Tag Archives: garden design

Lessons learned

The stone mill wheel serves as a bird bath and is used often, this time by a tui

Were I starting a new garden from scratch, especially a large garden, I would reduce the number of beds and borders. And I would be more rigorous in separating the highly detailed areas from the broad sweeps of plantings.

Pleione orchids in spring. At this time of the year they are dormant and can be lifted, cleaned up and replanted.

The little mill wheel bed is a highly detailed area

I am perfectly happy doing highly detailed gardening. Micro gardening, I call it. As I lifted and divided big clumps of pleione orchids, I decided it was the gardening equivalent of surgery. But I want my areas of highly detailed gardening limited and confined. We have a large rockery which requires close attention, the sunken garden and the millwheel garden. It was the little millwheel garden that I was going through earlier this week. It is full of seasonal detail like the aforementioned pleiones, blue lachenalias, fritillarias, erythroniums, dactylorhiza orchids and similar tiny treasures along with a few choice shrubs like species camellias and small rhododendrons.

The mistake I made over time was to grab pots of such treasures from the nursery (in the days when we still did the full range for mail order) and tuck them into odd places here and there. Everywhere, really. Now I am trying to reverse that and lifting such little gems to relocate out of mixed borders.

Bolder plantings in bigger sweeps need treasures that are in scale to the other plantings, not small detail.

Away from these highly detailed areas of planting needing close maintenance, I want bigger sweeps of bolder planting. I love how our avenue gardens have shaped up with the bigger sweeps of interesting shade perennials. It is the itsy, bitsy, inbetween stuff that I do not enjoy doing. The mixed border – too often the hodge podge border – has a lot to answer for. We have too many borders and beds like that and they are hard going.

The round garden was a design aberration and has never been successful

Hand-hewn stone artefacts dating back to pioneer forebears

I didn’t just strip out the old rose garden. I am also nearing the end of clearing another design aberration – a round garden in the front lawn which had evolved over time to something less than satisfactory. The defining concrete mowing strip has been removed, as have the bulbs and smaller plants. It is just waiting for Mark to remove the dwarf lollipop camellias and the Graham Thomas rose. All that will remain is the umbrella Magnolia laevifolia in the centre and the stone artefacts which are of interest. One is a shaped corner stone which used to be placed to protect the early timber buildings in settler New Plymouth from being raked by passing cart wheels. Another is a small stone trough Mark’s mother collected, hand-shaped of course and the centrepiece is another mill wheel. This wheel is a small inner wheel from a domestic grain mill in the Te Henui stream area in New Plymouth. Mark’s parents gathered these historical pieces back in the 1950s when nobody else valued them and the records have been passed down orally. We don’t do much in the way of ornamentation in our garden but we appreciate our small collection of historic artefacts.

I am also eyeing up another three short lengths of garden border and thinking I may strip out the messy underplanting. There are sufficient shrubs in those borders to carry them without the need for ground cover detail as well. A mulch of leaf litter or compost is all that they need. It is just quite a bit of work to lift everything and reuse the plants and bulbs that are of value. If we gardened less with bulbs it would be easier but our bulbs represent many years of building up large numbers of different types, many rare and curious, and are a feature of our garden.

Not every wall, fence, pathway or building needs an edging border of planting. We had our first visible frost this week – we don’t get too many of these each winter. 

There are several lessons I have learned through all this:

  • Gardens evolve over time and we often don’t step back to look with critical eyes at the current picture. Sometimes, they do just become a mishmash, especially if you are the sort of gardener who tucks plants in to fill spaces. Or they become dominated by thugs which take over and swamp out the more desirable plants.
  • Tiny treasures and small detail need to be accommodated in designated areas where they won’t get overtaken by competitors and where it is easier to carry out the more careful, intensive maintenance that they require.
  • It is still possible to get detail and variety into larger scale plantings but the detail needs to be larger in scale.
  • Not every area needs the oft recommended three layers of planting (ground cover, middle layer and upper canopy or backdrop (recommended, I think, to get the lush, well furnished look).
  • Not every pathway, driveway or building needs a side border to complete it. There can be too many bits and bobsy borders and beds. Fewer may be more effective and certainly makes for easier management.
  • Mixed borders are difficult to manage well in the long term (mixed borders being a mix of woody shrubs, perennials, climbers and sometimes bulbs).
  • Most perennials perform much better if you lift and divide them, replanting them in well-dug soil. Some, like polyanthus and pulmonaria, benefit from lifting and dividing every two or three years in our conditions. Others like hostas, can usually be left for about ten years before they start to go back (by ‘going back’, I mean they can reach a point where they get smaller, not larger).

As I have said before, if there is an area of your garden where you avert your eyes every time you walk by, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. It won’t get better if you ignore it. Sometimes it needs drastic action.

 

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.

 

 

Heroic despatches 4: A Restful Green Heart

???????????????????????????????One of the delights I appreciated at the Heroic Gardens Festival was this quiet, simple green space in the back garden owned by photographer, Gil Hanly.

I have written before about the green breathing space As a sorbet between rich dinner courses refreshes the palate, so too do simpler areas in a complex or busy garden allow a little space to draw breath. Generally, I have seen lawns used to achieve this quieter space.
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Gil Hanly’s was a complex and mature garden with many points of interest. Her vegetable garden was a tour de force but in addition to that, there was a lot happening all through her garden. And out from the house was this charming green space of deceptive simplicity. A grove of palms underplanted with mondo grass fringed a dark natural-shaped pond in the shade, creating a restful, central heart to the garden. It was simply lovely. I can only apologise for failing to take more notice of which palms were used. I lack any expertise on this plant family and always defer to Mark who was not with me on this trip. With hindsight, we wonder if they are Hedyscepe canterburyana but that is only a guess.

The sauntering ducks are bamboo, collected by the garden owner on a trip to Asia (she may have said Vietnam).

147??????????????????????????????? The little temple by the water (top) is, I am told, by artist, Bronwyn Cornish. For me it evoked the very old villa visible in a ravine in Sorrento in Italy (immediately above) which I photographed back in 2008. Anyone who has been to Sorrento (the jumping off point for Capri) will have seen this sight. In the Hanly back garden, the whole effect was understated but hugely effective.

Unrelated, there was also a huge plant of our very own Cordyline Red Fountain growing elsewhere in the garden in an area which was bold with colour.
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Retaining walls

Dead flat gardens are surprisingly rare. Where different levels must be retained, some forethought can make a big difference.
???????????????????????????????1) Timber remains the most common choice, probably based on price and the DIY ethos. It is holding back a considerable weight of soil that will be wet and exerting outward pressure, so strong construction is critical. Walk around established suburbs and you are sure to find older timber retaining walls bulging outwards. You need to get the supports right, both horizontally and vertically, to keep it all in place. Milled timber must be tanalised to ground retention grade or it will rot quickly.
???????????????????????????????2) A cut stone wall is permanent, aesthetically pleasing and probably the most expensive option. The part-time stonemason here critiques my photos of modern stonework, pointing out that the stones should be keyed in to each other (as brickwork is). You should not be able to pick out vertical lines running down the wall because these are a point of weakness which indicate that it is the mortar holding the stones together. I mention this in case you decide to commission a stone wall of your own.
???????????????????????????????3) Immediately next door to the attractive stone wall is the DIY option – although probably involving some lifting machinery to get the rocks in place. These have cement laid between them, which is unlikely to be structural but merely to keep out weed growth. Keen gardeners might prefer to plant between the rocks. Interestingly, some gradient has been left here rather than the vertical cut seen on the adjacent stone wall. Allowing a gradient reduces the outward pressure the retained ground will exert.
???????????????????????????????4) Further down the same street, I found the true DIY option. Smaller stones, able to be lifted by one or two people, have been placed and the area has been turned into a rockery on a sloped gradient again. Once established, plant roots will hold a certain amount of soil in place. The owner of this frontage is clearly a keen gardener.
???????????????????????????????5) Ugly functionalism at its worst – and I can say that because this is on a property we bought. Concrete blocks have been used to retain the straight sections, poured concrete on the curves. It does the job. That is all there is to say. If I still lived in that house, I would be contemplating plastering and painting the retaining walls to try and make them a little less brutal.
???????????????????????????????6) Faced with a similar situation to the preceding photo, this example shows what a little more thought, imagination and money can achieve. These are blocks – though whether a soft stone or aggregate, I am not sure – but a much superior look in aesthetic terms with the softer edges and random sizes. What also makes a big difference here is the flat capping on the top of the retained sections. It is a stylish finishing touch.
???????????????????????????????7) The same bottom layer of retaining wall has been used throughout this modern subdivision. This house shows a mix of materials used in the quest for privacy, ground retention and street appeal. It was so well executed that I suspect a professional was employed to achieve this effect. The usual advice is not to mix materials but you can see the use of cobblestone bricks, timber, hedging and a relatively wide palette of plants. Prostrate plants are being used to retain the sloping bank.

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

The good and the bad of gardening suburbia

Even Magnolia Little Gem drops leaves

Even Magnolia Little Gem drops leaves

I like walking in city suburbia. This is not only because I live in the country so it has a certain novelty value. In our younger days, I dragged Mark southwards to live in Dunedin for three years and we would often walk for many kilometres through our surrounding suburbs. They are rich sources of ideas for both what to do and what not to do. With the right walking companion, they can also be a source of amusement and astonishment and occasional interesting encounters.

Mind you, nothing is likely to eclipse the time an elderly woman asked our help to get her equally elderly and very drunk husband up the path and into their bright strawberry pink house. As we obliged, she said, “I can’t help. I have no hands,” and held out both her arms. Indeed there were no hands at the end of the arms. On a grey Dunedin evening, it was like a scene from a Gothic horror. But I digress.

Being in the gardening and nursery scene, we are used to being asked for landscape advice. We very rarely give any, being aware of our own limitations. We are neither landscapers nor designers. For people with a small budget and no ideas who live in town, our advice has long been to take up walking. It is a case of getting your eye in and starting to analyse what is to your personal taste, style and circumstances. With just a little more experience, you will start to recognise the plants that are doing well and that you like the look of. Walking around your own suburb and then expanding outwards, you will see more useful ideas and good and bad examples than you will ever see in books, on line or even a garden festival.

Where the budget is tight – or non-existent – there is no substitute for upskilling yourself. If you have more money, you can pay someone to do it for you. Free advice is fraught. Retailers will give free advice that ranges from excellent to appalling but is usually predicated on selling you product. If you have a particularly good plant retailer whose advice you trust, then that is great. Odds on, however, if you have built up a good personal relationship with your plant retailer, it is because you have some experience and are not an absolute beginner. Going in cold to just any garden centre and expecting to get good landscape advice is a tad optimistic.

Mind you, as my perambulations around Mount Eden at the weekend showed, having a bigger budget does not guarantee success. I saw one of the worst examples of planting around an expensive new townhouse. I should have photographed it but I felt it was an imposition, given that it is somebody’s private home so you will just have to imagine it. Clearly the owners like greenery and I would guess had trotted down to a garden centre. Given the price on the labels left on the plants and the nature of what they bought, I could probably even name the retailer with a high degree of accuracy.

Alas, the Podocarpus henkelii I saw have no chance of ever reaching this stature

Alas, the Podocarpus henkelii I saw have no chance of ever reaching this stature

Picture a compound of expensive Auckland townhouses, each with a private courtyard not much larger in area than two average sized internal rooms – maybe 10 metres by 4 metres in total. The perimeter was planted with Podocarpus henkelii at 30cm spacings. I am very fond of P. henkelii which is a handsome, African podocarpus (totara). True, it is very slow growing and well suited to the climate in Auckland. But its beauty lies in its lovely shape and habit of growth. Our handsome specimen here measures at least 7 metres across and 8 metres high. I almost wept for those plants at 30cm spacings which are destined either for removal long before they reach anything near maturity or forever to be hacked into submission at 2 metres high by 50cm wide.

The owner of the neighbouring townhouse was most inclined to chat and proudly told my walking companion and me that he had paid $1.8 million for it. He was keen to plant his area and declared that he liked the existing specimen of Magnolia Little Gem in the corner of his courtyard but it was very messy because it dropped leaves. I did not point out that all plants drop leaves and that his tree was going to grow quite a lot larger than he anticipated. But as soon as he ascertained that I knew something about plants and gardening, he wanted to whip me in to his locked compound and pick my brains. I politely declined. You can afford to pay $1.8mill for your house, I thought, but you want free advice from a passing stranger? Pay a professional!

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