Category Archives: Garden book reviews

Dig Deeper by Meredith Kirton

dig-deeperThe subtitle of this book is “ Seasonal, sustainable Australian gardening” and therein lies a problem which I do not think the distributors, Allen and Unwin, understand. While only three hours away by jet, Australian gardening might as well be a world away. It is different in so many ways that it is difficult to understand how a publisher might think that it is appropriate to claim this book as “the definitive gardening manual for the modern gardener” in New Zealand. It isn’t.

To be brutal, it is not likely to be a definitive manual for Australians either. We left this book sitting on the table for a week, browsing it in passing on frequent occasions and every time both of us came to the same conclusions – this is the most random collection of gardening information we have ever seen in a book. I think the reason why it seems random is that both author and editor lack sufficient technical expertise to make the decisions on sifting information. Mark couldn’t get over the referencing of obscure camellia species like C. amplexicaulis and C. assimilis. I was surprised to see the better part of a page promoting Cornus mas as a fruiting cherry substitute without a single mention of either taste or yield. Given it seems to like similar growing conditions, why wouldn’t you grow a good Black Dawson cherry instead? Then there are the sweeping statements, for example on growing mushrooms and fungi at home: “…more of the exotic Asian types, such as shiitake and oyster, coming on the market daily.” Daily? Oh really? If you want to know how to grow these, buy a mushroom kit and then all you need is a cool, dark place. That is the advice.

This is a big book and it must have taken a great deal of work by the author. There are many photos though most are small and of patchy quality. It is eclectic rather than definitive. Its recommended retail price in New Zealand is $75 so it is expensive. Despite the fact we have two gardening daughters living in Australia, I do not think I will be carting this book over to them. With only 10kg baggage allowance, there are other items I would rather be taking.

Dig Deeper by Meredith Kirton. (Murdoch Books; ISBN: not given).

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Backyard Bees, A guide for the beginner beekeeper

backyard-beesI just read that a report to our Parliament set the contribution of bees to the New Zealand economy at $5.1 billion dollars. It is a bit sad that we have to put a dollar value on something to give it gravitas because actually bees are essential to the pollination of a very large number of crops we grow and a vital part of eco-systems but they are struggling in our modern world. Increasing numbers of people are looking to keep a hive or two in their back yard in an attempt both to make a difference and to harvest honey at home.

I have spoken to a professional beekeeper who finds it quite distressing to be called in to help with badly managed home hives. This is not an activity for the well meaning but naive enthusiast who thinks one can do it with little knowledge or support. Much can go wrong, including the death of the bees.

Will this book help? Yes and no. It is an Australian book so conditions are not the same. Indeed on page 12, the author says: “Australians are very lucky. At the time of writing Australia is the only country in the world without varroa mite and colony collapse disorder.” Don’t expect any advice on dealing with these. Varroa mite is a major issue in New Zealand.

This is a book written by a genuine enthusiast with an engaging writing style. Chapters cover hive location, equipment, beekeeping in each season, general management and maintaining bee health so there is some good generic information which is transferable. It is just not a complete reference of all you need to know and should not be treated as such. Just to back up the lifestyle genre, the final chapter has recipes using honey and beeswax.

If you are serious about keeping beehives, you will need more local information and additional resources. If you are more of a dilettante, you may enjoy reading this book while deciding that you will delay any commitment to getting your own hive and plant flowers to feed other people’s foraging bees in the meantime.

Backyard Bees, A guide for the beginner beekeeper by Doug Purdie. (Murdoch Books; ISBN: 978 1743361719)

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

100 best native plants for New Zealand gardens by Fiona Eadie

9781775536512If this book looks a little familiar, it is because it is a new edition of one first published in 2001, updated in 2008 and again for 2014. It is a handy book, not comprehensive because it only covers 100, but many are varieties of native plants that you may want to know about. Credit to both author and book designer for having a flexible approach where the sections on each plant can vary in length rather than dumbing the content down to fit a formulaic lay-out of the style seen in recipe books.

The author is head gardener at Larnach Castle in Dunedin and a passionate advocate for using our native flora. Her information is useful. Plants are given their botanical name, Maori name (which is often the name we use most widely) and any common names. General information is given about each plant – identification, location in the wild, important botanical information such as whether both male and female are required, followed by handy info on using these plants including preferred garden situation, pests and problems, landscaping suggestions, a short list of some different cultivars available and related species. There is plenty of information, delivered in a user-friendly form. All plants are photographed, though the photography is a bit patchy in quality.

If you have earlier editions of this book, the 2008 version changed 17 plants from the 2001 edition and this one changed a further 16 plants so it is about one third of new content over the original. I notice the price has not changed in the six years since the mid edition. The only thing that really annoyed me is the sales hype on the back cover (for which the author has no responsibility). “An expert guide to the top 100 New Zealand native plants…” it trumpets. What a cheapening effect one word can have. Not “THE top”. It is “an expert guide to 100 top plants”. There is a difference.

100 best native plants for New Zealand gardens by Fiona Eadie. (Random House; ISBN:978 1 77 553 651 2).

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

The Essential Plant Guide

???????????????????????????????The subtitle of this large book is “Every plant you need for your garden” and the cover, presumably generated specifically for the NZ market by the publisher and the NZ distributor, New Holland, boldly states “For New Zealand Gardeners”. It isn’t. The authors are Australian and American and the text has not been adapted for NZ conditions which are very different. Including plants like meconopsis (which will seed down and naturalise, don’t you know?) and trilliums as great garden plant options is problematic. There are reasons why you don’t see many crepe myrtles (lagerstroemia) growing in this country (they need hot, dry summers) and cornus are not great in the mild north and mid north. Arisaemas – we know quite a bit about arisaemas here. A. sikokianum is incredibly difficult to keep going as a garden plant but that is at least better than the recommendations for some which we think aren’t even in this country. Recommended camellia and rhododendron varieties are often (mostly?) ones more popular in the authors’ home countries and are not the NZ market choices. I would not be sure that they have all been imported to NZ, let alone in production.

It is a nice looking book which runs to over 800 pages. There is a double page spread on most genus, cheapened by the ubiquitous “Top Tips” which sometimes aren’t. The organisation into sections (trees, shrubs, fruit trees, cacti and succulents, orchids etc) makes it a little clumsy to use. Ferns are lumped with palms and cycads.

The bottom line is that a book for NZ conditions would take into account what performs here and what is available here. This is just a generic plant reference book with no specific application to gardening in this country.

The Essential Plant Guide by Tony Rodd and Kate Bryant (Global Book Publishing; ISBN: 978 1 74048 035 2).

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Big Ideas for Small Gardens – Clever ways to enhance New Zealand outdoor spaces

003While I am a big garden specialist, I recognise that the allotted outdoor space for most people is getting ever smaller and tiny urban sections, teensy courtyards or even a balcony is now the lot for many. This is an excellent book of ideas for those who want to make the most of turning small outdoor areas into attractive living spaces.

The photography was always going to be high quality because it is by Sally Tagg, one of our most professional garden photographers and stylists. Unlike their previous joint venture (Contemporary Gardens of New Zealand), all photographs are now fully captioned and the book has the usual good production values one expects from Penguin. There is a bit of contrived urban chic and big budget show-garden stuff going on, but not too much.

What sets this book apart is the sure hand of the author. She is a fund of information for the DIY enthusiast, rendering into simple language the strategies for gaining privacy, blurring the tight boundaries, avoiding an over-stuffed parlour outdoors, how much space you need around your outdoor dining setting, getting shelter, even managing an edible garden in a tight space. It is all about design principles relayed at a thoroughly practical, hands-on level. I was won over as soon as I read: “To create more unity, consider painting …. (pretty much all vertical surfaces) the same colour, or colour tones.” The italics are mine but that was a light bulb moment. Instead of the obvious technique of using one colour everywhere, the subtle change of tone can give complexity without clutter. There is plenty of that type of useful advice along with a wide range of different ideas.

The Plant Directory chapter is the weakest aspect of the book. Essentially, it contains lists of recommended plants which are random, decidedly eclectic and often best suited to gardens in the warmer north – Auckland, really. The author’s skills lie more in the design and planning stages than in the wider world of plants. Those 17 pages might have been more usefully given over to the conundrum of the washing line, the compost bin, hiding the wheelie bin and recycling bins, managing taps and hosepipes and general storage solutions. These mundane matters have to be accommodated in some manner and with good planning there must be ways to minimise the visual impact without sacrificing practicality. I felt it was a wasted opportunity because I suspect the author has more to suggest in this area than in plant lists.

Despite that reservation, this book as a really useful resource for people struggling with ideas on how best to utilise small spaces to create something both practical and aesthetically pleasing, life-enhancing even.

Big Ideas for Small Gardens – Clever ways to enhance New Zealand outdoor spaces by Carol Bucknell, photography by Sally Tagg (Penguin; ISBN: 978 0 143 56884 1).

First published by Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.