Category Archives: Garden book reviews

Abbie’s book reviews

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.

Contemporary Gardens of New Zealand by Carol Bucknell, photography by Sally Tagg

Twenty three gardens by twenty one New Zealand designers – this book has certainly prompted a great deal of discussion here over the past couple of weeks. There is a heavy bias towards high budget properties with stunning views in or around Auckland, often with hard-edged modern, architecturally designed houses. The response is dominated by hard edged, angular gardens, pared back planting schemes largely stripped of colour and heavily dominated by native plants. Water features and swimming pools abound, usually with wet edges of the infinity style (so that the body of water melds into the sky or sea in front) and sometimes with the water lapping at the walls of the house. Generally, there is little evidence that the property owners want to garden themselves. Most want an exterior which will complement their homes, their lifestyle and, apparently, the environmental context of the property.

Two things stop this book from being any more than one for the coffee table book. One is the absence of critique or interpretative commentary. It is a showcase presentation of a narrow selection of modern NZ garden design. The second is the actual design of the book. Unfortunately, the decision was made not to caption the photographs. This of course gives a very clean, some might say contemporary, look to the book but it is not a lot of help to the reader. This is even more so where four photographs are placed on a page with no borders separating the images. We know they are artsy because sometimes one or two are in black and white and sometimes they are cropped so heavily that you are not even sure what the detail that is shown is. Sometimes features referenced in the text are not illustrated in the photographs and it takes frequent flicking backwards and forwards to try and match text to photograph. Given the calibre of the photographer, this almost certainly comes back to the book designer, as does the photo selection.

From the point of view of the reader and given the reportage style of most of the writing, showcasing the photographs with extended captions instead of wodges of descriptive journey around the properties might have integrated text and illustration better.

Sally Tagg is vastly experienced in garden and plant photography. She doesn’t cut corners and the photography throughout is of a very high standard. The author, Carol Bucknell, has faithfully recorded each garden and gives the landscaper’s framework for the decisions behind the design and construction of each. It makes an attractive coffee table book but is unlikely to contribute much to the garden history of NZ.

Contemporary Gardens of New Zealand by Carol Bucknell, photography by Sally Tagg. (Penguin; ISBN: 978 0143 56694 6).

For more thoughts on the topic, related more to the ideas than the book, check out: Modernist gardening, modern gardens and contemporary design

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

Yates Garden Problem Solver

This is a handy reference book for diagnosing many common problems in the garden, predominantly of the pest or disease variety. It is reasonably comprehensive though not encyclopaedic. Each ailment is given a brief description, usually with a clear illustration, and then advice for dealing with it or avoiding the problem happening again. I like the fact the illustrations are paintings, not photographs because it gives a much clearer picture. I also like the fact that not every recommended treatment involves buying a Yates product. So when spinach bolts to seed prematurely, the advice is that this can be caused by long days, summer temperatures, dry conditions and overcrowding. Sow summer spinach (well, ‘Summer Supreme’ actually – presumably one of Yates’ own). There is a fair amount of handy general information which is not commercially driven, though the organic section is pretty perfunctory. That said, we are talking an interventionist approach to gardening and where products are recommended, they are branded Yates products – it is their book after all. We double checked the ingredients of branded sprays and the in-house expert here gave the advice a general thumbs up for accuracy. I am a bit suspect about spraying cheap annuals like pansies and hollyhocks. I am more of the view that you rip out diseased plants and try a different strategy with replacements but if you are an older style gardener who reaches for the sprayer at the drop of a hat, at least you will have a diagnosis and know which spray to use.

The book is well laid out, easy to use and has a strong plastic cover which is a fair indication that it is designed for repeated reference. It is aimed at the average gardener, not the expert, and will be a handy book for many gardeners to keep within reach. You can of course use it to diagnose problems without having to follow the treatment advice if you are not happy with the use of fungicides and insecticides.

Yates Garden Problem Solver (Harper Collins; ISBN: 978 186950 981 1) Reviewed by Abbie Jury.

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

The Illustrated Guide to Ducks and Geese and other Domestic Fowl

This is intended as a reference book but is actually the most delightful coffee table book I have seen in a while, even for people who have no plans to raise ducks, geese, guineafowl, peafowl, quail or turkeys on their piece of land. That is because all the illustrations, of which there are a generous number, are charming watercolour paintings, many of which might be lovely framed on the wall. One could describe them as the avian equivalent of botanical art in that they aim for accuracy.

The supporting text is interesting, user friendly and well organised. There is information on each type of bird (including profiles and illustrations on a whole lot of different ducks and geese – who knew there were so many?) with guidelines on good practice for rearing them at home to eating stage. We have resident quail in our garden which delight us, as do our resident wild ducks so I am less motivated by the food production side. But of course these birds have long been part of the human diet and it is sentimental to eat chicken while waxing eloquent on the charm of more beauteous members of the ornithological population. I am not experienced or qualified to pass comment on the quality of the advice beyond saying that it looks credible, is based on experience, has references for further research if required and there certainly looks to be good information to get you started. It includes a chart on common ailments from bumblefoot through avian flu to scaly leg and more. It is a quality hardback from an English author and publisher and I will be keeping my review copy because it is such an attractive and engaging book. There are earlier companion titles on chickens (more our style) and pigs.

The Illustrated Guide to Ducks and Geese and other Domestic Fowl by Celia Lewis. (Bloomsbury; ISBN: 978 1 4081 5264 5)

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

Garden Tours. A Visitor’s Guide to 50 Top New Zealand Gardens

The first thing I did on receiving what claims to be a garden visitor guide was to look at the contents to see who was included. There were some… ‘interesting’ inclusions and indeed exclusions. The entire east coast from Hawkes Bay to Poverty Bay has been bypassed.

The second thing I noticed is that a number of the public gardens got to write their own text which seemed an interesting authorial and editorial decision in what purports to be a guidebook – ergo independent.

Five minutes. It took just five minutes of dipping in to the book to realise that at times the author was writing about places she had not visited. I phoned a few friends whose gardens are included and they confirmed that she had never been there, a point not disputed by the publisher when queried. She carried out interviews by long distance phone calls and email from her UK base. No matter how hard you try (and the author has worked hard on this book) you can only tell so much from photographs and it was her failure to get to grips with matters of scale and proportion that alerted me to the fact she had only ever seen photos of some of the gardens at least.

In fact if you read the intro, the starting point for the book was the photo library of UK photographer, Steven Wooster. The author also makes the telling comment: “…each (garden owner) has approved the text written about their garden”. So much for independent commentary, then. It is still a mystery to me how she can write over 2000 words (10 pages including photos) on some gardens which I suspect she may never have seen in person. Others are much briefer – presumably the owners were less forthcoming on the phone.

So, had we been approached to have our garden included in this book, how would we have responded, knowing that the author had never visited? We would probably have agreed. What is not to like about free publicity written with the appearance of great authority when you even get to approve the text before publication?

The photographs are patchy. Some are lovely. Too many are not, where the light and shade are all wrong and the shadows too deep. Some of the selections fail to give a full picture of the garden and some fail to connect with the text – a problem which results from using existing photos as the starting point. I recognised some photos from earlier use in other publications.

The bottom line is that this book should have been called: “Fifty NZ Gardens I Have Visited” by Steven Wooster (he at least did visit all of them) with Michele Hickman. To publish it as a visitor guide is outrageous. Would you expect to buy a guide to 50 top restaurants where the author had not visited them all but had written the text and had it approved by the restaurant proprietors? Of course you wouldn’t. The same goes for 50 Top Wines or 50 Top B&Bs. So why would you want to pay $49.99 for this one on gardens?

Does it matter? Well, yes it does if I can pick it up within five minutes of starting to look at the book. And saddest of all, was the resigned acceptance I heard from some other garden owners. “It shouldn’t happen, but I guess it does.” Why do we settle for so much less when it comes to garden writing?


The author writes of one garden that it “… stands as a welcome rest from the sometimes anxious quest to make the definitive New Zealand garden, spurning the temptation (italics mine) to realise its European formal outline in native plants and minimising the contrast (or compromise) of English garden style which marries informality with formality.”

That passage is certainly packed with judgements. I have yet to find myself surrounded by angst-ridden gardeners frantically clipping, shaping and pleaching native plants. Cos, like, that’s just such a cliché these days, innit? Can there really ever be such a thing as a definitive New Zealand garden? Many might think that softening the austerity of a stark formal garden is a considerable enhancement, not a compromise. And is the only English style that is to be acknowledged the Arts and Crafts genre? English gardening embraces so much more. How about Capability Brown and landscape gardening on a grand scale? Woodland gardening? Naturalistic gardening?

Of another: “… a garden which showcases the genre with brio. The entranceway… announces the dramatic change of register to full-on subtropicalia.” Subtropicalia? Really? I admit I thought brio was a typo until I googled it – a musical term denoting vibrancy. Or something.

I have been to both these gardens. I wonder if the author has.

Garden Tours. A Visitor’s Guide to 50 Top New Zealand Gardens by Michele Hickman, photography by Steven Wooster. (Random House; ISBN: 978 1 86979 992 2) Reviewed by Abbie Jury