Tag Archives: garden decoration

Theatre set design in the garden

Not Duquette’s garden. Just a photo from a NZ garden I have in my files.

Mark and I were sitting watching Monty Don’s series on American gardens when he came to the garden of the late Tony Duquette. Think Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s, a flamboyant set decorator, costumier and interior designer with extreme, international magpie tendencies who crammed much of what he collected into his own, quirky garden. Google him if you want to know more. Monty Don referred to some of it as being cobbled together with ‘cardboard and string’.

Not The Laskett, either. Just another example from a NZ garden

It started me thinking about those who approach their gardens as a theatre set. We have never been to The Laskett, the much-acclaimed UK garden of Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman. It too, comes out of the land of theatre design, I understand. It is not a garden style that we feel an affinity with so we tend to seek out other gardens when we travel.

A much loved local garden that belongs to Sue

But it is a style that some people enjoy. At its best, it may be described as quirky, eclectic, imaginative, flamboyant. At its worst, tacky, veneer gardening. I shall try not to be judgemental. It is just that at times, I wonder how very different set design in acclaimed gardens is from the folk art that abounds in some of the more loved gardens in my local town. They seem to me to be on the same continuum, at times distinguished as much by social prestige, acreage and financial resources as by flair. Some people just really like heavily decorated gardens.

The D.I.Y trompe l’oeil, constructed from trellis timber

I think what worries me at times is when this theatrical approach to garden design and ornamentation brings rather too much of the two-dimensional, temporary nature of the theatre into the garden. I prefer gardens where features are well made, substantial and underpinned by quality. The 10cm deep pond lined in plastic is never going to delight me like a well thought-out pond, constructed from permanent materials where consideration is given to its longevity and sustainability. More substance, less illusion. Preferably not constructed out of tanalised plywood, either, and three dimensional as befits its outdoor setting.

Not for the faint-hearted, the Dawson garden 

The orchid theatre, based on the auricula theatre and it certainly was… theatrical

That said, the one theatrical garden that did surprise me and make me laugh out loud is in Auckland. Or it may be ‘was’, in the past tense now. When I last saw it, it was on the market and it was such a very personal garden that it is hard to imagine new owners coming in and leaving it in the same state. The first time I saw it, it was a private visit with its creator, Grahame Dawson. The second time I visited as part of a busy garden festival. The place was jam-packed with visitors and the two owners were leaping around, hosting with the most. It was indeed like watching energetic producers directing a cast of many in a theatre scene.

The theatre curtain in tillandsia 

There was such a crush on the second visit that this was the only photo I took

What set the Dawson into a different class for me was the underpinning quality. Yes it was quirky and individualistic. But it was executed with attention to detail. It was solid and three dimensional, a garden designed to be lived in and enjoyed by the owners and their friends, not done for show. To me that matters but others may be perfectly comfortable with the ephemeral nature of theatre set design in a garden.

Sometimes, theatrical touches can fall short. NOT from the Dawson garden.

Of gnomes and statues

Context matters. I photographed this in a garden on a country estate in England. And it did not seem out of place at all there, to my eyes. But is it just a classier form of the garden gnome? 

There I was, bereft of ideas for a post this weekend when a visiting colleague gave me the best quote, which he attributed to the renowned Irish gardener, the inimitable Helen Dillon.

“Statues are just the gnomes of the upper classes.”

We laughed out loud. Of course we did. I did a quick search on line and I see Helen Dillon attributes that statement first, in 2004, to a garden visitor commenting on an aged statue in her garden – a semi clothed woman of Victorian vintage. More recently, she reportedly ascribed the comment “to a friend”. Maybe the visitor went on to become a friend?

We lack both gnomes and statues in our own garden but I have always had some fascination for a good gnome garden. There is one down the way, in my local town of Waitara. I have wondered about calling in and asking permission to photograph it but I just don’t think my motives are sufficiently pure and that makes it discourteous and lacking in respect on my part. You will have to imagine it, instead. It is a much-loved garden and were there a National Collection for gnomes and ornaments, this one would almost certainly qualify. I noticed it one time when the son of the house had carefully cleaned and repainted the entire population and that would be no mean feat, believe me. They gleamed in the sunlight.

Gnome gardens do tend to associate with succulents. I have no idea if this is by choice or chance on the part of the gnomes.

I could only find a single photo of a gnome in my extensive photo files. Clearly I need to rectify this.

Gnomes have a long and somewhat more celebrated history than their current position in gardens suggests. There is a wealth of information on line, should you feel compelled to find out more about gnome history. But there is no denying that their slide in social status has seen them end up pretty close to the lower end, if not right at the bottom.

Classical statuary in NZ gardens is more commonly of this ilk

Which brings us to the statues. New Zealand is no longer the egalitarian society many of us like to pretend but the differences are not so much one of social class as economic status. We are somewhat lacking in the upper classes in this country. Our colonial forebears were more interested in shaking free from the shackles of the class system back in the Old Country and few of the early settlers came from the gentry. There are a few aspirants that linger on, but they are more a curious sub-group than a social and political force. I am pretty sure that if you took a census of New Zealanders and asked what social class they see themselves in, over 90% would declare themselves as middle class. Just as ethnic affiliation is a matter of personal choice in this country (as in, people define which ethnic groups they identify with and there is no reliance on blood quantum), so too is social class. I think it is one of the nicer aspects of living in New Zealand.

Saint Fiacre, I think, again in a grand English garden but by no means uncommon in a miniature form in NZ gardens

But does a reproduction classical statue, or even a figure of Saint Fiacre, make you more middle class than a gnome? That is the question. Many people who would shun Snow White, Grumpy, Sleepy, Dozy, Mick and Titch in the garden clearly believe so. The evidence is there in many, many gardens. What it doesn’t do, in this far-flung island nation of the South Pacific, is make you upper class and that has nothing to do with the dollar price-tag on the statue. Wealth and class should not be confused.

I would suggest that the downward slide in social status of classical statuary continues to take place (prole drift!), just at a slower speed than the rapid descent of the gnome. In this country at least.

We don’t have gnomes in our garden because they only amuse us in other people’s gardens. We don’t have classical statuary because it seems irrelevant to the context of our garden. Each to their own. But we are still chuckling at the Dillon quote

The peculiar affliction of gardeners’ godwottery

My apologies to those subscribers who received a draft version of this earlier. I hit “publish” instead of “preview”….

Godwottery! A friend gave me the gift of a word this morning. How can I have lived my life so far without this word?

Godwottery. A noun. “Gardening or garden design in an affected, fussily decorative, or over-elaborate style; an instance of this.” This is from the Oxford English Dictionary so it must be right. It does mention that it is an example of archaic and affected language but wot ho, jolly sir? It has only been in use since 1937 so it is but a  modern archaism at worst. So too is the second descriptor a double irony, for what could be more appropriate than an affected word to describe a garden full of affectation?

I am not deterred, I shall incorporate this word into my lexicon (or ‘my vocab’ as others less prone to archaic affectations might say). I am an experienced godwotter spotter, I tell you.

We were part of the open garden scene in the first decade of this new century when over-decorating your garden became the rage at a mass, domestic level, even amongst those who would never dream of ornamenting their interiors from the Warehouse shelves at the time. It was the Gnome Brigade exhumed from the past but on steroids and with expanded horizons. Not just Grumpy and his mates. No. Now one must add fairies, orcs, trolls, odd monster-y reinterpretations of classic grotesques and a whole lot more. Also reproduction classical statues of the armless, legless and white type. And focal points! For what is a vista or a view without a focal point? Or seats as focal points. Just a single seat painted in an eye-catching colour and placed where it is never to be sat upon but gives Yet Another Focal Point.

Godwottery goes well beyond the unrestrained approach that leads to cluttering up a garden with decoration. It takes in the “but wait! There is more” gardening syndrome where thinking that yet more points of interest, destinations, hedges, squitty garden rooms and other enclosures such as rondels, features and constructions will enhance the space.

And veneer gardening, which is what I call the DIY attempts at trompe l’oeil, garden design that emulates theatre set design and the attempts to recreate Grand Garden Design but in plywood and tanalised timber. I find it easier to accept naïve over-ornamentation (at its best it can be genuinely creative, tipping over to folk art) rather than pretentious veneer gardening.

But now I have the word. Godwottery. “He is just a pretentious godwotterer,” I may say in the future. “It is way past time they ceased godwottering.”

Just to prove that I am not alone, I give you two quotes from the OED:

1969   Guardian 18 Aug. 7/1   ‘Godwottery’, the sentimental preconception of what a garden should be, results in a very strange collection of elements.

2006   Denver Post (Nexis) 31 Mar.   If you’d like to create a godwottery of your own, you might consider ‘sundials, gnomes, fairies, plastic sculptures, fake rockery, pump-driven streams and wrought-iron furniture’.

Believe me, I have seen some godwottered gardens that have the lot detailed in that second quote. AND a giant chess set as well.

Trentham Gardens were treading a fine between enhancing the visitor experience and tipping over the edge to godwottery. Public gardens are particularly vulnerable to this trap in their attempts to pull the punters as can be seen below.

I have had to crop very heavily on these godwottery exemplars in the hope that they may remain relatively anonymous. I could have chosen many other examples. some simply appalling, but they are too readily identifiable. I would prefer to be able to cross the road without fear of being run down by a disaffected garden owner.



Garden urns, pots and fonts

From statuary to urns – my mind is still on garden decoration.  I looked up the definition of an urn – “a tall, rounded vase with a stem and base” so I am stretching the limits with some of my squatter pots but they add to the garden ambience theme.

S3700216These are the genuine article when it comes to terracotta urns – Greek oil jars. I spotted them just lying about looking absurdly decorative out the back of a shed on a tiny island just off Patmos. It was not until I saw Greek oil jars that I ever considered the different shades of terracotta that come depending on the local clay. On the eastern isles, the terracotta was quite pale with a white powdery finish which I find much more attractive than the more usual orange shades. If I could have shipped some lovely oil jars home, I would have.

250SettringtonHardly urns, but a handy segue on how attractive older utility gear can be, forcing pots, just hangin’ about waiting to be used again in the vegetable garden. Placed over vegetables that need blanching (rhubarb, kale, white asparagus, celery and the like) they produce more tender shoots. We saw them in more than one English garden. I think they are available in New Zealand but with a hefty price tag that will ensure they are used as ornament, not their designated purpose.

IMG_5468If you are going to have an urn, or a font, maybe, and have a property that is of a suitable scale, then you might as well make it a B I G one. This is at Castle Howard in Yorkshire with Mark standing beside it. I am not sure what is growing in it but it did not really enhance the Experience of the Urn. It may have been more effective left empty.

IMG_4496When it comes to lidded urns that bear a slight resemblance to a certain style of funeral urn, the same principle may apply. If you are going to have one, it may well look considerably more dramatic if you have many, as in this interesting and contemporary small Auckland garden.

Gresgarth (21)Gresgarth (41)Still with the greys, these two handsome urns are from Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s garden at Gresgarth. The squatter pot was nestled into the garden by the stream, making a charming scene to be viewed at close quarters. The use of a plinth makes the taller pot a statement all on its own. I admired it enormously, even more so in its understated meadow setting.



Grey-black can be an attractive colour in a modern garden, as in this pot which was just gently and effectively decorating a blank area. I liked its understatement. It didn’t need to be filled with red pelargoniums or similar colour. The terracotta pot is mine. Bought as a “temple pot” and not, sadly, a high quality Burrelli pot as some have assumed. But it is not unattractive and serves a useful function as a holding place for bamboo stakes in that area of the garden. These tall pots are a classic design that has endured because it is a visually pleasing shape.

Barnetts (3)Barnetts (60)I feel some gardeners haven’t quite taken on board the message that some pots are sufficiently elegant to exist simply as a decorative pot, without a plant in it. Very deep pots can drain poorly – some even come without any drainage holes in the bottom at all – meaning that the roots are going to be very wet all the time. A tall pot on a narrow base is not the most stable design. Adding in a tall plant will make it even more top-heavy. Further, to keep container plants healthy and growing well, they really need to be completely repotted in new mix at least every second year, if not annually. Getting a plant out of a pot with a narrow top is a mission and usually involves either damaging the plant or breaking the pot.

431This modern urn filled with copper foliage (posssibly a  cirsium -one of the ornamental thistles) sat on a plinth in an otherwise austere setting – the stable yard, I think it was – in a private Yorkshire garden. One of a pair or maybe even more, I am sure they were not cheap to buy but they were very effective. I thought from one of my photos that they were marble, but looking at the others, it appears they may be a composite stone that is made to resemble marble and the run-off from the copper is giving a subtle patina over time,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANobody does cheerful urnage like the Spanish and the Portuguese. At least nobody that I have seen. I photographed these two in Seville because they were so shamelessly flamboyant. The amazing thing is that these pots can be placed in a public area and not be smashed as they would likely be in this country. But honestly, I think it is very difficult to transfer this sort of decoration away from that bright light and cultural context of southern Europe without running the dire risk of it simply looking, well, vulgar. The only time I have seen something similar done successfully was by Lynda Hallinan in Auckland. Her elaborate pot sits empty, you will notice (filling it would really be over-gilding an already gilded lily), nestled in amongst lots of foliage and flowers where it caught my eye.

Tupare (16)And the modern take on the baptismal font? This is in the middle of the raised beds at Tupare Garden in New Plymouth. I am not sure it is a good enough piece to take centre stage. It may have looked more at home were it in grey stone but that sort of modern take on mellow Cotswold stone is not so much at home across the world. But I guess it comes down to personal taste.

Lavender and cricket

368369Maybe it was our national cricket team playing in Yorkshire that brought this scene back to mind. I photographed it at Yorkshire Lavender near Terrington, about this time last year. I was greatly charmed at the time. It was set on top of a small hill with a big sky and big vistas. I admit I like cricket – well, I like it when our team is winning and they did win the test match a few weeks ago – but it was the large scale whimsy that I appreciated with this scene.

This particular installation was a memorial but on theme

This particular installation was a memorial but on theme

In terms of garden decoration, I wished they had stopped the pastel blue with the cricket team. There was rather a lot of it repeated throughout other areas – out of the “but wait there is more” school of garden features. The use of bridges that are entirely unnecessary and gates with no purpose are by no means limited to this garden, but they were certainly here in force, suggesting that the owners saw the repetition of blue features as a unifying device through the garden. To my eyes, this sort of device ends up dominating, bordering on clutter, when there was quite sufficient charm to carry the scene without their addition.
360I like lavender. I really enjoy the open fields of lavender which are so evocative of a different climate. It is not a plant for our fertile conditions with high humidity and high rainfall all year round. I have just one plant left and it lurches on from year to year, clutching at the remnants of its life. I liked the way Yorkshire Lavender didn’t just keep to lavender but were extending into the New Perennial style as well with their mixed plantings and the mandatory grasses.

 Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum' or plume thistle, I think.

Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ or plume thistle, I think.

I am quite grateful that the lavender fragrance is no longer associated solely with genteel old ladies, lace edged hankies and net curtains. Shall we just leave 4711 cologne with that demographic? We also enjoy the added experience of good tearooms in gardens in the UK. This country lacks sufficient population to make these economically viable in most cases but the tearooms at Yorkshire Lavender were both charming and … very lavender. The shortbread, I recall, was particularly tasty and on trend with the aromatic theme.