The subtitle of this book is “My story, my garden” and that pretty much captures the flavour. These are Bev McConnell’s memoirs and as both the author and her garden reach maturity, the timing seems entirely appropriate. Her garden, Ayrlies, is located at Whitford, south east of Auckland and over the past 40 years, both the garden and the gardener have earned a leading position. This is a book about a garden, not a gardening book as such. The author writes about her own experiences and while there is wisdom and advice contained in the text, it is not a manual or a reference book.
I have not read anything written by Bev McConnell before, so it was a pleasant discovery to find that she has an easy and very readable style. She is disarmingly frank, almost alarmingly so at times. Given that this substantial and beautifully presented hardback extends to 270 pages, it is just as well the text is engaging. The many photos cover from her early family life in Wairoa (a wonderful photo of her standing on her tricycle seat as a little dot around 3 or 4), through the stages of her adult family life and the development of a bare patch of dirt into the large and handsome garden that is now known as Ayrlies.
In the New Zealand garden scene, Ayrlies is unusual in that it has had skilled labour employed from the start while the owner has kept complete control of the design, the planting and the management and has been an active participant at all stages. It is more common in this country for the major private gardens to have been established on the smell of an oily rag without any permanent staff at all, or, in more recent times for a wealthy owner to have handed over the whole project to a landscaper and crew. Bev McConnell has as much dirt beneath her finger nails as any of the staff she has employed over the years, but she has been able to realise her visions with extra input. It is an enviable position to which she has responded by taking an active role in encouraging others to lift their own standards of gardening. Her own garden is as much about interesting plants and good combinations as it is about design. She has kept her focus on the beguiling complexities of good planting, demonstrated so ably by Beth Chatto in England whom she acknowledges as a major inspiration.
The chapter on her huge wetlands project is particularly interesting and it may be that this will prove to be one of her great legacies over the coming decades.
Ayrlies, by Beverley McConnell (Published by Ayrlies Gardens and Wetlands Trust; ISBN: 978 0 473 21451 7)
First published by Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.