Tag Archives: contemporary gardens

White gardens for the new age

I have only seen the white garden at Sissinghurst once and, to be honest, it did not inspire me at the time. I need to go and have a second look but certainly leading English landscape designer, Dan Pearson’s comments on white gardens in general and Sissinghurst in particular, rang true for me. “Too many whites together in one space”, he wrote. Vita Sackville West called it her ‘grey, green and white garden’. Maybe over the years, more attention had been given to the white flowers at the expense of grey and green tones?  Or maybe it was just the sheer size of it and the tight constraint of all those neatly clipped hedges and edgers that did not inspire me. And the memories of all the customers I met in the trendy nineties, mostly of the Ladies Who Lunch brigade, buying plants for their white gardens. There must have been an awful lot of such gardens going into aspirational New Zealand real estate back then.

Sissinghurst white garden from the tower on our one and only visit in 2009

I opened my heart more to the contemporary white gardens we saw on our recent trip.  The Sissinghurst model is not the only style and it is now an historic garden from a different era. Too often the reinterpretations of Sissinghurst White can be stiff and contrived, relying mostly on clipping and rigid shrubs. Such style is not ‘timeless’. The original is historic. The copies and reinterpretations are more likely to be ‘dated’.

The white entrance to the functions barn at Bury Court. Eagle-eyed purists may note the touch of pink in Lilium regale

Bury Court,  south of London had a big wedding market – and the best setup I have ever seen to accommodate weddings and functions without compromising the essentially private nature of the garden and its residence. It was entirely appropriate that the small garden at the entry to the functions centre (a converted barn of some antiquity and great style) be white. So too were there white feature plants in strategic places which allowed for photos, but these were integrated in wider contexts of colour. The emphasis at Bury Court was on contemporary plantings of frothy or bold  perennials and grasses.

The white avenue of Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy was an ephemeral affair – a good photo opportunity, Mark calls such plantings. Spectacular, the essence of simplicity and of brief duration, but no less charming for that on the day.


The white border at Parham

Parham House had a white border, too. Here the context was one of colour controlled, contemporary, herbaceous borders. These were generous borders, both wide and long, one in blues and another in yellows while others were mixes of hot colours. There was also rather a lot of white statuary. Similar to the smaller white garden at Bury Court, Parham’s white border is a summer feature of voluminous perennials – soft, full and lush.


Simplicity at La Torrecchia

La Torrecchia, near the more famous Ninfa Gardens south of Rome, was an early Dan Pearson garden and showed a restrained use of white plants. The artfully simple self-seeding plants in the full light at the back of the villa were mostly white or grey and a delightful example of understated charm. I liked even more that the pale blue chicory was allowed to remain. The white purist would have pulled it out for failing to conform to the colour requirement but it added to the simple charm. There were plenty of white flowering plants used at La Torrecchia but not in the formal, contained style of Sissinghurst. Rather, they were spaced to lead the eye through the garden – plants used as markers for garden wayfarers.

Dare we mention that the white rose opens from yellow buds? Purity in white is rare

The pinnacle in my book is the advanced gardening skills that see the colour composition change over the seasons. We looked at Beech Grove Gardens at the Barbican in London in June (the work of Professor Nigel Dunnett and his team) when yellow phlomis, tawny kniphofia (red hot pokers) and Verbena bonariense were dominant. I was astonished to see photos of the same garden in the first week of September when it was largely white with Japanese anemones, the white wood aster (A. divaricatus) and the white barked birch trees (betulas).  It was a dramatic change to what we saw in early summer and an interesting design decision to turn a cool autumn garden to white. When you think about it, the light levels start to lower dramatically in autumn in that northerly climate, so a white autumn garden possibly shines even more.

The first section of the auratum lily border gets planted and mulched

I have never coveted a white garden myself. I have, however, recently planted a new border. Most of it is beautiful, bold auratum lilies of Mark’s raising – pushing towards 40 metres of them so that took a whole lot of bulbs. The lilies are in many shades of pinks, whites and deep carmine reds. But because they will all flower at the same time, I have added white umbellifers to flower either side of their blooming season. White umbellifers have been a hot fashion item in UK gardens for at least the last decade and show no signs of abating popularity. Think cow parsley and carrots – give or take. So far I have only put in two different ones and I still need a tall one to tower above. Plus any other white umbellifers that come my way. I just want them to seed down and gently fill the space around the lily stems. They will be my white garden.

Umbellifers! Still at peak popularity

This particular column was started as my contribution to the January issue of NZ Gardener magazine (yes, contributors are required to work some months in advance). With recent events culminating in my resignation this week, I have adapted it and decided to post it to follow on from last weekend’s work on white flowers






Modernist gardening, modern gardens and contemporary design

I felt as if I was looking at a parallel universe as I browsed “Contemporary Gardens of New Zealand”.

In fact, I think that the book is incorrectly named. It might be more accurately titled: “The Modernist Revival in New Zealand Garden Design”. The dominant impression is that the contemporary garden in this country is hard-edged design stripped of colour and plantsmanship. Who needs more than griselinia, nikau palms, corokia, strelitizia (the bird of paradise plant), xeronema (Poor Knights lily) and trachelospermum (star jasmine)? Yes, I know that is over simplifying, but most of the gardens included in the book use a very limited range of plants.

Modernist gardening has its roots in 1930s garden design. In fact, if you look back at some of those early examples, they would still look cutting-edge today. But it is only one style and the mistake is to think that modernism as a movement is synonymous with modern and therefore contemporary.

I would argue that modern gardening in this country goes well beyond the modernist revival style. How can anyone write about modern gardening without discussing the huge resurgence in interest in the edible garden? There is a distinct trend returning to utilitarianism usually seen in times of war and food shortage, where the growing of plants for ornamental purposes was seen as frivolous and every plant should be edible. These edible gardens, even when dressed up as potagers, don’t look contemporary and don’t photograph as well, but they are a definite modern trend.

Similarly, we are witnessing a movement against the chemical intervention of the last few decades. Call it organics, call it ecology, or naturalistic gardening, even sustainability – all reflect a rejection of the gardening values of the previous generation and a concern for harmony in nature. The modernistic gardens in the aforementioned book all play lip service to the idea of a “strong sense of place”, being “deeply respectful of the unique location”, the context – to the extent that I somewhat uncharitably started to think of all the Miss Universe contestants who give 60 second speeches about wanting world peace and homes for fluffy kitties. I would argue that at least some of those gardens demonstrated man’s imposition of rigid symmetry and entirely unnatural monocultures which is in fact the opposite of a harmony with place.

Most people actually like flowers

Most people actually like flowers

What is difficult to believe is that a garden genre which strips colour, seasonality and flowers from the garden is ever going to be more than a passing trend which appeals to a minority, most of whom are not gardeners themselves. There is next to no pink in this book on contemporary gardens, nothing voluptuous or even pretty. At its best, it is all terribly sculptural. If the owners want to have flowers indoors, most of them will be buying them from the flower shop. In my experience, most people like flowers and colour in their garden. And while seasonal change is messy, it is also what gladdens the heart for many.

The Foreman Garden in Lepperton

The Foreman Garden in Lepperton

I visited two local gardens last week which I would describe as modern or contemporary examples. Both are the creations of younger woman who are very keen gardeners and both are beautifully maintained and represent a great deal of time, thought and skill. The first was an example of green and brown austerity with a very limited range of plants, which has its origins in the modernist style though I found the use of curves to be more sympathetic to the surrounding countryside than hard edged symmetry. The total package of “the look” was what mattered and it was clearly designed to be as static as is possible when working with living plants. It was well executed and I can enjoy looking at such a garden, even if it is not to my personal taste.

La Rosaleda - photo credit Jane Dove Juneau

La Rosaleda – photo credit Jane Dove Juneau

The second garden was equally beautifully executed but could not be more different. It was an over the top riot of flowers, particularly roses, where the owner wields total control over the colour scheme and every plant combination represents thought. But pastel. Indubitably pastelle, with the most refined colour transitions throughout the garden. That love affair with the romance of pastel colour and the rejection of primary hues harks back to the Edwardian rejection of the garish Victorian gardens. It is incredibly pretty, feminine and romantic and in its most recent incarnation, is just as contemporary as the modernist garden design.

Landscapers are a breed apart from gardeners. That is not a value judgement. They are just on a different path, as indeed are plantspeople who have no interest in design but find the botanical detail of different plants fascinating. Both landscapers and plantspeople have their own unique language which sets them apart, accords them a higher plane is some eyes. In the middle are the gardeners who try to bring together both the design and the plants.

That said, there was one garden in the book that rendered me awestruck. It was the work of Queenstown landscape architect, Paddy Baxter and the location was in a remote area on the flanks of the Remarkables. It was not pretty, it was not conventional. It used pretty much all local native plants and it was the most exquisite example of anchoring a residence into its environment by sensitive landscaping. That was a very fine example of one type of contemporary garden.

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