Tag Archives: Ayrlies

Auckland Heroic gardens. Part one (of two)

My impetus for heading to Auckland last week was to enjoy the final Heroic Garden Festival. After 23 years, this was to be the end of this successful fundraiser, in its current form at least. It is always interesting to look at other people’s gardens, even if they garden in a totally different environment and style. These were predominantly small urban gardens in a densely populated city, which usually means very close neighbours.

I will just offer you edited highlights, starting with this tiny garden (well, tiny by my standards) where the backyard pool was both pretty and thoughtfully constructed. In a very tight space where the water feature is within the outdoor entertaining area, safety is an issue and that outer decorative grill should give warning to most guests who may take a backward step without looking.

I am always interested to see where the work and service areas are contained in small gardens. One of the aspects of growing many plants in containers that is rarely shown on TV is that a work area for repotting is needed. I nodded approvingly at this one – attractive but functional and pleasant to use.

I failed entirely to find the work area for this garden although I think I read on their information sheet that it is screened from view out the back somewhere. I wish I had spotted it because I would have liked to have seen what the scale and set-up was. The very bright light conditions and crowds of people mitigated against getting photos that do justice to this garden which is a pity because it was a truly remarkable example of a garden of obsession. Whether I like it or not (and it was not my style at all) is gloriously irrelevant. I was in awe at the scale and the attention to detail. It was absolutely immaculate down to every last plant – the vast majority of which are in pots. Anything that looks a little marked or ‘off’ is clearly whipped out the back and replaced with a healthy substitute. It is all hand-watered, by owners who understand the differing water needs of each and every plant. It is also vibrantly colourful.

It would not be out of place in the book ‘Gardens of Obsession’ , which reminds me that I must find our copy and have another look at it.  There was a single-minded focus and clarity of vision in painting with bromeliads that made this garden quite remarkable in its own way, along with a cultural heritage that reflects our growing connection with Asia as much as Auckland. I was unconvinced by the description of it in the programme as being ‘low maintenance’ and ‘family-friendly’. Yes, it is a private, family garden, a suburban section in Pakuranga, and has a pool out the back but I do not think anyone can attain this level of attention to detail and painting with plants without considerable effort and skill. It is open by appointment if you want to be amazed.  Just suspend all preconceptions and personal preferences as you enter.

The waterfall is now the main visitor entrance and has nestled into its setting as the trees have grown

From there, we headed out to ‘Ayrlies’, Bev McConnell’s renowned garden, which could not be more different. I have been there several times before but not for quite a while. For us, it is an interesting comparator, being of a similar size and scale to how we garden but created and maintained with a larger budget and more gardening staff. The highlight of this garden for me, personally, remains the taxodiums by the bottom pond with their wonderful nubbly protrusions referred to as knees.

The nubbly growths in the centre of the photograph are usually referred to as knees

We have extensive experience in opening our own garden in the past (over 20 years of it, in fact) and I have amassed a fair amount of experience in garden visiting over the years – more than Mark who is happy to stay at home and look at my photos on my return. We used to get driven nuts at garden-opener meetings when owners of small, city gardens would declare: “People like to see small gardens that they can relate to.” I can still hear the inimitable Biddy Barrett retorting, “That is what people say to you in your garden. Nobody has ever said that to me in our garden,” because Biddy and Russ had a very large garden.

Whimsy at Ayrlies and given the context and the event, I feel personal opinion is irrelevant. They will make some people smile while others may raise their eyebrows.

If you only ever go to see gardens that relate to your own garden at home in size and scale, if you only see garden visiting as an exercise in purloining other people’s ideas to apply to your own patch, then you miss out on so much. I would have missed out on the immaculate exuberance of the Pakuranga bromeliad garden. Many of you would miss out on the varied experiences of Ayrlies.

I include the pink and yellow specifically for loyal reader Marge M H, she who likes the colour combination whereas, were it my garden, I would be removing either the rudbeckia or the pink belladonnas from this scene

Ayrlies, by Beverley McConnell

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.