Tag Archives: modern perennial plantings

Room for improvement at a major tourist site

On a windy day, the kites were more interesting than the garden

I had never been to the Michael Joseph Savage memorial on Bastion Point in Auckland before but after the somewhat disappointing visit to Auckland Botanic Gardens on Saturday, I wandered down the windy hill from where I was staying and I was somewhat surprised that it had escaped my notice. It was pretty clear that many (many, many) tourists have experienced what had bypassed me as there is a constant flow of tourist buses stopping there.

But let us leave the distinctive obelisk and mausoleum honouring the memory of this country’s first Labour Prime Minister and founder of the welfare state to one side. And also, let us leave aside the chequered history of that particular headland commonly referred to as Bastion Point but also known as Takaparawhau or Whenua Rangatira, while acknowledging the high impact of the recent history that still resonates long and loud for many of us and none more so than the Ngati Whatua community who are the closest residents.

Plenty of room for improvement

Let us talk about the garden. It has an amazing setting, pretty sheltered on the leeward side, astounding views, a rich history, huge significance historically and some pretty interesting aged design features. So why oh why is the garden the most unimaginative, dull, cliched affair possible, dominated by the Victorian bedding plant genre now meeting utility, amenity planting of the dreariest style? What a missed opportunity. Has nobody gone to Council and advocated for a breath of fresh energy and more innovation at a place that is a prime tourist site?

The view  – unconnected to the monument and the gardens

White painted seats, plenty of old concrete, white carpet roses and shaved grass out the front

On the seaward side of the monument, there is a breath-taking view. Do garish white painted seats and mingy, narrow borders of a white carpet rose do anything to enhance this area? Well, no, they don’t. And I state that as a fact, not an opinion. I get the formal garden concept for the whole area but surely it could be done more creatively? I would want to use native plants at the front to blend out to the wilder areas at the perimeter and then out to wider seascape. Maybe something like clipped Muehlenbeckia astonii  could be used as a formal planting, as shown at its best at Auckland Botanic Gardens.

Muehlenbeckia astonii clipped to give formality 

Along with painting the seats a muted shade – anything but stark white or garish bright green. Though, if the front was colour themed to red, black and white to recognise the colours of the Tino rangatiratanga flag and the red of the Labour Party, the white seats might remain. 

Pretty much a blank slate of austere but unimaginative plantings

On the leeward side, there is a large protected basin with loads of aged concrete construction and a formal pool. They are pretty good bones to start with but standard Iceberg roses and stripes of different bedding plants that are little more than ankle height? I assume it is buxus hedging but I can’t guarantee that because I was so unutterably bored by the plantings that I did not look closely. I am pretty sure I also spotted lavender past its best and cosmos that was over and dead.

A blank slate, begging for a more ambitious planting

Given the setting and the formal structure, I just wanted to see a very capable designer with good plant knowledge sweep in, gut the plantings and go with something stunning. I have seen really high-quality public planting overseas, particularly in the UK – sustainable, ecologically sound, transitioning through the seasons, hardy but above all, vibrant, inspiring and immersive for the visitor.  Some of the contemporary European and American trends of dry prairie planting, New Perennials or even Pictorial Meadows would transform this area. Keep the old structure but work within it with some contemporary energy and style.

This is the current planting,. Need I say more?

I can not think that either Michael Joseph Savage (1930s era) or Ngati Whatua would ever relate to the oppressive and dated Victorian bedding plant genre. This place could be so much more if somebody, anybody, had some imagination and knowledge. It is not exactly low maintenance now so I don’t accept that as an excuse for the status quo. I suspect that nobody has taken a cold, hard look at it for many a year, let alone considered alternative styles that would honour the history, the location and the existing structure while dragging it into modern times with inspired plantings.

How about some more contemporary, generous, immersive plantings like this Oudolf sweep at Scampston in Yorkshire? 

More Oudolf at Pensthorpe in Norfolk 

Modern plantings have moved on from Victorian bedding to something altogether more immersive

 

 

The Return of the Red Hot Poker

Kniphofia, combined here with tall growing Campanula lactiflora, in the classic, long herbaceous borders at Hilliers Arboretum in Hampshire last June

Kniphofia, combined here with tall growing Campanula lactiflora, in the classic, long herbaceous borders at Hilliers Arboretum in Hampshire last June

Yes of course plants are subject to fickle fashion fads but that also means that those that have fallen from favour can rise again. It is the time, dear Reader, to face the Return of the Red Hot Poker.

The path back to social acceptance is somewhat more difficult for plants which have become the wildflowers of our roadsides, sniffed at as weeds although pretty enough on their days in flower. I am not convinced the agapanthus will ever recover from this lowly position in New Zealand life but the moptop hydrangea has already undergone a revival. The red hot poker is not as ubiquitous as the derided agapanthus, so maybe there is hope. In times past there were plans for it to be a great deal more common, in one area at least.

Back in the early 1980s when a cabinet minister fell out with his leader and was demoted, he came up with a clever plan to catch public attention. It was Derek Quigley, if my memory serves me right. He wanted to plant up our roadsides thematically, to pretty-up the main roads for tourists. So Canterbury, the home of grace and tradition and the place of his electorate, was to be planted in flowering cherry trees. Classy. I am afraid I do not recall what, if anything, was suggested for the Waikato. But poor old Taranaki – its roadsides were to be planted in red hot pokers if the fallen cabinet minister had his way. He was no horticulturist.

The only reason I remember this piece of folly was because of my late mother-in-law’s horror. She was given to telling very long stories and this one took many kilometres over a long car journey. The highly abbreviated version is that when she was a child, the only sex education she received was to be given a book. Something akin to the Flower Fairies of sex education, I think, for in that book Mother was portrayed as a blushing violet. Father, as quick thinking readers may have already deduced – Father was a red hot poker.

 Maybe it is time to bring the red hot poker off the roadside and back into gardens as a valued plant

Maybe it is time to bring the red hot poker off the roadside and back into gardens as a valued plant

So, were these public planting plans to go ahead, the roadsides of my mother-in-law’s beloved Taranaki were to be carpeted from one end to the other in phallic symbols.

But we do not garden in isolation and I can tell you that kniphofia – for that is their proper name – are now trendy plants again overseas. They are easy plants that lend themselves to inclusion in herbaceous plantings, both traditional and contemporary. We saw them used extensively in the modern perennial plantings we looked at in Britain last year, valued for their upright, vertical flower form. We also did a short tour of public plantings in Canberra at Christmas where kniphofia are being mass planted to soften the urban landscape. They are a great deal more versatile than most of us realise in this country.

This attractive yellow and green kniphofia with much finer foliage fitted well in the looser plantings of Wildside Garden in Devon

This attractive yellow and green kniphofia with much finer foliage fitted well in the looser plantings of Wildside Garden in Devon

Not all red hot pokers are the same as the common orange and bi-colour ones we see on our roadsides. Theirs is a huge family with many different species and a colour range from cream, through yellows, oranges, almost pink, to deep colours which are nearly red, along with a host of bicolours. Most are evergreen with long, narrow leaves and there are smaller growing, finer leafed options for areas where you can’t accommodate a huge clump. They are African plants, growing from rhizomes and fleshy roots below ground. Give them sun and reasonable levels of moisture and they will thrive on benign neglect, usually without becoming a menace. There is also variation in flowering times, depending on the species, so it is possible to pick a range that will carry the garden through many months.

If red hot pokers have unfortunate connotations for you, try calling them by their other common names of torch lilies or knofflers. I am quite taken by the knoffler epithet. If nothing else, consider the fact these flowers are particularly rich in nectar and make a significant contribution to feeding both birds and insects. There are a fair range of different knoffler cultivars already in the country, although you may need to seek out specialist perennial nurseries to find named cultivars.

Kniphofia combine well with the grasses much favoured in modern perennial plantings – seen here at the display gardens at Blooms of Bressingham in Norfolk

Kniphofia combine well with the grasses much favoured in modern perennial plantings – seen here at the display gardens at Blooms of Bressingham in Norfolk

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