Author Archives: Abbie Jury

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Around the Barbican (part one of observations on the Sheffield School of planting)

The Barbican plantings by Nigel Dunnett

After a week in Italy and a week in Normandy, we hit the ground running when we landed in Britain. This is familiar territory. We can find our way around without too much stress and we know how most things work. Even the traffic comes from the side we expect so the risk of being run over crossing the road is greatly reduced. And we were very focussed on what we wanted to see. The contemporary directions. The modern trends.

When I use words like contemporary and modern in connection with gardening in New Zealand, I fear people may instantly think of hard edged gardening with mirrors and stainless steel, all those colourful cushions on hard concrete benches and mass plantings of a single variety that used to be seen in UK show gardens. No. No. And no again. Consign that back to the turn of the century, which is nearing two decades ago now. It is time to wake up to the new directions in gardening and in spaces both public and private.

The new face of sustainable and ecology focused gardening

The new focus is about ecology, sustainability, good environmental practice and creating eco-systems that support the diversity of nature – a worthy if didactic approach to gardening for this new age.  The unspoken aspects are where design and aesthetics fit into this somewhat radical approach. That is what we wanted to see.

At one end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘Sheffield School’, under the leadership of professors Nigel Dunnett  and James Hitchmough.  The work coming out of the Landscape Department of Sheffield University is exciting. In a nutshell, this is about lower input, low maintenance plantings that will co-exist with some level of harmony, develop ecosystems and bring visual delight. The skills lie in the range of plants selected (plant communities) and getting these established in the first place. That is a simple summary but if you want to know more, google them.

We first saw the Sheffield School signature plantings in the Missouri Meadow at the RHS Garden Wisley in 2009. I will return to that because in 2017, it is a little problematic and raises some interesting questions.

While there were a lot of kniphofia and phlomis in bloom when we visited, this is layered planting to take the garden through the seasons.

The first place we went to on this visit was the Barbican, having read about Nigel Dunnett’s new gardens there.  I have not been to the High Line in New York yet but I am guessing this is something like the smaller London version of that. A planting in a public space one story above the street. It is more about informal herbaceous planting as derived from New Perennials or the new naturalism than prairies or meadows. The new casual take on the classic, colour-toned and graduated herbaceous plantings that used to typify the best of English gardening. Meandering paths and seats through the garden encourage people to get in amongst it, rather than viewing from the side. We thought it was great. Full of movement and colour and more inviting in this day and age. There was no “amenity planting” look to it, although obviously it is in that category.

Mark went looking for evidence of irrigation to save you having to tramp on the garden yourself, should you visit

We were told that there were weight restrictions that reduced the number of substantial trees that could be used on this elevated site. It was also whispered to us a little later that the maintenance is not quite as light as claimed and that a team of volunteers put in work to keep it looking as good as it does. It is surrounded by high density housing and if some of the residents choose to take ownership of this communal space and keep it looking good, that is surely a benefit. Unlike most of the other Sheffield School planting we have seen, the Barbican must have used plants to start with, not seed. It gives a very different effect. Mark went looking to see if it was irrigated and found only the most perfunctory hose so our guess is that it was watered to get it established but the long-term hope is to follow the principle of planting to the conditions and avoiding a reliance on irrigation. How realistic this is with a limited depth of soil remains to be seen.

I have too many photos to post here, so have put an album up on Facebook if you want more details of this Barbican garden and its environs.

Next post is on the Olympic Park plantings. More prairie than New Perennials.

A modern French garden – Le Jardin Plume

The wave hedges at Le Jardin Plume

The surrounding countryside

Le Jardin Plume is a contemporary French garden located about 30 minutes drive from Rouen. To reach it requires driving through flat agricultural land of that area of Normandy, which fascinated us because such land use does not involve fencing. While this is industrial scale cropping, it has a summer charm that our grazing land lacks. I guess you don’t have to fence when the greatest threat is the naughty prime minister across the Channel.

The garden itself is also flat. Very flat, really. The areas closest to the house and allied buildings are intensively planted in a riot of bright summer blooms and foliage, mostly within the constraints of the tightly clipped hedges. Moving beyond that, on the site of an old apple orchard is the modern take on traditional French parterres. Blocks of grassy meadow are defined by tightly mown lawn walkways on an expansive scale across the seven acres. Le Jardin Plume means the feather garden, as evoked by the waving grasses, especially when they go to flower and seed.

Sharp clipping gives definition and contrast to the looser plantings

The garden relies on sharp, clipped green walls to give it structure and very effective that is, too. The wave hedge certainly seems appropriate to what is a new wave garden. It was as wonderful in life as it is in the photographs. There is very little hard landscaping in permanent materials. Arguably, this adds to the charm because there is a softness and energy to the garden that reflects the use of living materials.

Plumes of veronicastrum

Contained within the wave hedging are graceful, tall perennials like veronicastrum, thalictrum and sanguisorbia along with the invaluable grass, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foester’. I particularly like the tracery of these tall plants against the sky and the feeling of walking midst soft, perennial plants that are taller than me. That is one of the advantages of a flat garden – easier framing of the view against the sky. In a world where we have seen the production of ever more compact and dwarf bedding plants best suited to floral clocks, these are like the anti-bedding plant brigade of the perennial world.

The parterres of meadow

Out in the meadow ‘parterres’, the plantings are lower and more naturalistic. Some folk don’t like this whole meadow genre but we do. In spring there are bulbs. In summer, the charms lie in the soft movement and the somewhat random detail of additional plants. Added to that, there is another layer of interest in the wildlife. These areas are teeming with butterflies, bees and a host of lesser admired insect life. They are sustainable eco-systems and this planet needs a whole lot of them. In autumn, the grasses turn golden and seed heads will become a feature before being cut down just the once each year, in October.

Our daughter in the transient white garden at Le Jardin Plume

The informal avenue of tall white perennials must be a transient delight but a delight it was. The perennial is Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ (also known as Chamaenerion angustifolium) but North Americans may know it better as the white form of fireweed while the British call it rosebay willowherb. Small gardens have to work harder throughout the year, but large gardens can accommodate such short term displays of frivolity, if the gardener so decides.

I don’t know if the owners ever ponder the longer term future of their garden (though I would be surprised if they do not). Le Jardin Plume is, I would suggest a garden of our modern times. But if you look at what makes a garden endure down the generations and into subsequent centuries, it is usually the immutable hard landscaping and the handsome long-term trees, along with a notable history and fine, historic buildings. Le Jardin Plume has none of these and is not a big budget garden. None of this is a criticism in any way. Rather, it is a celebration of what can be achieved with vision, enthusiasm, knowledge and hard work even though it is probably a one or two generation garden at most.

Hand weeding the American grass squares

Maybe it was that we identified with the owners, Patrick and Sylvie Quibel, that made us particularly receptive to this garden. We realised quite early on that we were looking at a private garden created by a couple, managed with minimal assistance (I think there is just the one extra pair of hands and we saw him hand weeding), supported by a small nursery adjacent to the garden. Mme Quibel did not speak English and my spoken French is not up to conversational standards, but I would bet money that their hearts are in the garden and the nursery is just a means to an end. It felt like meeting the French equivalent of ourselves and we identified with their endeavours.

Mme Sylvie Quibel – I wished my French was up to a proper conversation

We could not identify with the heat. It was very hot on the day we visited. From there, we drove to Vimoutiers and by the time we reached there, the thermometer outside the pharmacy read 40 degrees. I can assure you that it never gets anywhere near that hot at home. Even the camembert cheese on our evening platter melted before our very eyes.

How pretty is this? The French do that shabby chic look better than anywhere else I have seen.

I have read reviews of this garden which praise this ground level pool that leads the eye out to the expanse of meadow parterres. We all come with different preconceived ideas and I admit I looked at it, admired the form but was worried by the water quality.

Postcards of Normandy

Potted colour in Rouen

One wonders – well, I wonder – if the person who did the sign off in at Rouen’s town council realised the scale of the planters to be installed at that railway station. “Let’s pretty up the area with some potted colour,” I imagine somebody saying. The result was the BIGGEST examples of potted colour that we have seen. Clearly hand watered – Mark checks these things out.

Same city. Not quite like the railway station planters.

Further down towards the River Seine was an example of amenity planting without irrigation. Not even the modern style prairie plantings can get established and flourish without added water. The idea may have been good but most plants bolt to flower and seed when put under extreme stress in an attempt to ensure their continued survival. Much of Europe was experiencing a heat wave when we were there. Both in Italy and in France, locals told us that it most unusual for the temperature to be sitting well into the thirties (Celsius) in June.

Potted colour in Pont-l’Évêque

While on the subject of urban plantings, the planter boxes on the bridge at Pont-l’Évêque made up for their lack of sophistication with exuberance. It was just that we were in Pont-l’Évêque that I thought I would photograph le pont but then I worked out it was in fact les ponts – there were many bridges and I have no idea which one gave its name to the area.

A pharmacy on every corner

Our second daughter joined us in France and it was she who marvelled at the fact there appeared to be a pharmacy, or chemist as we call them, on pretty much every corner in Rouen. Why so many, she asked. I have no idea but it reminded me of a useful skill French pharmacists have. They are trained to identify edible fungi – as in wild collected mushrooms, toadstools and the like. So if you are not sure of the safety of what you have gathered, you can pop in to your friendly local pharmacy. I do not think this is a service offered at our local Waitara chemist’s shop but there are times it would be handy.

We stayed in another Air BnB place in Camembert – in this case a Norman barn that had been converted to a large apartment. Some of the conversion was a little curious but we did not electrocute ourselves and the opportunity to sleep in an adult-sized cradle created from a half cider barrel may never come my way again.

Crouttes, near Vimoutier

The whole area around Camembert and Vimoutiers was extremely charming and picturesque. However, we were puzzled at the lack of the French equivalent of country pubs and eateries and also at the apparent emptiness of many of the villages. I think it comes down to issues of personal space and population density. In areas with very dense housing such as Tivoli and Sermonetta in Italy where we had been a few days previously, everybody comes out of their apartments to socialise on the streets and the plazas, especially as late afternoon meets early evening. In the UK which also has high density housing, people are often out and about. This area of rural Normandy was more like Tikorangi – big personal spaces and homes with land attached. Given the luxury of both indoor and outdoor private space, people stay at home more. At least that is my theory.

The green circle…

We went to a garden. I do not need to name it but it was advertised on the tourist trail. The welcoming sign was perhaps a giveaway that we should not set our expectations too high. What was quite interesting about this garden was that it had all the trappings of a comprehensive modern garden – the romantic rose garden, the new perennials garden, a “Japanese” garden, a productive kitchen garden, a traditional, medieval physic garden that harked back to the magnificent old buildings that gave the place its structure, even the enclosed green circle or rondel garden such as can be seen at Sissinghurst and many imitators. It was all there. Sort of. What was missing were gardening skills and flair. Particularly gardening skills. And any eye for detail. There is a lesson there somewhere.

Posted withour comment – the Japanese garden from the aforementioned garden.

The fruit of the mandrake! Mandragora officinarum, to be botanical. This is not something one sees often. It is apparently the root that is harvested for whatever purpose one harvests mandrake, but the fruit are certainly eye-catching too. I think it was in the physic garden.

La Plume! Romantic summer France

Next post will be the summer glory that is La Plume, a modern French garden in a country better known for its historic gardens than modern innovation.

I found the hollyhocks!

Five years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “But where are the hollyhocks?”. Occasionally a garden visitor sears him or herself on the brain and on this particular occasion, a gentleman came out from our garden and asked that very question, declaring that he could not find any hollyhocks. I have never forgotten because it was such a bizarre question. Until that point, it had never occurred to me that anybody might regard a garden as seriously deficient for the want of some hollyhocks. We failed that test.

When our children were young and had their own little gardens, one of them at least grew a few hollyhocks. But in our humid climate, the foliage gets ugly rust and if the flower spikes are not staked, they are inclined to fall over. They have not felt like a core plant for us.

But we found the hollyhocks in London. An entire block of them growing wild. This was part of the Olympic Village plantings. Most of these plantings were prairie-flavoured while hollyhocks are pretty much traditional cottage-garden plants. This may be why they were kept separate and all on their lonesome. They made us smile. I am only guessing that the other plants like the mullein and Verbena bonariensis have introduced themselves to the hollyhock party.

The Olympic Park plantings are five or six years old now because the London Olympics were held in 2012. There has clearly been a light hand at most on maintenance. More on the current delight of these naturalistic plantings soon.

As a postscript, once we had our eye in for hollyhocks, we kept seeing them in the south of England, seeded down and naturalised by motorways as well as on traffic islands and on street verges. There is no shortage of hollyhocks there. Mark is now very tempted by some of the buff shades, if he can find the seed.

Mostly Villas d’Este and Adriana – Postcards of Italy 2.

This Italy actually exists

Cliched though this scene may appear, it is not contrived. I just came across the view as we walked from Villa Adriana to the nearest coffee shop five minutes up the road. We wanted our morning caffeine hit before we tramped the ruins. Not only were there red poppies growing wild in the barley crop, the blue chicory and white convolvulus (field bindweed) were flowering alongside the stone wall that edged the road. I probably laughed out loud in delight.

Villa d’Este in Tivoli is known worldwide as one of the great Italian gardens. Built by The Man Who Would be Pope to compensate his thwarted ambition, it dates back to 1560. It was grand then. It is still grand today and water features throughout. His land excavations to achieve this garden would have put Capability Brown into the shade.

Formal but not strictly symmetrical at Villa d’Este

We have looked at some of the great Italian gardens on previous visits and had come to the conclusion that it is the settings, the hard landscaping – particularly the stonework – the history, the handling of space and proportions and the symmetry that makes these gardens endure as monuments to wealth, power and sometimes grace down the centuries. It is not so much to do with the plants or the maintenance. In a moment of profundity, as we walked through Villa d’Este, I noted that the symmetry is achieved through repetition, not through slavish measurement. It is that repetition and symmetry on a large scale that makes them so pleasing to the eye.

Attention to detail is not a strong point in Italian garden maintenance. Plants are not required to be immaculate. Irrigation hoses are often visible. It is okay to have plastic pots visible inside the terracotta pots. Water quality can leave a lot to be desired. Lawns are impossible in their climate. Some coarse grass kept green by watering is the best that one can hope for. The big picture is what matters. But, should you have grand visions of creating an “Italian-style” garden at home in New Zealand, maybe be aware that there is not one skerrick of tanalised timber – be they posts or plywood edgings or pergola beams – in any of these originals. Personally, I do not think that you can be Italianate or even Italianesque and use undisguised tanalised timber as a substitute for stone and terracotta. Ditto modern ‘dragonstone’ urns. And imposing suburban New Zealand values of pristine maintenance and velvet lawns takes such gardens even further away from the originals.

The straw broom brought a smile to our faces. Regular readers may remember me posting about the making of these in China.  Sometimes there is a charm to old ways. Besides, as Mark points out, these brooms work very well. Our first ever visit to Italy was back in the early 2000s when we went on an IDS tour of northern Italian gardens. It was there we first saw the widespread use of leaf blowers and came home and bought one. These days, Mark is using ours less and less. He is a bit of a purist, our Mark, and has become concerned at how dependent we have become on the internal combustion engine to maintain the garden.  If somebody would just make him a few straw brooms, he would be a happy man.

I am sure it takes a great deal of work to look like a modern-day princess, even more so when the temperature is over 30 Celsius and the location requires walking down and then up hundreds of steps. Mark noted that she was also behaving like a princess – the one with the pea under the mattress. I couldn’t possibly comment. Even when I was considerably younger, I do not think I ever managed the princess look.

Real life nymphs at Villa d’Este

I preferred the real-life nymphs. It transpired they were American art students doing an art history semester in Italy. Mark discreetly walked past them as they sketched and reported that they were extremely competent at drawing.

Villa Adriana – just one small view of a huge complex

Villa Adriana surprised us by its scale. It is the Emperor Hadrian’s retreat dating back to 200AD. The word villa encompasses a range of building styles and scale in Italy. The one at Villa d’Este is more akin to a palace. Villa Adriana is an entire small city of largely unrestored ruins encompassing about 250 acres. What is more, you can walk amongst them. I found a Roman toilet and an ancient olive grove that was simply astonishing. More on the olive grove another time. This was the Roman empire but it had an air of abandoned desolation even today, as though the tourist plans and archaeological aspirations of even a few years ago had fallen on hard times.

There was a fair amount of statuary of the armless, legless and formerly white variety but I think most of it was more recent reproduction already in decay. Much of the surviving, original statuary and marble had been raided 500 years ago by Cardinal Ippolito ll d’Este and relocated to his nearby pad but we did not know this when we went around Villa d’Este.

The wildflowers in the ruins of Adriana had a simple charm. In those drought-like conditions, the spring rains must bring a short-lived surge of germination and growth. The plants shoot straight into flower but conditions prevent them becoming invasive problems.

Finally, fields of sunflowers on the road to Ninfa. All facing the wrong way for the picture book image with the house and hills behind. Viewed from the other side, we lost the landscape context.

The light is so different in Italy

Quaker Mason, the magnolia and our maunga

 

The magnolia and the maunga from our garden in Tikorangi

In the heart of wintry July, M. campbellii is the first magnolia to open and promises the delight of a new spring. At least, that is when our tree blooms. All the tarseal and concrete in the central city of New Plymouth lifts the temperature and the cluster of trees in the Huatoki Reserve by Powderham Street open their first flowers in June, before they have even shed all their autumn foliage.

For the past two Julys, I have spent more time than I should have taking photos of our tree against the snow-capped peak of Mount Taranaki. The magnolia and the maunga, I call the series. There is a distance of maybe 40 km or so between the two so this is right at the limits of both the zoom on my camera and my technical skills but I keep trying for the perfect image without having to resort to cheating with filters and the computer.

M. campbellii in the grounds of the Church of St John Baptist in Waitara

When I look at my photo file on campbellii, I have a series of trees framed against backgrounds – one in our local town of Waitara against the spire of the Church of St John the Baptist, a specimen at Tupare garden with the backdrop of the rushing Waiwhakaiho River, the aforementioned Powderham Street specimens against a carpark building, even one on Mount Baotai, framed by Chinese roof lines. I think what drives me is the effort to capture the spirit of over the top, gorgeous flowers appearing in a winter landscape.

Quaker Mason form

Magnolia campbellii is one of the oldest varieties in New Zealand. It dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century and was sold commercially by Duncan and Davies as early as 1915. Before you rush out to buy one, you need to be aware that this species can take many years before it sets flower buds and ultimately grows into a very large tree. Its early season blooming also makes it vulnerable to frost damage in cooler parts of the country. If you are only going to plant one magnolia, maybe look to one of the more recent hybrids, although M. campbellii itself belongs in any collection. Our specimen here was one of the first trees planted in our park by Mark’s father, Felix, in the early 1950s.

The pink campbellii is the most common in Taranaki where the majority are the particularly good ‘Quaker-Mason form’. It is traced back to Thomas Mason (commonly referred to as Quaker Mason, on account of him being a Quaker), a prominent Wellington horticulturist who arrived as a new settler in 1841 and had a huge influence through until the end the century. But the pink that we take as the norm here, is in fact not at all common in the wild where most campbelliis are white. Apparently our pink originated in Darjeeling – an area better known for its tea in India’s north east.

M. campbellii on Mount Baotai in south west China, with Chinese powerlines

Overall, M. campbellii has a wide natural distribution. It grows from eastern Nepal, across Sikkim and Assam into south western China and down to northern Burma. We were thrilled to see a plant on Mount Baotai in China last year, even though its pale pink blooms showed it to be a pretty average form of the species. We couldn’t tell if it was naturally occurring or had been moved into its current position, as the modern Chinese are wont to do.

The white form at Tupare

We don’t have a white M. campbellii in our garden so I had to head to Tupare Garden in New Plymouth to photograph their mature specimen that dates back to the late 1940s or early 50s. The blooms have a curious green flush at the juvenile stage but the tree is not a strong growing, distinctive form. It is not a patch on all the pink Quaker-Mason specimens around but there will be other white forms available in New Zealand.

These are all Magnolia campbellii var. campbellii. The other popular form of the same species, known as Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata, originates from areas further to the east and flowers several weeks later. Our fine specimen of purple ‘Lanarth’ (or Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’, to be pedantic) will not flower until halfway into August.

First published in the July issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

 

The pink campbellii at Tupare with the rushing river beyond

Two footnotes:

The word maunga means mountain in the Maori language. In Taranaki, where the presence of our beautiful maunga (Mount Taranaki) is a defining element for all who live here, the word maunga is often used in preference to the English word.

The blue skies are indeed genuine. We have a clarity and intensity of light here all year round, even in mid winter. Though it must be said that not every day in winter has blue skies!

Postcards of Italy

The reflecting pool at La Torrecchia

While the visit to Ninfa was the reason that took us to the area around Latina, south of Rome, we were also fortunate to get to the nearby garden of La Torrecchia. It, too, is created around the ruins of a medieval village, though a smaller one than Ninfa. It is a much more recent garden, dating back to 1991, and it remains gardening on a private, domestic scale. Much of the design can be attributed to the English landscaper, Dan Pearson, whose style interests us a great deal. While this is early Pearson (dating back almost 25 years now), the reflecting pool above is his work. Surrounded by a riot of self-sown seedlings, it was a delight.

The cork oak, Quercus suber

In New Zealand, it is rare to see a wine bottle with a cork these days and most of those will be plastic. This is the land of the stelvin screw top closure. But I give you the curious cork oak, Quercus suber. This fine specimen is in the garden of La Torrecchia. The switch to screw tops has done much to relieve the pressure on these trees which had, apparently resulted in too many inferior corks. It is a curious fact that many restaurants here still pour a mouthful of wine to be sampled by the patron when, as I understand it, this tradition came about because of wine being tainted by the original cork.

The cork dog kennel stood by the gardener’s cottage at La Torrecchia. Whether a resident dog lives in it remains a mystery but I can tell you that we saw a big as, bigly even, huge hornet fly into the cork. We don’t have hornets at home, let alone these scary specimens. If I was a dog, I would be refusing to share my quarters with a hornet like that.

It is always a slightly strange feeling to encounter one of our plants across the world so I made Mark pose by the specimen of Magnolia Atlas in La Torrecchia. This one was bred by his father, Felix, and it felt very personal that there was a little bit of Tikorangi even in an Italian garden.

Mark beside Atlas at La Torrecchia

Kiwi fruit (actinidia) may have originated in China but we pretty much claim them as our own in NZ. And the commercial product now bears little resemblance to the wild species in their native habitat. It is one of our horticultural stars and a linchpin of our economy. So we were more than a little surprised to see the extent of kiwifruit plantings in Italy. Apparently it is now greater than in this country and a fair acreage of it was in the area around Cisterna di Latina. It is all irrigated which may prove interesting in the future if water becomes an issue.

Vast kiwi fruit plantations in Italy

At the local supermarket in Tivoli, we saw fruit being sold. So I can tell you that the green kiwifruit imported from Chile retailed at 2.99 euros a kilo (Haywards variety). The Zespri Green variety grown in Italy retailed at 4.99 euros a kilo while Zespri Gold sourced from New Zealand was 5.99 euros a kilo (which is a little over $9NZ a kilo). We did not buy any, preferring the big beautiful cherries we could buy at the morning market in Tivoli for a little less than that price.

 

Gardening in the old town of Tivoli

We used Air BnB on line to book most of our accommodation and this proved a huge success for us. In Tivoli, we had a charming one bedroomed, full self-contained apartment with a large garden, right in the heart of the old town.  All this for just over $70 a night which seemed astonishingly good value to us. Just down the road from us was this apartment which clearly lacked any outdoor space so the owner could only garden around her door. I always find the urge to grow plants in the most constrained circumstances affirming. At the same time, I felt a twinge of shame and sadness that I doubt such a publicly exposed private garden would even survive in the country I call home. It is more likely that the pots would be smashed and the plants vandalised within days. Or stolen. Sometimes I wonder how civilised we really are.

I give you the inquisitive man to whom I am married. He does like to look closely. In this case, he was interested in the construction of the bamboo door to the tool shed that he spotted at Ninfa. The bamboo will have been harvested from their own plantations in the garden and are a creative solution to crafting a door to fit a non-standard entry which likely dates back to the Middle Ages when the buildings of this town were largely constructed. I hasten to add, the door was left open. Mark may inspect but does not usually pry.

The bamboo grove at Ninfa, not unlike our own one.

Looking back at the entrance way to La Torrecchia, also built around the ruins of a small medieval village