. The underplanting, in other words. Too often there has been a gap so I have tucked something in to fill the space – and ain’t that the way many of us garden? And all these areas are mixed borders.
Mixed borders are by far the most common method of gardening – planting woody shrubs, maybe trees, and underplanting with herbaceous material and bulbs. I am not a huge fan of this style of gardening, though we have plenty of examples here. They are probably the least successful areas of our garden. But the remedy, I think, lies in revamping that bottom layer of mostly herbaceous material and getting more unity and harmony in managing the combinations.
Not carpet bedding. It is only a short step up the social scale from bedding plants on roundabouts to carpet bedding nepeta (catmint) beneath your roses, or swathes of uninterrupted mondo grass around your topiaried bay trees. It is just as utility and unimaginative, merely in better taste than marigolds.
That is where my thinking, coming from the other end of the spectrum to the author, met up with hers. The magic is in the plant combinations. If you are going to narrow your plant selection, it matters a great deal more which ones you choose and how you put them together.
I am revisiting my intense dislike of mass plantings. I realise now that my out of hand dismissal had much to do with all those Bright Young Landscapers who dominated the garden scene in this country in the decade through to the global financial downturn. Often with big budgets and other people’s gardens, they rejected plantsmanship in favour of form. Lacking any technical knowledge of plants themselves, or indeed any interest in plants beyond their role as soft furnishings, they claimed superior status as they used some of the dullest plants on earth to create gardens which ideally looked the same for twelve months of the year.
The hallmark of good gardens, in my opinion, is the ability to combine both form and detail, which involves thoughtful and original plant combinations. They don’t all have to be wildly unusual plants. One of my successful recent efforts was a cold corner where I used Bergenia ciliata (that is the one with big hairy leaves and pink and white flowers in spring) with deep blue siberian irises. It is unusually restrained for me, but the combination of the narrow upright leaves of the iris and the large but low foliage of the bergenia looks good even without flowers. I hasten to add, I only have about six square metres of this planting. Had I done the entire length of the border the same, it would have been over forty square metres and that I would have found extremely dull.
The same principle of contrast applies to an area where I dug and divided Ligularia reniformis (that is the enormously popular tractor seat ligularia). It was so grateful it romped away and stands large, lush and over a metre tall. With a backdrop of a common plectranthus which has pretty lilac flowers at this time and interplanted with the narrow, upright neomarica, it is simple but pleasing to the eye.
Now my mind is focussed on the messy borders that don’t work. I am pretty sure that if I refine the bottom layer of plantings, that will set off the upper layers. I can’t wait to start.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.