Tag Archives: Garden book reviews

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.

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.

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.