Tag Archives: modern garden design

Originality – a rare quality

It is Sunday morning which means my thoughts have been focussed on the morning garden discussion with Tony Murrell on Radio Live Home and Garden Show. It is a little easier to be focussed at 7.45am than it used to be at our earlier time slot of 6.30am, even though we have less time now.  This morning the topic was originality in gardens. Is it over-hyped and how many truly original gardens have you seen?

I have seen a fair number of gardens now and met many gardeners who regard their own patch as showing great originality. While some show genuine creativity, that is different to originality. I only came up with four gardens that I have personally visited that I would describe as originals.

For most of us – and I include Mark and I in this – our gardens are a grab-bag of ideas from all over the place and from throughout history. The skills lie in how we reinterpret those ideas and make them our own. Some people don’t do even that. They just grab the ideas they have seen somewhere or read about and try and reproduce that at home. There is not much creativity in that.

Even Sissinghurst, that famous garden that has arguably had a greater influence on New Zealand domestic gardening than any other, is not an original. Hidcote was started 20 or 30 years before Sissinghurst and shows a similar approach to garden rooms in the Arts and Crafts genre. And if you go and look at the Moorish gardens of Andalusian Spain (the Alhambra is the most famous), you can see intimate garden rooms from a much earlier era.

One photo can not do justice to a large, complex garden

So which four gardens did I come up with that have struck me as genuinely original without clear influences from identifiable places or earlier times? Two are in New Zealand. Paloma, near Wanganui, is the creation of Clive and Nicki Higgie and it is remarkable. Unique, even, and I do not hand out that accolade lightly. Not only is there exceptional plantsmanship looking well into the future, and a very personal creativity bordering at times on the quirky, it is what I would call an original vision. I can not think of any other garden that is like Paloma.

The same goes for Grahame Dawson’s industrial chic garden on a small urban section in Mount Eden, Auckland. I have never seen anything like it, before or since. It is what I would call an original created with great flair and panache.

Overseas, Le Jardin Plume in Normandy (near, or near-ish, to Rouen) has stuck in my memory with great clarity. Other people have wave hedges but they tend to be of the undulating hummock style whereas Plume has these sharp-edged waves evocative of the sea breaking on the shoreline. The contrast with the loose plantings of tall, perennials is stark and effective. So too are their parterres of meadow an entirely new take on old forms. It is an innovative garden with some ideas that were completely fresh to us. Though, in the interests of accuracy, there were also areas which were not as unique.

It may come as no surprise to regular readers that I also chose Wildside as one of the few totally original gardens we have seen. Keith Wiley has entirely resculptured his landscape on a surprising scale to accommodate his plants by creating different microclimates and habitats. He would be one of the most exceptional plantsmen we have ever met but also with a passion for colour, texture and putting the plants together to create vibrant pictures. We have not seen another garden like it.

What all these four gardens have in common is that they are private owned and gardened with great passion, joy and commitment by their owners. They don’t have sole claim to those attributes but it is also allied to personal visions that are as close to individual and unique as I have seen. Many of us are craftspeople in our garden, at times with considerable skill, flair and the ability to put our own stamp of creativity on the ideas and visions we have in our heads and hearts as well as to push boundaries. But to a rare few is given the ability to come up with something entirely fresh and new. Maybe they are the ground-breaking artists? In their own quiet way, in the quiet space of their own garden at least. And that element of originality is not always comfortable for garden visitors.

Postscript thoughts:

I have not included sculpture gardens because in most cases, the garden is the venue for the dominant art, not a situation where the garden can stand on its own as showing original vision.

Nor have we visited the Garden of Cosmic Speculation or any of the Wirtz gardens. Landform as sculpture is a different aspect altogether and I haven’t seen enough to comment. I have seen one garden that took this approach in a naturalistic style and I have never forgotten it (years ago – read the fifth para down for a description). We usually seek out gardens that combine design with plantsmanship and working with nature to achieve beauty whereas it seems that landform gardens use the materials of nature to create sculptural form, often with minimal plant interest. When time is short, one has to set priorities in garden visiting.

Paloma is open by appointment and their website gives contact details. Grahame Dawson opens occasionally for the Heroic Festival in late summer but is not generally open. Le Jardin Plume and Wildside both have websites that detail their open days.






Modernist gardening, modern gardens and contemporary design

I felt as if I was looking at a parallel universe as I browsed “Contemporary Gardens of New Zealand”.

In fact, I think that the book is incorrectly named. It might be more accurately titled: “The Modernist Revival in New Zealand Garden Design”. The dominant impression is that the contemporary garden in this country is hard-edged design stripped of colour and plantsmanship. Who needs more than griselinia, nikau palms, corokia, strelitizia (the bird of paradise plant), xeronema (Poor Knights lily) and trachelospermum (star jasmine)? Yes, I know that is over simplifying, but most of the gardens included in the book use a very limited range of plants.

Modernist gardening has its roots in 1930s garden design. In fact, if you look back at some of those early examples, they would still look cutting-edge today. But it is only one style and the mistake is to think that modernism as a movement is synonymous with modern and therefore contemporary.

I would argue that modern gardening in this country goes well beyond the modernist revival style. How can anyone write about modern gardening without discussing the huge resurgence in interest in the edible garden? There is a distinct trend returning to utilitarianism usually seen in times of war and food shortage, where the growing of plants for ornamental purposes was seen as frivolous and every plant should be edible. These edible gardens, even when dressed up as potagers, don’t look contemporary and don’t photograph as well, but they are a definite modern trend.

Similarly, we are witnessing a movement against the chemical intervention of the last few decades. Call it organics, call it ecology, or naturalistic gardening, even sustainability – all reflect a rejection of the gardening values of the previous generation and a concern for harmony in nature. The modernistic gardens in the aforementioned book all play lip service to the idea of a “strong sense of place”, being “deeply respectful of the unique location”, the context – to the extent that I somewhat uncharitably started to think of all the Miss Universe contestants who give 60 second speeches about wanting world peace and homes for fluffy kitties. I would argue that at least some of those gardens demonstrated man’s imposition of rigid symmetry and entirely unnatural monocultures which is in fact the opposite of a harmony with place.

Most people actually like flowers

Most people actually like flowers

What is difficult to believe is that a garden genre which strips colour, seasonality and flowers from the garden is ever going to be more than a passing trend which appeals to a minority, most of whom are not gardeners themselves. There is next to no pink in this book on contemporary gardens, nothing voluptuous or even pretty. At its best, it is all terribly sculptural. If the owners want to have flowers indoors, most of them will be buying them from the flower shop. In my experience, most people like flowers and colour in their garden. And while seasonal change is messy, it is also what gladdens the heart for many.

The Foreman Garden in Lepperton

The Foreman Garden in Lepperton

I visited two local gardens last week which I would describe as modern or contemporary examples. Both are the creations of younger woman who are very keen gardeners and both are beautifully maintained and represent a great deal of time, thought and skill. The first was an example of green and brown austerity with a very limited range of plants, which has its origins in the modernist style though I found the use of curves to be more sympathetic to the surrounding countryside than hard edged symmetry. The total package of “the look” was what mattered and it was clearly designed to be as static as is possible when working with living plants. It was well executed and I can enjoy looking at such a garden, even if it is not to my personal taste.

La Rosaleda - photo credit Jane Dove Juneau

La Rosaleda – photo credit Jane Dove Juneau

The second garden was equally beautifully executed but could not be more different. It was an over the top riot of flowers, particularly roses, where the owner wields total control over the colour scheme and every plant combination represents thought. But pastel. Indubitably pastelle, with the most refined colour transitions throughout the garden. That love affair with the romance of pastel colour and the rejection of primary hues harks back to the Edwardian rejection of the garish Victorian gardens. It is incredibly pretty, feminine and romantic and in its most recent incarnation, is just as contemporary as the modernist garden design.

Landscapers are a breed apart from gardeners. That is not a value judgement. They are just on a different path, as indeed are plantspeople who have no interest in design but find the botanical detail of different plants fascinating. Both landscapers and plantspeople have their own unique language which sets them apart, accords them a higher plane is some eyes. In the middle are the gardeners who try to bring together both the design and the plants.

That said, there was one garden in the book that rendered me awestruck. It was the work of Queenstown landscape architect, Paddy Baxter and the location was in a remote area on the flanks of the Remarkables. It was not pretty, it was not conventional. It used pretty much all local native plants and it was the most exquisite example of anchoring a residence into its environment by sensitive landscaping. That was a very fine example of one type of contemporary garden.

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