Summer gardens – the starting point

I garden so I have a lot of thinking time. And it struck me this week that the reason why good summer gardens are a rare occurrence in this country is because most New Zealanders start a garden by planting out the trees and shrubs, then the hedgings and edgings.  Herbaceous underplanting is more of an afterthought, not unlike adding cushions to a sofa. A filling in of remaining spaces.

If you want a good summer garden, start with the herbaceous planting and build from there. That was my moment of clarity.

New Zealand does great spring gardens. Magnolias, flowering cherries and crab-apples, soft foliaged Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons and a host of other pretty trees and shrubs grow with a lushness and froth of bloom. You would be hard pressed to find prettier spring gardens and that takes in the length of the country.

Le Jardin Plume in Normandy

Northern New Zealand also does year-round, sub-tropical gardens very well. All the lush greenery of palms, cycads, bamboos and some lesser known small tropical trees with many ferns, clivias and bromeliads – albeit often sustained by irrigation or misting units over the hotter summer months.

Good summer gardens are a scarce event in this country and I think it is because we start with the trees and shrubs. There aren’t that many woody plants that flower in summer. Hydrangeas and jacaranda do but even so-called repeat-flowering roses peak in spring and then rather stagger on from there without ever achieving that mass, new season glory again. There is a very limited selection if you want summer-flowering woody plants.

New Zealanders generally want gardens that ‘have interest’ all year round. Some gardens boast of being a garden for all seasons when in practice they are spring gardens with spots of bloom and colour at other times.

Summer at Auckland Botanic Gardens

Classic twin herbaceous borders at RHS Wisley Gardens

I have seen impressive summer herbaceous plantings at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens but those are large-scale, public plantings which are different to home gardens. They are probably worth a visit right now if you are in the area. I have also seen a fair number of classic, twin herbaceous borders, but mostly overseas. They are more commonly classic twin mixed borders in New Zealand, where the shrubs will dominate over time. It is not the herbaceous borders that have made me do a double take of envy. It is the more contemporary herbaceous plantings with fewer rules, considerably less maintenance but more colour control that inspired both of us. We won’t know if we have succeeded here for another year or two and then the proof of sustainability is if it still looks good a decade later, but I am optimistic at the early results.

Bury Court – superb planting combinations by Piet Oudolf

More Bury Court

So far, I can say that a good summer garden needs full sun with open conditions. My plantings started with the herbaceous plants and bulbs. These are plants that like well cultivated soil so it is easy for them to spread their roots. There are some trees and shrubs, but mostly used to give definition and form to the area without intruding into the herbaceous plantings and without the potential to cast shade where shade is not wanted. It is a very different style of planting and management to the rest of the garden. Once the principles and techniques are mastered, the fun comes with plant combinations.  Our conditions are so different that we need to trial plant material and work out our own combinations rather than working from overseas plant lists and examples. But we have learned from looking at some highly skilled combinations and the difference between cobbling together plants based primarily on flower colour and the genuine flair of knowledgeable gardeners is noticeable once you get your eye in. It is the detail that is possible in private gardens that often makes a huge difference.

Wildside in Devon

That is what we have travelled overseas to look at and to reinterpret for our conditions at home.

Our blank canvas three years ago with just the foundation shrubs and trees to define what will remain open space

7 thoughts on “Summer gardens – the starting point

  1. Tim Dutton

    We do so agree Abbie about the NZ emphasis on spring gardens. We wish there were some summer garden festivals to visit, not just a wealth of spring festivals. Over the last few years we have been striving to improve the summer displays in our garden. Herbaceous plants are a large part of this, but we’ve always grown some, it’s just we have a bigger range now. We love Hydrangeas and have been increasing the number and variety around the garden. The biggest difference is that we’ve been getting into annuals a lot more as well as biennials such as hollyhocks. Summer bulbs too. The shrubs and trees are still there, but they now form more of a green backdrop around the outside edges. A work in progress.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I see we are thinking along very similar lines. I went to the Heroic Festival in Auckland which is summer but I still did not see summer gardens other that Auckland Botanic and Lynda Hallinan is working with summer flowers. Maybe I should try hollyhocks again in a summer meadow planting but they do get terrible rust in our high humidity.

  2. Tim Dutton

    No rust on the hollyhocks here yet (north of Upper Hutt), so keeping fingers crossed. I wish we could get a bigger range of late flowering Clematis for the summer garden, but at the moment ‘H.F.Young’ is making up for that by doing a splendid job with its second flush of flowers, a bit smaller but more intense colour than the spring flowers were and I think more of them too.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      The clematis expert around the corner from here says that if you cut back the spring flowering clematis after their big flush, feed the plants and keep water up to them, the second flush of blooms will come six weeks later. Not Montana but many of the larger flowered hybrids. It works on Nelly Moser.

  3. tony murrell

    Also a good idea to see the sacred blessings garden on Waiheke, perennials and summer colour galore, a resilient garden with year round interest that over the past 12 years of development is nurtured through the stages of growth and the selection of plant appropriateness to the northern lopes of this interesting space that spans 5 proprties. Abbie stressed the importance of the time factor, allowing the soil to take responsibility for new plants and for us to notice. Our summer arrived early and put many plants under pressure and forced some to set seed pretty quick; recent rainfall will surely encourage a resurgence and opportunity to add a few more plants to extend the season. Salads are bolting at the house we are minding and I am getting over salads every day, graving something a little meatier maybe.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Tony! You are talking to people who eat salads probably over 300 days a year! And as Mark is the chief salad maker, they all look the same (he only knows one way to make salads) though the tastes will vary depending on what he has for that season. It does help to have a wide variety of leafy greens to ring the flavour variation. I shall have to do a search for the Sacred Blessings Garden – not heard of it. I have been cutting off the seed heads on plants in the new garden as they form to try and help the plants put more energy into settling in and growing better root systems and less on developing seed. So you are in hibernation on Waiheke? I bet they serve tumeric lattes in the cafes there.

  4. tonytomeo

    Backward landscaping is a tradition. Brent lives on a small parcel in Mid City Los Angeles; where he plants more than what fits there, and tries to make it look like a wild jungle, with curvaceous edges and ‘water features’ to obscure the sound of the Santa Monica Freeway. My garden was nearly ten acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I tried to enforce strict straight lines and formality, and gave every plant room to grow. The only water feature was Zayante Creek. I sometimes feel like I was trying to make the forest look like a formal garden in town.

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