Tag Archives: garden design

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.
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 (left) is, I am told, by artist, Bronwyn Cornish. For me it evoked the very old villa visible in a ravine in Sorrento in Italy (right) 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.


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.

Garden style

Sissinghurst of course - the inspiration for many, many gardens in NZ. Too many.

Sissinghurst of course – the inspiration for many, many gardens in NZ. Too many.

Truly, it is difficult to be original in the garden. Oh, there can be the odd touch of whimsy or indication of flair but generally it has all been done before. Somewhere. The skills lie in how you put the ideas together and manage it all. It is a bit optimistic, grandiose even, to consider that you can come up with some brilliant concept that nobody has thought of before. But that is all right. We are all in the same boat.

We had a small British gardening tour through last week. Not all garden tours are equal by any means and we particularly enjoyed this one. They were both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, giving us as much stimulation as we hope we gave to them. We have a huge debt to British gardening traditions in this country.

I have looked at Italian gardens but they are more about design, space and hard landscaping (and wealth) than gardening as we know it here. The plant interest is minimal. But should an Italian stonemason want to enter your life, do not turn him away. There is a history of magnificent stonework in that culture.

More about wealth, power and lifestyle than plants - the Alhambra in Spain

More about wealth, power and lifestyle than plants – the Alhambra in Spain

Southern Europe has a pretty difficult climate. If it is not hot and dry then it is cold and dry. So the historic gardens of Spain and Portugal that I have seen were also about wealth and power. Their hallmark is magnificent hard landscaping and good design but they too, are light on plants.

Japanese gardening is one that exists in something akin to a bubble all of its own. It is deeply steeped in symbolism, tradition and contemplation. I admit I have not been to Japan so I don’t know much about the modern gardening trends, but from afar it appears that the old traditions remain dominant. They seem to be relatively immune to the eclectic cobbling together of ideas from around the world that most of us do.

We have drawn upon Asia for the tropical gardens, so fashionable at the moment. I wrote about the hotel-style gardening in the middle of last year.

I understand our preoccupation with lawns and the high value placed on the dreaded “kerb appeal”, in real estate speak, have a debt to USA but those are questionable contributions to our gardening heritage here.

In fact, large parts of the world do not garden at a domestic level as we do. In some cases it is lack of physical space – or any outdoor, private space at all in heavily populated areas. In other cases, the conditions are just too hard. If your ground is set like concrete and it is alternately too hot and then too cold to be outside, the motivation must flag.

If you look at Britain, you can see a gardening ethos that is very close to our own. It is probably no accident that while their conditions are nowhere near as easy as ours, nevertheless it is a relatively mild climate. Being islands, the sea has a tempering effect and they lack the extremes of temperature and near absence of rain that many other countries experience. Many of the great and intrepid plant hunters originated from Britain and they have always put a high priority on plants – new plants, varied plants, plant combinations, entire collections of a single plant genus. Gardens are expected to have a high level of plant interest, not just grand design. Even what we would regard as the great gardens of last century (the likes of Great Dixter, Sissinghurst and Hidcote) are still essentially domestic gardens in their origin. These are less a statement of power and wealth and more an example of gardening obsession.

Meadow gardening and a return to a more natural style is evident in UK gardens, less so here.

Meadow gardening and a return to a more natural style is evident in UK gardens, less so here.

So it is curious that we have only adopted a few key garden styles from that country – notably cottage gardening, mixed borders and the Sissinghurst garden rooms’ genre. We have been very slow on the uptake when it comes to what is now called the New Perennials Movement and just as slow on the dialogue they have been having in recent years about a return to a more naturalistic style of gardening. When I say slow on the uptake, I mean I have not seen anything at all in our gardening media and few of the colleagues I have talked to even know what these mean.

Yet I have heard it described by UK garden expert Carol Klein, as “the most influential garden movement in Britain in the last 15 years”. Mind you, the term New Perennials Movement, appears to be of recent usage only and it brings together the apparently disparate threads of naturalistic, meadow, grasses and prairie gardening that we noticed on our last visit there in 2009. Much of it was still seen as pretty avant garde then. Maybe it has bedded in better now.

069 (2)In the meantime, “The New English Garden” by Tim Richardson, published by Frances Lincoln, is more than a coffee table book. The sumptuous photographs and presentation are complemented by an intelligent and discerning text. Perhaps the problem is that we New Zealanders are still visiting only the most famous gardens and the existence of a whole new style has so far bypassed us. We are heading back this June to have a closer look.

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

The Ornamental Edible Garden

The Ornamental Edible Garden

The Ornamental Edible Garden

Should you covet a garden which is both edible and ornamental, then this is the book for you. That said, the definition of ornamental is formal in design so you need to be leaning towards a graph paper garden with central axis, quadrants, focal points and geometric layout. You then add the soft furnishings of colour toned or contrasted plants, predominantly edible or medicinal but there is plenty of flexibility in the name of aesthetics. It is a gardening genre which is currently very popular and can be managed on any scale, from tiny to large.

Chapters cover design, construction, planting and both the theory and practice of pleasing planting combinations, plus basic information on growing a whole range of vegetables, herbs, fruit and ornamentals which may qualify. There are hints on soil management and pest control so it is pretty much a complete manual for someone wanting to try this style of gardening. You probably need to be a very tidy, precise sort of person. All the examples in the book are immaculately presented and groomed. If you are a more relaxed gardener, you may want to look at more laissez faire gardening styles.

Although it is a New Zealand publication, the content and style is international, so you won’t get specifics for our conditions. I would have liked to have seen some discussion on the pros and cons of hedging in the edible garden (read: root competition) and building materials get the once over lightly rather than helpful in-depth discussion. I could be a pedant on some of the detail. Rudolf Steiner was many things but I don’t think a horticulturist was one of them – he was a theorist. Not all chemical pesticides are systemic and there are increasing options which are highly specific as opposed to killing indiscriminately. But in the end, these do not detract from what is a useful, credible and highly competent presentation of a gardening style.

Gil Hanly is one of this country’s most experienced garden photographers and it is encouraging to see the publisher willing to commission both an author and a specialist photographer. The book is well organised and well laid out. It has all those things we used to take for granted – index, table of contents, tables of information and charts, well captioned photographs, botanical names – in fact sufficient detail to appeal to gardeners beyond the novice.

The Ornamental Edible Garden by Diana Anthony, photographs by Gil Hanly (David Bateman; ISBN: 978 1 86953 812 5) reviewed by Abbie Jury.

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

Garden design – a starting point

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

A sense of arrival - but keep it in proportion to the size of the property and the house

A sense of arrival - but keep it in proportion to the size of the property and the house

Garden design is certainly all the rage these days, but if you can’t afford or don’t want to pay a professional designer, where do you start? Without for one minute pretending that a brief column can do justice to design, I would suggest three principles as a starting point.

  1. A sense of arrival.
  2. A sense of journey.
  3. An underpinning principle of logic (with some common sense).

Stand back and look critically at your property from the point of entry or roadside. If you look at good gardens or handsome properties, most will convey a sense of arrival. You know you are in the right place and you can see clearly where you are to enter the property and which direction to follow. This is usually achieved by way of hard landscaping or structures – a fence or hedge (which rates as a green structure), maybe gateways, a driveway and paths. But those arrival features should be in keeping and appropriate to both your house and to the scale of the property. If your lot in life is a tiny, town section with in-fill housing, putting up an imposing gateway and fencing is more likely to make your place look like a prison. And if you own a little wooden cottage, tall brick or plastered walls will just look incongruous. So keep the scale appropriate. Materials used should relate to the house and outbuildings, though if yours is a corrugated iron garage, a hedge may be more pleasing.

Set about softening the entrance with plants. Whether you use formal, matched pairs, an avenue or a froth of pretty flowers is entirely a matter of taste. It is the structures and paving that give form, but it is the plantings which make it appear welcoming and give the interesting detail.

The promise of a journey is possible even on very small sites like in the town garden of Thorveton

The promise of a journey is possible even on very small sites like in the town garden of Thorveton

Creating a sense of anticipation, maybe even mystery, is dependent on making sure that the whole garden is not visible at first glance. It sounds simple, but if you walk along any city street, you will see many gardens where all is revealed from the frontage. There is no invitation to explore or sense of journey. What you see is what you get.

The larger your garden, the easier it is to achieve that promise of journey, to hold back discoveries until you venture further. You may think it is impossible to do on a small, flat section. Not so. It takes a bit more skill and thought, but it can be achieved with a mix of strategically placed plantings and maybe some structures.

But it is the underpinning principle of logical sense which we always keep at the forefront of our minds whenever we plan developments in our garden. Too often have we seen design mistakes where people have dropped in a feature because they feel they need a focal point without thinking about whether it has logic to its selection and placement, beyond being a contrived focal point. The most common and reasonably expensive mistake is summerhouses and gazebos. These structures are all about entertaining and socialising which involves food and drink. If you site it more than 20 metres from your kitchen, odds on you will rarely use it. It just becomes a redundant structure with little purpose. Unless of course you have servants to do the fetching and carrying.

The same goes for garden seats though you may carry your coffee mug 30 metres in this case. A seat is for sitting upon – make sure seating is located where you want to sit, not just to look good from afar.

One pet dislike here is contrived water features where the use of a pump has cascading water flowing from a dry hill or mound, magnified by the sound of the pump and the installation of a fake waterfall. Water does not flow from dry mounds and the installation of such a feature is more often unsubtle fakery which lacks any logic. It is a lot of trouble to go to when you are probably better off with a simple pond, whether it be formal (imposed upon the landscape) or natural in appearance. But if you are going for a natural looking pond, logic says it should be at a lower point of your property.

If you have a large garden, it makes sense to have your intensively gardened and detailed areas closest to the house and living areas. As you move further away, a more natural, loosely maintained style is entirely appropriate. It can look very odd to drop in a formal or highly structured feature in the outer reaches of the property. And common sense says you will never maintain it as tightly as you should, simply because you don’t pass it every day.

How you choose to garden within the design framework is entirely up to personal taste, as is the choice on going with straight lines to give formality or looser curves to evoke a more romantic naturalism. But essentially, good design will mean your garden is an extension of your living space and not just a matter of keeping up appearances.

Decoding the jargon

Setting the standard for garden rooms – Sissinghurst

A newsletter from a gardening organisation arrived a few days before Christmas and I duly read it, coming across the following statement (warning: do not let your eyes glaze and brain disconnect before the end). “Outstanding gardens manage to respond to the genius loci using borrowed landscape, natural landform and native plants – often mixed with exotics – to create stunning indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour.”

Borrowing the jargon, shall we unpack that statement? Though I prefer to use the term decode because it is somewhat like a secret code.

Outstanding gardens manage to – that bit is fine.

respond to the genius loci – had to get out the dictionary for this. Loci is, more or less, a place or locality. Google then helped me track down the term genius loci which apparently dates back to early Roman times and means the protective spirit of a place. Latterly the term seems to have been adopted by the landscape architecture fraternity although it might be easier to understand if they simply referred to the well known words of English poet and writer, Alexander Pope who took an interest in garden design. He put it rather more simply when he wrote in 1731 (a mere 280 years ago), “Consult the genius of the place…” which has come to be interpreted as the principle that design should always be relevant to the location and natural environment. This of course assumes that your particular location has some genius loci attached to it but it is a little hard to see how much genius loci you can lay claim to if your lot in life is a small, flat, urban section with a house, be it large or small, plonked fair and square in the middle. Some of us are blessed with quite a bit more genius loci than others.

using borrowed landscape – that is the view of the neighbours’ properties, assuming you have neigbours with views worth borrowing.

natural landform – silly me. I thought that was part of the genius loci.

and native plants – I can’t quite work out whether this is using the already existing native plants in your own genius locus extending to your neighbours’ genius loci which would be a little limiting because it then tends to apply only to those whose patch is on the boundary of a national park, scenic reserve or at least a patch of native bush. Alternatively it may be that native plants are mandatory and pre-eminent in outstanding gardens. While advocating strongly for the use of native plants in tandem with exotics, I think this statement takes the position of native plants considerably further than is common in this country.

… – often mixed with exotics – yes, we are allowed to embellish with introduced plants (exotics are the vast majority of what we grow in this country. Even our lawn grasses are heavily dominated by exotics, as are all our fruit trees and vegetables). I don’t know what the word often is in there for because you would be hard pressed to find any environment in this country, be it natural or contrived, which does not have introduced plants in it. Even our national parks are invaded by weeds.

to create stunning – stunning… hmm. There is a very emotive word. Quality can be measured and evaluated. Emotional response is a matter of individual opinion.

stunning, indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour. I will let the compositions of form, line, texture and colour go, though I can think of clearer ways of defining good gardening as a combination of excellent design and skill with plants. But, indigenous compositions? Puh-lease. Indigenous – occurring naturally or native to the land. Gardening, by definition, is not indigenous. It is an imposition on the landscape, occasionally a natural landscape but more often a landscape already heavily altered by man.

So what I think the original statement says is: outstanding gardens make the most of their natural environment, using a variety of plants and really good design. At least, I hope that is what it says. There is no author named so I can’t check.

The classic garden door frame and passage at Hidcote – best in a garden with plenty of space, perhaps

Just a little further on in the same piece, there is the sweeping statement: “Gardens should be a series of outdoor rooms and should have walls, exits/ entries or passages between the rooms. Rooms should be well defined so the viewer is not distracted by what is going on in the next room although they might be tantalized at some point.”

What happened to open plan living, I ask??? Are we to be forever locked in to that format of the early twentieth century evident in the great English gardens of Sissinghurst and Hidcote? Do not get me wrong. We were very impressed by Hidcote when we visited, but perish the thought that all New Zealand gardens must follow the formula if they want to be seen as very good gardens. There are other styles of garden design. A woodland garden will never be a series of rooms with tight structure. A flowing landscape garden in the manner of Capability Brown relies on open spaces, not rooms. Must a tiny town section redefine itself as an area of poky little rooms surrounded by high walls? All those walls blocking out distraction can be damned oppressive, not to mention expensive if done in permanent landscape materials like brick, plastered concrete block or stone. Or high maintenance if done in clipped tall hedging with the added problem that all those hedge plant roots reaching out into the flower borders. It is also very difficult to accommodate large trees in those rooms, let alone worrying about the place of the genius loci in such a heavily contrived design.

Must the defined spaces of garden rooms, seen here at Great Dixter, become mandatory in good New Zealand gardens?

I could not disagree more. Garden rooms are but one device, one way of achieving a desirable end point. The underpinning principle is surely that a good garden should never be revealed in its entirety at first glance. There should be surprises to be discovered, changes of mood and variations in light and shade. The design should entice you to explore further. Using different types of plants in different ways is not only practical in that you have varying growing conditions but it also punctuates the changes.

If you stand back and look at your garden and decide that it is rambling, then it is likely that you lack that sense of design and flow as well as changes of mood. If you have repeated the same plants (oft claimed as a device to give continuity but actually more often, simply dull), then you exacerbate the sense of rambling lack of form.

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat (not that I have ever wanted to subject a poor moggy to that exercise), there are more ways to design a garden than depending on tightly defined and enclosed garden rooms. After all, a mark of a good garden is surely a degree of originality?