Tag Archives: ideas for small gardens

Something to see here – garden mirrors

Spot the mirror 1.

Spot the mirror 1.


I have never been a fan of mirrors in the garden. But look at these in a small, private garden I visited in Auckland yesterday. It is owned by a retired couple and is not open to the public.
The trompe l'oiel of the world of garden mirrors

The trompe l’oiel of the world of garden mirrors


Spot the mirrors. I failed entirely to work out that they were mirrors until the owner made a comment that they often trick people and I then saw our reflections. Until that point, I had assumed the garden continued on and there was a further “garden room”, or maybe two, beyond. It is very cleverly done especially with the door opening in to the mirror – creating an effect akin to a trompe l’oiel. These installations were beautifully executed in their subtlety.

I am still not convinced that mirrors are a good idea in the hands of those less skilled but I may have to review my earlier blanket dismissal of them. I just have not seen them used well before and I think this is probably an exceptional example.

The bougainvilleas were repeated throughout the garden, carefully managed in small spaces and looking vibrant.

The bougainvilleas were repeated throughout the garden, carefully managed in small spaces and looking vibrant.

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.

Ideas for very small gardens

Synthetic grass has come a long way in recent years and can look surprisingly like the real thing. In a few circumstances, it may even be a better option.

Synthetic grass has come a long way in recent years and can look surprisingly like the real thing. In a few circumstances, it may even be a better option.

Camera in hand, I was thinking of you, dear Readers, on my recent trip to Sydney and Canberra and I gathered up three examples of very small, urban garden spaces.

Artificial grass or synthetic turf is often a source of much derision. The common name of Astro Turf is in fact a brand name of one of the early pioneers of this product. Given that I live in a place where we have green grass all year round, I have been guilty of sniffing snootily at the mere thought and indeed the examples I have seen have been such luminous green as to shout, let alone the nasty, rough nylon texture which bears no resemblance to the real thing at all.

The front apartment next door to where I stayed in Coogee on Sydney’s eastern beaches had artificial grass. I knew it had to be artificial because it was a uniform green with no weeds in it and everywhere else was turning brown. But I had to touch it to confirm. And it made me think that this product has come a long way from the early days. I reviewed my blanket dismissal. I won’t be rushing out to buy any, but in this situation, it had a lot going for it. If you have lawn, you have to own machinery to mow it. If you have lawn on sandy soils, you have to water it just to keep it alive. Where space is small and accommodates an outdoor dining setting and barbecue, the furniture has to be moved to mow the grass and the sections subjected to shade or constant scuffing will suffer. If you lay pavers instead, the area will get hotter and that is not always desirable.

A little leaf and soil litter from the surrounding plants gave this synthetic lawn a far more natural look. I could see why the owners had made that choice and I thought it looked fine.

The gothic revival courtyard had a sense of romantic abandon at odds with its Coogee Beach location.

The gothic revival courtyard had a sense of romantic abandon at odds with its Coogee Beach location.

Further up the road was a front courtyard that had me entranced. Gothic revival, I decided. It wasn’t an area to live on. Nor was it tightly manicured for kerb appeal. It was a courtyard that could have come from a story book. Stone steps led down to a simple, geometric space which, despite its austerity and laissez faire maintenance, had an air of romantic abandon. It is hard to beat stone for long term landscaping. It ages so gracefully. Mind you I have a penchant for Gothic lines which I have to keep suppressed here because there is not a Gothic hint to build upon.

Note the very modern row of wheelie bins to the right. It is a bit of a shame about those but rows of wheelie bins are a fact of life in high density urban situations. The shared bins of apartment living may be necessary but they have the interesting side effect of absolving the residents from knowing how much waste they generate individually. We are so close to our household rubbish at home that I know exactly how much we generate when I carry the bag and the recycling out to the roadside each Sunday evening. Not these city dwellers. All they do is separate their recycling and load out to common bins with no investment in reducing their personal waste.

Simplicity, formality and immaculate presentation gave kerb appeal although there is little to appeal to the creative gardener

Simplicity, formality and immaculate presentation gave kerb appeal although there is little to appeal to the creative gardener

Up the road from my Canberra daughter’s home, I had to photograph a new property. It stood out on that street with its immaculate presentation. The roses were at their peak and there was a seductive simplicity to the scene. The standards are good old Iceberg. I don’t know what the shrub roses were – something similar to one I have here that is a low-growing, white single. There were only two rose varieties plus the clichéd standby of buxus hedging. It bore all the hallmarks of being professionally designed, installed (and I use that word deliberately) and maintained. I am pretty sure that road verge is irrigated and sprayed to keep it looking that good. On the day, I would have to give it full marks for kerb appeal though it was totally derivative. The problem is what it would look like when the roses are not in flower – dull as ditchwater, I suspect. This is not gardening for gardeners. It is gardening for property owners who place a high value on external presentation and there is nothing wrong with that.

This particular property confirmed my thinking that if you are not a keen gardener, opting for a formal layout and a very limited plant palette is a safe choice that, when maintained well, can look most effective.

I just preferred the Gothic revival courtyard but that is personal choice. On which note, I wish all readers a safe and happy festive season.

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