Tag Archives: garden fashion

Fashion vs style

I was shocked. Really shocked. There I was in the supermarket and I picked up a gardening magazine I had no intention of buying. But as I skimmed it, I came across an article that told us to rip out all our grasses. The ‘Oudolf prairies’ and the entire New Perennials movement were out. Shrubberies are back.

The writer qualified this statement by saying that she was just joking but the damage was done. There are my new borders just coming into their own with their heavy dependence on grasses and perennials, much influenced by what we have seen in the UK and Europe. And while this whole naturalistic gardening movement has been a major force in Europe and to some extent the USA for over 15 years, it hasn’t really reached New Zealand gardens yet, but is already, allegedly, passé.

It did at least get me thinking on the difference between fashion in gardening and major gardening movements.

Fashion or trends are driven by marketing, as much in gardening as in clothing or décor. And that is all about selling commercial product. If you can convince customers that they need this hot new item to be on trend, that makes money for everyone on the supply chain from producer to retailer. Even better if you can convince them to replace a whole garden in order to be up with the play, at the forefront of fashion.

Gardening movements, styles or genres are different, though it can be hard to tell apart at the time. It takes hindsight to get the bigger picture. Until early last century, ornamental gardening was largely the preserve of the rich and powerful. Ornamental, domestic gardening at the individual level didn’t really take off until after WW1. But we can look back and see several significant gardening movements, or styles.

The idea of garden rooms has its most recent roots at Hidcote and then Sissinghurst. It made design – in this case, the design of a series of linked but separate spaces – applicable to the home gardener. Many people are still working to the garden rooms principles today.

Cottage gardening, as exemplified by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor, is a separate gardening movement that remains popular nearly eight decades later. It is very relevant and applicable to a domestic scale of gardening which became popular as the grand estates declined.

I think the classic rose beds probably warrant the status of genre rather than transient fashion, though they have certainly fallen from favour now and look very unsophisticated and barren by today’s standards. Those are the island beds of just roses, hybrid teas mostly, planted with little regard for colour and standing in splendid isolation with good air movement and bereft of underplanting. There are many practical reasons for growing roses in this manner and it is only in more recent times that most of us have decided the aesthetic deficiencies outweigh any practical consideration.

Treating the garden as an extension of the indoor living space (all that indoor-outdoor flow) is often attributed to the English designer, John Brookes in the latter half of the twentieth century. That is here to stay, though taken to ridiculous lengths by OTT Australian luxury design with their outdoor kitchens and living areas.

Crystal ball gazing, I would suggest that the contemporary tropical garden in more northerly areas of this country – the Balinese hotel style, as I have sniffily dubbed it, may turn out to be more movement than transient fashion. It fits the climate, the lifestyle, the aesthetic and the maintenance regime of many gardeners, particularly in Auckland city. Not so good down south, though, so it is quite localised.

Then there are the fashion gardens, more driven by magazines and other media then anything else. Remember the dreaded dwarf conifer gardens with their scoria mulch laid on black plastic?  No. I don’t want to remember them too much, either. The same goes for the short-lived reign of the ghastly minimalist gardens at the start of the new millennium. Three large rocks, a yucca, a sanseveria and some scleranthus surrounded by an ocean of lime chip, fine gravel or – if the budget ran to it – prettier coloured pebbles. Or, horror beyond horror, a mass of tumbled, coloured glass pebbles if you were of a certain demographic. Aqua coloured glass shards were much favoured as I recall. Minimalist gardens may have drawn on the subtle and spare refinement of the traditional Japanese garden but they lacked any cultural context or complexity in their trendy manifestation and died very soon after being born.

While the home production of fruit and vegetables seems destined to continue no matter what, the current craze for *food forests* is, I suggest, more fashion than movement. It won’t be long before people realise that so-called food forests in temperate climates don’t actually produce much food at all – at least nowhere near as much as more utilitarian vegetable gardens, berry enclosures and orchards can provide. You wouldn’t want to be aiming at self-sufficiency with a food forest but you can at least claim to be on trend at the moment.

Which brings me to the ‘Oudolf prairies’ (he has done many things but never prairies) and the current fashion for plantings incorporating a fair swag of grasses. Movement, not fashion, I say. These are but one part of a major swing in gardening style towards a more naturalistic and sustainable approach. It is part of a whole spectrum which takes in meadows, even prairies if you have the right climate, the Sheffield School, environmentally friendly and sustainable gardening as practiced by a large swag of British, European and American designers and leading gardeners. It is soft-edged, should be lower maintenance, sitting comfortably with Nature as opposed to being imposed upon it, sustaining a healthy eco-system and a harmonious balance between the natural world and the aesthetic many humans crave. Enhanced nature, romantic gardening, naturalistic gardening – call it what you will. It is a movement, not a transient fashion because it is underpinned by a philosophy that goes well beyond the marketing of plants and landscaping accoutrements.

I won’t be ripping out my grasses and perennials to replace them with dwarf shrubs from the garden centre. Style trumps transient fashion every time.

All for show? Not necessarily

“Our Garden” by Andy Sturgeon – I wouldn’t mind this as my garden

“Our Garden” by Andy Sturgeon – I wouldn’t mind this as my garden

We have never been to the Chelsea Flower Show and have no particular desire to go. We went to the NZ equivalent, the Ellerslie Flower Show maybe three times, just to keep in touch. Maybe we are just too cynical about show gardens.

A six-way discussion on this topic recently illustrated the division. The four hands-on gardeners around the table felt there was little cross-over from show gardens whereas the two academics with a design focus (whom I do not think ever allowed dirt beneath their finger nails) argued that show gardens were trend setters. I guess the divide may be whether one thinks designers are more important than gardeners.

We were at the Royal Horticultural Society flagship garden, Wisley (near Guilford) for a couple of days and their installation of model gardens in the area they call “Witan Street” suddenly took on new meaning. These are show gardens, all measuring a uniform 9m x 6m, designed by members of the Society of Garden Designers and installed between 2004 and 2008. Where else are you going to see what show gardens look like up to ten years on, after being given only a moderate level of routine maintenance?

“I don’t think much of these,” sniffed a passing garden visitor, dismissing the whole lot in one sweep of the hand. On the contrary, we thought quite a lot about them. What these gardens showed is that good design lasts, fashion items don’t. A well designed show garden can mature gracefully and become a softer-edged back garden appropriate for a domestic setting.

Perspex panels, no thank you. Dated already, as fashion items do.

Perspex panels, no thank you. Dated already, as fashion items do.

Perspex panels were not a good long term option. The clear perspex example was a bit grungy and in need of a good clean. The coloured perspex panels no longer looked cutting-edge contemporary in style. They looked like outdated, tacky gimmickry.

The full length mirror also looked grubby and unappealing. We never liked this idea, even when it was promoted in this country. “Make your garden look larger and reflect light”, some suggested. Mirrors are best in bathrooms and bedrooms. They are a bit contrived in a garden setting, in my opinion. It appears they don’t age gracefully either. We felt further vindicated when an English gardener commented on how dangerous mirrors are for birds who can fly into them at speed. No garden mirrors here, thanks.

The blue and yellow colour scheme is very “of the day”. I am reserving judgement on the stainless steel

The blue and yellow colour scheme is very “of the day”. I am reserving judgement on the stainless steel

I am keeping an open mind on the use of stainless steel. It looked okay in Dizzy Shoemark’s “A Garden of Contrasts”. It did, but I would want to see it in another decade before deciding whether it is legitimate long term material or fashion item.

Flat planes of colour on boundary walls can date a garden quickly but are relatively easy to update – if you notice. The danger is that the aubergine, Mexican gold or solid blue that looks so sharp and edgy when first painted then stays on well past its use-by date, in danger of achieving floral carpet status over time. The owner can become so used to seeing it there, that he or she fails to register that it is now tired, faded and dated.

The Rill Garden. I am sure it would have had many scatter cushions in its original inception

The Rill Garden. I am sure it would have had many scatter cushions in its original inception

Each garden has an information board  in show garden style

Each garden has an information board in show garden style

I fear that the Rill Garden by Roger Webster showed too much bare concrete to achieve its aim of “a sensual and social space evocative of a warm climate”. But I would bet money that in its original concept, all that expanse of concrete benching was luxuriously encased in the many scatter cushions that featured in most show gardens of the day. Without said cushions, the seating looked cold, damp and very hard to the derriere.

Water is clearly problematic and much depends on design and installation. Some water features looked decidedly stagnant and unappealing whereas others were standing the test of time. Water is not low maintenance and you need to get it right – or live with the consequences of mosquitoes, in our climate at least.

I think the maturing block planting had achieved the status of being dull in ‘Intersection” where the designer states: “Blocks of yew and box reflect the geometric design of the garden and contrast with the more informal drifts and random planting that flows around the static elements.” I have seen it done better and the square blocks were not inviting as a back yard option.

But some of the gardens had mellowed out to charming effect. These gave lie to my dismissal of show gardens. Yes you can learn from them. They demonstrate trends and fashion and focus the mind on design. I just think they are a lot more interesting a few years later if given the chance to settle in, lose the hard-edged perfection and to actually grow.

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

Of matters related to social class and social conscience

Cardoon - the next trendy crop for basil sophisticates?

Cardoon - the next trendy crop for basil sophisticates?

I have fun with Twitter, the social networking stream where you have be very brief and succinct and most interaction takes place with strangers. Not that gardening tweeps (the lingo says a participant is a tweep, not a twit or twitterer) are generally inspiring, witty or memorable. But Twitter delivered me two gems this week of a horticultural bent.

The first tweet linked me through to a column from the Dominion Post discussing baby names – which has nothing whatever to do with gardening unless you draw the long bow and comment on the growing popularity of flower names such as Lily and Poppy. Goodness, maybe Daphne is due for a recall. Mark suggested when our daughters were born that we could go for Astelia or Aciphylla – the latter being a spiky native plant and his favoured option, even more so if we chose the botanical reference Dieffenbachii as the poor wee mite’s middle name. But I digress. That column by Dave Armstrong referred to the “basil growing classes”. I laughed out loud. As a definition of middle class, urban, somewhat leftwing New Zealand, the basil growing classes seemed wonderfully apt. There is a limit to how versatile basil is and there is only so much pesto one can eat. Salads of sweet tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella and basil leaves are equally delightful but the price of mozzarella (the white stuff cocooned in water, not the nasty long life stuff) limits how often this appears in our household. I can remember that there was indeed Life Before Basil in this country – a time when only those who had backpacked through Italy had been introduced to the seductive fragrance of freshly picked basil leaves. Now it is a defining herb of the middle classes here and to grow your own makes you trendier.

Cardoon flowers are showier than basil flowers

Cardoon flowers are showier than basil flowers

So, if your children bear names like Oliver, Samuel and Amelia, you probably drive an urban SUV but your husband bikes to work, you have tomatoes in a grow bag, a worm farm and pots of basil growing, consider yourself one of the basil growing social class. In which case I have a hot tip – cardoon is my prediction for the new basil. It is sufficiently obscure to be interesting. It is extremely decorative in the garden. It is edible. We have eaten it. To be honest, we weren’t blown away by it (not like Florence fennel) but it is fine. In case you want to know more, instructions for growing it are below.

But I was ever so slightly crushed this week when Mark asked me to Google burdock. He was debating about what to do with the small plants he had growing after being enticed to buy seed from Kings Seed Catalogue. In fact we decided on balance that burdock is probably not worth the garden space, has dangerous weed potential, does not sound particularly tasty at all and has a very low yield to space required. But there, amongst the burdock information was the one line: Burdock: peeled leaf stalks are parboiled and used as a substitute for cardoon.

Wow. Some have never even heard of cardoon. Some don’t know that cardoon is edible. Some are still at the experimental stage of determining how edible it is. It is not yet showing up in any cookbooks I have seen, even though I receive review copies of many of the latest publications. But it is already such a staple in some people’s diets that they have found a substitute for it? I am amazed. My advice is to not delay if you wish to catch the wave of cardoon as a fashion crop. I will try and be earlier with my next prediction.

The second tweet was not so much as a source of amusement as vindicating a stance we have been taking here for some time. An American tweep, @InkandPenstemon, posted the comment: “The static monoculture of a lawn is never more unattractive than when it is exposed in the winter.”

We prefer to talk about grass rather than lawns these days

We prefer to talk about grass rather than lawns these days

It has felt a little lonely at times, standing on our high horse bemoaning the obsession with the perfect lawn. At last I am seeing more talk challenging the high value we place on completely unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly lawn maintenance. There is a column in the latest NZ Gardener by Steve Wratten on this very topic. The author just happens to be Professor of Ecology at Lincoln University. He goes further than we do in that he eschews the motor mower in favour of an electric mower. I will own up to the fact that we use a pretty damn fancy lawnmower and we use it extensively. Because we have an open garden, there are standards we feel obliged to maintain and mowing large areas of grass is part of that. Perhaps we could offset that against the fact that our car usually gets to leave the garage only once or twice a week?

I make no apology for continuing a public crusade. We should not be embracing gardening values which are environmentally damaging and the worst one of all is the perfect lawn. A smooth monoculture of a single species of grass is a completely unnatural state of affairs which can only be maintained with chemical intervention. If you insist on killing off the earthworms as well (as some do to avoid the surface being pocked by worm casts and tilled by birds), your crimes against nature are compounded exponentially. It is time we questioned this particular gardening value.

The irony is that it is probably the very same basil growing classes who are likely to wise up to this situation and act upon it in the first wave of concern. Clearly there is a lot to be said for basil as a defining social measure.

Earlier articles on lawn care here include “What does your lawn say about you?” from 2011 and “The lawn as a political statement” from 2006.

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

Garden fashion – from designer trend to cliche

I fear my scatter cushions are more of the shabby chic genre than designer...

I fear my scatter cushions are more of the shabby chic genre than designer...

I attended a really interesting garden lecture on Saturday. Some readers may know Neil Ross from his regular contributions to the NZ Gardener magazine. He spent some years as head gardener at Ayrlies in Auckland but these days is back gardening, designing and writing in the UK. His talk was loosely on gardening trends in Britain and I thought readers might enjoy a summary of what is going out of fashion and what is on the rise, based in part on his analysis of the cutting edge garden installations by leading designers at Britain’s superb garden shows – Chelsea, Tatton Park, Hampton Court and the like.

Passing over (so they will look dated very soon in your garden, should you be contemplating them) are painted walls – usually solid plastered walls installed as a garden feature and painted in a dramatic shade with colour toned plantings. Sorry, passé now, along with gabions, thank goodness. The latter are wire cages, usually filled with rocks but sometimes with au naturelle branches and trunks cut to length or even pine cones. We always thought that gabions looked better when used for their original purpose of slowing erosion. They are a bit too industrial altogether in a garden.

Dribbly water features that look like urinals (Neil’s description, not mine) are looking dated, irrespective of whether that trickle of water is flowing out of a terracotta head, a gargoyle of any description or just a modest pipe. Keep to ponds (lakes are better), natural streams or at least a decent gush of water if you feel the need for a water feature.

Box balls, Neil reports, have been so over-used as a formal feature that they have been done to death. Though he thought, in New Zealand it is not just buxus balls. It is the whole mini-Sissinghurst look of clipped buxus hedges and edges containing formal standard plants (be they roses, bay trees or choisya ternata) – a man after my own heart on this issue. Also done to death are designer scatter cushions accessorizing the display garden. I have to admit that I have been known to employ the scatter cushion on our rather unforgiving stone seats though mine are of the shabby chic genre (all my late mother’s tapestry, now heavily faded) rather than designer colours and textures. I only put them out when our garden is open and I went off that idea the time I forgot to bring them in and it rained….

The Missouri Meadow Garden at Wisley - perhaps the pinnacle of the prairie garden style

The Missouri Meadow Garden at Wisley - perhaps the pinnacle of the prairie garden style

The prairie garden is in danger of becoming yesterday’s design in England though we have never embraced this style in New Zealand. The Missouri Meadow at the RHS flagship garden, Wisley, south of London, is the finest example we have seen. But it relies on low rainfall and low fertility which hardly describes the dairy farming areas of New Zealand so we may never see prairie plantings popularised here.

If you want to be cutting edge, Neil’s advice is that the new trend is to keep chickens and indeed anything that is edible or food producing in the garden. I don’t think guinea pigs count. Beehives are all the rage, especially in cutsie-pie bee frames. Insect hotels are all the rage in English gardens though the research is that insects are happier in a natural environment (leave an old log to rot down) than in your designer Hilton.

Green walls are still a hot item but we agreed that they are expensive to install and a lot of work to maintain. It is easier to grow plants in the ground rather than in vertical frames, if you can.

Glass is in fashion, preferably exquisite, hand-blown glass features. At a pinch wine bottles might fit the bill in a creative wall construction which may suit the winos amongst us. But the suggestion I have seen to use old wine bottles as a garden edging is a really bad idea from a practical point of view, let alone the dodgy aesthetics. As you plunge your spade in to turn over the soil, you are just as likely to hit a bottle and break it.

Predicting the Return of the Conifer

Predicting the Return of the Conifer

And conifers are due to make a return. Not in a reincarnation of the awful 1970s style some readers may recall – a mass of prostrate junipers and the like plonked in through black plastic and then covered with that nasty red scoria. There were good reasons why that particular style of gardening fell from grace but the poor old conifers themselves did not deserve to be cast out to the wilderness along with the garden style. The conifer family is huge and there are many fine specimens from tiny treasures to handsome, long-lived landscape specimens. Used judiciously as accent plants throughout the garden, they can give a splendid year round shape and definition as well as variations in colour. Thank goodness we still have ours – after sixty years, some are getting venerable and we would not be without them.

In place of prairies and meadows, more block planting of perennials is returning – check out the work of Tom Stuart Smith or Piet Oudolf.

The final caution comes not from Neil but from the Garden of Jury – beware of rills and obelisks. They are on the cusp of passing from innovative to hackneyed. It is a very short step.

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

Crystal ball predictions for the 2010 gardening year

Ah, that wonderful Christmas – New Year hiatus. In the days before the Boxing Day sales and indeed before seven day trading, it used to be more of a coma than a hiatus but even now, in this country, we settle in to holiday mode. Why else would we tolerate the truly appalling offerings on television where there is rarely anything worth watching? Clearly we are all meant to be reading the Christmas books or chatting to family and friends instead. And the print and electronic media, yours truly included, sink into a period of reflection, summarising the year past and bravely making predictions for the year just starting. This is at least one step better than recycling earlier offerings under the headings of “ 2009 Highlights” or “Best of…”. So I shall resist the temptation to recycle a piece from earlier this year (though I will admit to being proud of the series I wrote on English summer gardens which is still on this website) and look into my crystal ball.

I believe we will diversify from vegetables. Veg gardening is not fad or fashion but the all consuming obsession is showing signs of dilution. There is a hint that some would like to read about other types of plants and gardens as well as home food production. I recall an Auckland journo wryly commenting on the $70 lettuce. That is the cost for some of producing their first and sometimes only produce after buying planter boxes, the bagged potting mix and compost, the most basic of tools and punnets of small plants from the garden centre.

Serious vegetable gardening will continue for some, but many of those who follow fashion and trends will be realising by now that to be a successful vegetable gardener requires some expertise and skill and quite a bit of time. You can not just plant the seeds or baby plants and then ignore them. Dilettantes will lose heart and move on. The declaration that one will only plant productive trees and shrubs may be a sign of naivety and not the higher moral ground. It could be argued that the doom and gloom of the recession had us all looking to survival mode. Now that the clouds are lifting, increased optimism allows space for aesthetics and beauty in life as well. And I can assure you that while the walnut tree I see outside my window fruits and we enjoy its harvest, it is but a poor aesthetic specimen compared to the magnolia nearby which is lush and opening its summer flowers. We need to nourish more than just the body and to titillate more than the taste buds. In our eyes, the complete garden goes well beyond just fruit and vegetables, although they are an important element.

The upside of the vegetable craze has been the return to some old fashioned values of seasonal eating, taking pride in home produce and super fresh ingredients given a new twist with some rather more sophisticated international flavours. I reviewed a rather large number of cook books last year for the food pages (Second Daughter was fearfully impressed last week with my shelf of recipe books and I only keep the ones I like) and certainly the current focus is very strongly on eating locally sourced foods in season. The delight in being able to transcend seasonal limitations by buying food which has crossed the hemispheres is a thing of the recent past for many of us. We now care whether the garlic and onions come from China, the grapes and nectarines from USA, the kiwifruit from Italy and the pork from Australia. We would rather it came from Te Kuiti or the Rangitikei, thank you, if we are to move outside our local area. So I would expect we will see farmers’ markets go from strength to strength.

The local focus of the farmers’ markets may well extend to wider gardening practices. Here, we raise our eyebrows at the widespread use of mulches, potting mixes and composts shipped across the country when there are local alternatives with much smaller carbon footprints. Pea straw is the classic. It has a great reputation as garden mulch (though it is a myth that it adds nitrogen to the soil because the nitrogen is in the roots of the pea plant and pea straw by definition, is the dried tops only) but have you ever asked yourself where the nearest commercial production of peas takes place? It is being shipped hundreds of kilometres in a large truck in order to cover your garden when there are local alternatives which will do just the same. Try locally produced granulated bark or compost, pine needles, even barley straw from South Taranaki.

The move away from poisons and sprays is a trend we expect to see escalate. Our tolerance level in this country for the use of some extremely heavy duty toxins is very high indeed, often justified as a lesser of two evils. 1080 is the classic: this mass poisoning on a grand scale with a particularly unpleasant toxin which enters the food chain is government sanctioned but we are seeing the tide of public opinion turn. At least 1080 is tightly controlled, whereas the over the counter poisons that are freely and abundantly sold here are arguably worse. Rats, mice, possums and rabbits – you too can bowl into a shop and buy some nasty poisons. The trouble is that many will enter the food chain, some have no antidotes, some are appallingly slow acting and unpleasant and in this country we are all too cavalier in our use of them. Worry whenever you see the term by-kill. It is the unintended death of other life than the target. A cute little dog named Wilfred, in our case, and the poison that killed him did not originate from our property. While we shoot all our possums here, a common possum poison used by others is very slow acting and can enter the food chain. We are having to review our long held practice of feeding the carcases to our animals. The time when we see a sharp reduction in the usage and availability of such toxins can not come soon enough for us, or indeed for the environment of our country.

Buffy the cat, potential by-kill, even even though Mark shoots all our possums. Slow acting over-the counter poisons may mean the carcase is already toxic.

Buffy the cat, potential by-kill, even even though Mark shoots all our possums. Slow acting over-the counter poisons may mean the carcase is already toxic.

Organics, we predict, will become more mainstream and increasingly widely practiced. It may not be organics as the purists know it. Indeed it is highly likely to be a heavily diluted form and possibly derided by the dedicated converts. But anything which sees gardening move away from practices and habits which rely more on the use of chemicals than on good gardening strategies has to be an improvement. If we follow the European trends, ever tighter government controls will stop home gardeners having access to a range of sprays and artificial fertilisers which have been used to prop up poor gardening practices, poor plant selection or unsustainable habits.

The wheel is turning. After a decade or more of rampant consumerism, conspicuous wealth and people who are time-poor, gardening is on the up again and for that we have the vegetable craze to thank. It all looks a great deal more wholesome and cheerful than a few years ago. Happy New Year and may 2010 be one of good gardening cheer for readers.