Tag Archives: naturalistic gardening

Six years on: meadow update

It is six years to the very day since we closed the garden to the public. And that means it is six years since we started to experiment with turning the park into a meadow. Up until that point, we mowed it all year – no easy task because it is undulating terrain across about four acres filled with specimen trees and shrubs and a stream. The areas that could not be mown – the stream banks and steepest gradients – were kept short with what we call a weedeater in New Zealand but many others know as a strimmer. It seemed important to maintain a similar level of control to that seen in public parks, even though this is a private garden.

Iris sibirica, Primula helodoxa and loads of buttercups

Six years on, how do we feel? We love it. It often makes my heart sing in ways in which the previous tight control of grass growth did not. It is a different mind-set altogether.

How it was, all mown, trimmed and tidy up until six years ago 

and how it looks today

We weren’t at all sure how it was going to work out. This is good dairying country which means we have verdant grass growth all year round, unchecked by summer droughts and winter cold. We have to mow grass twelve months of the year to keep it under control. And decades of gardening predicated on very tight weed control is hard to overcome. The love of meadows is inextricably linked to a higher tolerance for what are commonly called weeds. Buttercups, daisies, dandelions and Yorkshire fog, we have in abundance.

As it was before 

and as it is now. The orange azalea died and we removed the yellow flag irises on the grounds that they are a noxious weed by waterways

We were inspired to experiment with a softer edged, more romantic approach to gardening by our trips to the UK in particular, allied to growing concern that our approach to gardening carried a carbon input that was closer to a heavy hoof-print than a foot-print. We haven’t set about systematically measuring any increase in wildlife but we like to think that the changed approach is far kinder to nature. And as we age, we are also considering the labour input to the garden, given the fact that we have no plans to move off the property to a more suitable retirement home. We’d rather spend our energies on more constructive gardening activities than endlessly beating grass into obedient submission.

It is not a gardening style that will appeal to everybody. It is not neat and tidy. It does not show off man – and woman’s – ability to control nature to make it conform to the tight standards of suburban gardening. Some may look at it and think that it is uncontrolled, allowing the place to ‘go back’, although that is far from the truth. Meadows in the garden need management. It is not a question of just stepping back and letting it go. We still take out certain weeds, we mow paths, we manage the growth by mowing twice a year (in January and July), plant to enhance the richness of the meadow mix, we keep certain plants free from the rampant growth – so we keep an eye on it but with a much lighter hand.

As it was all mown (and scalped in places) with our much loved dog of the day, Zephyr

There is a problem with the frequent floods bringing unwanted weeds down from upstream which can then get established in the long grass before we have even spotted them. The war against wandering jew (Tradescantia fluminensis) and montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) will be without end unless upstream residents eliminate them. I am not keen on the docks and there is a nasty carex I dig out. But that is a smaller price to pay than trying to control every plant escape except paddock grass.

Just two years ago, our son cleared both big ponds of water weeds 

and already, they are back with a vengeance. Time to stop fighting them?

The next issue for us is to decide what to do with the two big ponds Mark put in back in the early 1990s. Our son raked them out last time he was home a couple of years ago but they are now congested with water weeds again. I have gone through every few years and raked the weeds out of the stream but it is heavy work and my back no longer appreciates it. All three of us here nurse our backs and wrists these days. I am now thinking that we live with what nature gives us. The stream flows well all year round so maybe we should just let it determine its own path and allow the ponds to silt up and return to bog or swamp. The irises, lysichitons and primulas are happy in bog conditions so maybe we are better to just concentrate of enriching the natural bog gardens rather than trying to keep a larger body of water visible. The stream is high in nutrients from dairy farm run-off (we can tell this by the particularly bright green shades of the weeds growing beneath the surface, as a water ecologist pointed out to us) so the water weeds will continue to thrive.

In another six years time, we may well have mega bog gardens but time will tell.

Rhododendron Barbara Jury 

Rhododendron nuttallii x sino nuttallii in the park meadow

Planning a trip

I loved my one, limited trip to Greece in 2004 but didn’t see a lot of vegetation

I like travelling. I am also mindful that in these rapidly changing times, the ability to fly across the world on a whim may be a privilege with days that are numbered. In fact, I feel defensive about even owning up publicly to planning another trip. But I am and it is very exciting.

The sight of wildflowers growing in their natural habitats can fairly be described as thrilling, for some of us at least. We haven’t seen a lot of it but I have been casting around for a tour that would suit us and I wasn’t overly keen on travelling to alpine meadows as they break into spring. A chance remark from a visiting friend put us onto a small tour company whose speciality is wildflower tours. The company is led by Christopher and Basak Gardner whom some readers may know as the authors of a beautiful book “The Flora of the Silk Road”. Another NZ colleague whose opinion we trust gave a ringing endorsement, having gone on two different tours with them.

Just look at the enticing small tours Vira Natura offer.  We are opting for the summer tour of the Pindos Mountains in Greece where the temperatures will be cooler than down on the coast at that time of the year. Lots of summer wildflowers, including Lilium chalecedonicum, and a  small group, staying in traditional hotels, led by a botanist.

Patmos, not Pindos, in 2004 but Greek at least

I have only been to a small part of Greece – an island-hopping trip in the Dodecanese with Second Daughter who was living in London at the time. I absolutely loved it and have longed to return. But Mark’s interest in arid island landscapes and swimming in the warm Mediterranean sea might last two days at the most before he became bored. And I could never inflict an island-hopping tour on him when he can get seasick out snorkelling, let alone travelling on ferries and catamarans. A land-based wildflower trip, however, is something that will delight both of us.

Because we are travelling so far, we will likely tack another week or ten days on to the end of the trip and head over to England (despite Brexit and all that). We are really keen to track how some of the naturalistic plantings we have seen have matured with the passage of a few more years. It is all very well to look wonderful for the first year or two, but how is it five years or more down the track? The Missouri Meadow at Wisley that so enchanted us in 2009 did not fare well but no doubt lessons have been learned. Meadows, prairies, wildflowers and naturalistic plantings may not need the heavy maintenance input of more traditional garden styles but they still need skilled management.

I offer our tentative list with the thought that some readers may have recommendations or comments to make. This will be mid-July, so heading into high summer.

London – I want to revisit the Nigel Dunnett planting at the Barbican that so delighted us on a previous visit and I can’t think why we have never been to see the Oudolf plantings at Potters Fields. Then up to Trentham Gardens near Stoke-on-Trent, primarily to see how the Dunnett plantings are maturing and to see the more recent additions he has made. We are particularly interested in his work. There is also a major magnolia planting there and we would like to see if any of ours have been used.

Wildside, a very special private garden in our opinion

Heading further north than we have been before, we are thinking of visiting Lowther Castle in Cumbria, mostly to see the gentle romance of Dan Pearson’s recent work. While up there, we would add in the outrageous, historical topiary of Levens Hall and probably pay a return visit to Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s lovely garden, Gresgarth (if it is open). Heading south, there has been so much talk about Piet Oudolf’s plantings at the Hauser and Wirth Gallery in Somerset that it would be a pity to miss them, even though we have a fairly good understanding of the Oudolf style now. Then to North Devon to see Keith and the late Ros Wiley’s particularly special garden called Wildside. We have been twice before but it remains our absolutely all-time favourite garden other than our own. It is worth the journey. We will go as far as arranging the dates and itinerary around Wildside’s limited opening days.

Heading back towards London, I would like to see Derek Jarman’s garden, even if it is only a brief stop en route. His book about the making of his garden is the best personal account I have read of any garden.

I am not sure how well we understood Great Dixter back in 2009

Finally, on this whistle-stop tour, we may revisit Sissinghurst to see what changes the outgoing head gardener, Troy Scott Smith and advisor, Dan Pearson have wrought in recreating the romance of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson’s original creation, which had become largely a distant memory in the face of ever-growing crowds of visitors. And we probably should have a second look at Great Dixter. We would look with different eyes now and it is time to lay to rest the most enduring memory of our one previous visit when we encountered some gardening underling who had clearly failed at Gardeners’ Charm School. It is not fair to judge the life’s work of Christopher Lloyd and, more recently, Fergus Garrett on the shortcomings of one graceless underling. Besides, on our only other visit, rather of a lot of what we were looking at seemed like serendipity. I think now we may have fine-tuned our observation skills and understanding to the point where we can discern what role careful editing (in modern parlance) plays in creating this experience of happy chance when it comes to keeping a light but skilled hand on garden maintenance.

Mark’s comment is that it should be really interesting to look at real wildflowers in the wild and follow it up with looking at the application of that naturalistic style in the more managed context of gardens and amenity plantings.

Finally, Greek goat, as seen on the tiny island of Lipsi

More naturalistic than wild at Wildside

Layer upon layer of plants in this complex but relaxed style of new naturalism

It was raining on the second last day of June when we visited Wildside Garden in Devon but this did not deter us. However, it did mean some of my photos have raindrops blurring out sections when I failed to check my lens. At least it was summer rain and neither cold nor windy. It was our second visit to see if the buzz we felt when we first saw it in 2014 was still there. It was. This is an exceptional garden in our eyes.

Keith and Ros Wiley had shut the garden for the past two years in order to start building their house and are still only open for very limited days but it is worth planning a trip around those days. It was interesting to see the way in which the building of the house gave a central heart to what is a private and very personal garden. But also, we knew we were looking at a situation where the owners’ energies had largely been going into the house in recent times. The garden hadn’t expanded physically into the remaining areas that had already been prepared when we visited in 2014.  It will happen at some stage, I am sure. The existing plantings had filled out and softened in the intervening time.

A plant collector is one for whom the thrill of acquisition and ownership of plants is an end in itself. A plantsperson is one who not only knows what plants are special, but also how to grow them and feature them to advantage. Sometimes a really good gardener is also a top plantsperson and they don’t come much better than Keith Wiley. He finds plants fascinating. He collects plants. He knows how to grow them well, even very difficult material. And he gardens with a huge range.

Wildside has been sculpted from a 4 acre, near flat paddock like this one next door

It is even more remarkable when you consider that Wiley started work with a near flat block of land. He has not only manipulated the contour to create a landscape of hills, hollows, banks and even the odd ravine, he has managed the depth of soil and its composition appropriate to the plants he wants to grow. From the start, his planning was to accommodate communities of plants – to create different ecosystems within the garden to enable growing a wide range of different plants.

Like an Impressionist painting

If you are not much interested in plants themselves, you can admire the scenes he composes These can be like Impressionist paintings though perhaps more Georges Seurat and pointillism than Monet. I am sure it is no coincidence that Ros Wiley is also a painter who prefers flowers and landscape as her subjects. But we are interested in the plants and plant combinations as well. Presumably Wiley has one of the most comprehensive collections of dieramas (angel’s fishing rods) around but they are used throughout and not all concentrated in one block, as “national collections” are usually displayed. We were in the wrong season for the erythroniums for which this garden is renowned but it also has extensive collections of different daphnes, cyclamen, Japanese maples, kniphofia, roscoeas, agapanthus and a host of other bulbs, perennials and smaller growing woody plants.

Dieramas or angels fishing rods in abundant quantities and many hues

There is next to no hard landscaping beyond deliberate placement of rocks and constructions of microclimates. Wiley is one of the early practitioners of the new naturalism gardening style, predicated on working in cooperative harmony with nature and creating eco-systems which are a refined version of many different, natural habitats. Do not confuse this with a wild garden which is left to its own devices. It is controlled but deceptively so, with a light hand.

We had been looking at the naturalistic prairie-style plantings around Olympic Park just a few days prior, greatly enjoying their simple charm. At Wildside, we felt that the Wileys were achieving a hugely detailed, complex and skilled variation of those Sheffield School plantings at Olympic Park, but still on the same spectrum of contemporary naturalism. It is no designer garden. It is a landscape created with sensitivity and top level plantsmanship.

It is also a garden that we will make the effort to keep returning to see. There aren’t many gardens that we have visited where both of us walk out feeling as if we have had an experience of joy. Wildside is one.

New Zealand cordylines in Devon

Raindrops keep falling on my camera lens…

If you want to see more of Wildside, I have posted the companion album to our Facebook page.

 

Up, up and away. In search of modern romantic gardens.

We are off today on one of our garden visiting trips. For the first time, I have felt sufficiently unnerved by international events to register our trip on the Safe Travel site run by our government. That is so they know roughly where we are in case of catastrophe.

Overseas readers may not realise that for New Zealanders, almost every overseas flight is long haul. It is only 3 hours to Australia so that doesn’t really count and some of the Pacific Islands are not so far away. Anywhere else, it is basically 12 hours and that only gets us to refuelling stops in preparation for the second leg which is more or less another 12 hours. Unless you want to fly via the Arab states of Dubai, Qatar or UAE in which case it is over 17 hours plus a shorter long-haul leg after that.  Being an economical traveller, I have transited most airports on offer – Los Angeles, Dubai, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Guangzhou. They blur in the memory.

But this trip, I am really glad that we are not booked via the US (might get code-shared with United Airlines!!! Nor do we want the grief of their new visa regs), South Korea (I really like Korean Air but that is altogether too close to the odd gentleman with the bad haircut and despotic tendencies just across the border) and now via the Arab states which are looking altogether too volatile. Our Hong Kong stopovers may be hot, colourful and crowded but they don’t seem anywhere near as threatening.

We are not visiting Italy to see classic gardens of the Villa Cimbrone class this time

Wild flowers at the Palatine are more the style we are looking at these days

We land in Italy and the reason we start there is because I have been told very firmly that if we are interested in romantic gardening, we absolutely must go to Ninfa. I am obeying orders. Ninfa and La Torrecchia nearby are not the classic, formal style that most New Zealanders think of when it comes to Italian gardens. Those are the historic gardens of the rich and powerful and we have seen some of them in the past, and will go and see Villa d’Este because we will be in Tivoli some of the time. Ninfa and La Torrecchia are much more recent creations, renowned for their soft-edged profusion of flowers and foliage set amidst ruins of earlier eras.

Charmed by the villages of France – Giverny in this case. Look at that little bus shelter!

and wooed, so to speak, by the food

Then it is up to Normandie in France, to stay in Rouen and (believe it or not) in the village of Camembert. We were utterly charmed by our visit to Giverny which we tacked on to our last UK trip. Not so much by Monet’s garden itself as by the village, the countryside, wildflowers, the friendliness and the food and wine. That ooh-la-la French style is so unique. Again, we have plans to visit a modern French garden or two rather than keeping to the big budget historical attractions. I am rather hoping for some time admiring wild flowers in the land of Calvados cider and camembert.

The South African meadow was in its first season at Wisley when we visited in 2014

Crossing to the UK, we have a busy eight days planned. Again it is the modern directions that interest us – gardening in sustainable eco-systems, gently guiding nature rather than forcing it into the strait jacket of human expectations. We are really keen to see how some of the plantings we saw in 2009 and 2014 have matured over the intervening years – the Missouri and South African Meadows and Oudolf borders at Wisley for starters. We also plan to get back to Bury Court and Wildside – two of the best private gardens we have seen – but the rest will be new to us. The naturalistic plantings around Olympic Park in London have had five years to mature – we want to see how they look now that time has passed and also to see the recent public plantings around the Barbican and Kings Cross. The time of floral clocks and garish bedding plants has long passed in favour of a whole new genre of softer-edged, lower maintenance public plantings. We want to see some of it.

There may be a lull in posts over the next few weeks but we expect to come back brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

Bury Court

Wildside

About a meadow. An update.

The new meadow look in our park - long grass and mown paths

The new meadow look in our park – long grass and mown paths

Wildflower meadows sound so delightfully romantic and evocative. And they can be in practice, but there is not just one way of achieving this.

When we talk about ‘wildflowers’ in New Zealand gardening, we are not talking about our own native wildflowers. They are native to somewhere but not here. Most people think of mixes of cornflowers, simple poppies, nigella, cosmos, maybe Queen Anne’s lace and the like. What are sold as wildflowers here are generally a mix of flowering annuals, though not the highly-bred ones that are used for potted colour and bedding plants. You can call it gardening because it is generally necessary to cultivate the soil, eliminate at least some of weed regrowth which will swamp the chosen annuals, plant the seeds and water them in. Merely broadcasting them on poor ground is rarely successful. These sowings of mixed annuals are usually disappointing in the second year because the influx of weeds and grass will swamp out most of the plants that have managed to seed down and the effect is very different. So it is gardening with annual flowering plants in its simplest form with next to no hard landscaping. It is also best suited to drier climates without the strong grass growth we get here and not prone to torrential downpours which will flatten these gentle, elongated plants. Charming though areas of mixed annuals sown in this way can be, it is not for us. And I would describe it as gardening with annuals, not a wildflower meadow or a wildflower garden.

Lots of Primula helodoxa in our meadow at this time of year

Lots of Primula helodoxa in our meadow at this time of year

Our interest starts with meadows now. This presupposes a heavy presence of grass and many plants that are deemed weeds in more cultivated areas. Why meadows? Four reasons:

  • Meadows make a hugely greater contribution to natural ecosystems than mown grass. They provide food for bees, butterflies and other insects while offering cover to the smaller creatures of the natural world.
  • We are seriously discussing and experimenting with techniques of lower input gardening where possible. Mark has become increasingly concerned at our heavy reliance on the internal combustion engine to maintain our garden – the lawnmower, weed-eater, leaf blower, hedge trimmer, rotary hoe and more. We have already phased out most spraying and fertiliser use – preferring to use our own compost – so the run-off from our property will be neither toxic nor high in nitrogen. Next up was to consider ways to significantly reduce our usage of petrol powered engines.
  • We are mindful that we have a large garden managed by just three of us. Because we have no plans to retire off the property, we need to ensure that we can maintain the garden to the standard we want into the future as we age. This is another reason for finding ways that are more sustainable in the long term.
  • We like the simplicity of meadows, the romanticism and the natural feel. We wanted to see if we could manage it in our garden.
Higo iris and primula are looking pretty this week

Higo iris and primula are looking pretty this week

We closed the garden to the public three years ago and immediately started experimenting in the area we call the park. With its variable terrain and a stream flowing through, this area was originally planted by Mark’s father, solely in trees and shrubs, and it covers about 4 acres. A small flock of sheep kept the grass down and most weeds at bay. When we bought the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers (a Walker mower) that could cope with all the steep slopes, we banished the sheep, removed the fencing and started mowing the park on a regular basis. The areas that couldn’t be mown were kept down with the weed-eater. Finally, Mark could start some underplanting.

img_3130Now we have long grass with mown paths through it. After three years, there is increasing diversity in the plants moving in. Many are commonly seen as weeds and the whole debate about weeds needs more attention another time. Not just buttercups, daisies and dandelions, though we have those in abundance. We also have Herb Robert moving in (Geranium robertianum), clover pink and clover white, foxgloves, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), Mark’s stinking billy-goat weed (a stachys), montbretia and more. I am not keen on the docks or thistles, so I try and dig those out. Mark is particularly pleased that we had a lot more brown top in the existing grass mix than he had thought because it has beautiful silky seedheads that wave in the lightest of breezes.

To these ‘volunteers’ (or genuine wildflowers that have made their way of their own accord), we add our own enhancements – primulas beside the stream, along with a range of other marginal plants and irises. Even sarracenia and a few orchids (the dactylorhiza orchids work though most of the disas died out). The Higo iris are coming into bloom and what a delight they are. In autumn and spring we have bulbs and we no longer have to worry about mowing off the foliage too early.

The placing of mown paths throughout has been successful, giving a contrast between the walking areas and the natural meadow, though it helps to have Mark’s good visual instinct to get the form of the paths sorted from early on so that they meander gracefully. At my request, these were widened to be two mower widths across – a single width looked a bit mean and perfunctory.

The Walker mower

The Walker mower

New sickle bar mower

New sickle bar mower

We mow everything once a year in autumn and I have to admit this involved the purchase of a new internal combustion engine – the sickle bar mower. The lovely ride-on Walker was never designed for the mowing of the meadow, being better on grass that is kept consistently shorter. The sickle bar emulates the motion of an old-fashioned sickle and is designed to cope with this sort of situation. We do not follow the British wisdom of removing all the hay to keep fertility low. It is not practical in our situation and our meadow is a year-round affair because of our mild climate where plants keep growing even through winter.

Going into our fourth year, we are saying ‘so far, so good’. It is not for everyone, but we love the look. If we are still continuing the park as a managed meadow in another five years, we will then be willing to announce that it has been successful for us. The mid-term report is that we have achieved a meadow and it is certainly meeting our four reasons for starting the experiment.

A treasured memory - our second daughter in a dry climate flowery meadow in the Nelson area around 1994

A treasured memory – our second daughter in a dry climate flowery field in the Nelson area around 1994

Postscript: Ken Thompson in The Sceptical Gardener writes about real meadows and I quote just a brief excerpt there: “it actually is a meadow in the sense of an area of perennial grass and wildflowers, managed by annual cutting.” He goes on to discuss what he calls the ‘annual meadow’ – drifts of annuals. “The problem is that ‘annual meadows’, whatever they are, are not meadows; they don’t look like meadows, and nor are they managed by meadows.”

He draws on a British garden writer and TV presenter about poppies. “Nigel Colborn reports that a visitor to his garden asked why his meadow had not wild poppies in it. Nigel had to explain, kindly and tactfully I’m sure, that no meadow since the dawn of time has had poppies in it, and that poppies belong in cornfields.”

Thompson also has an interesting chapter about the common lore that wildflowers do better in areas of low fertility. This is a book to put on Christmas present lists, as I said in my review earlier.

Romantic Gardens (part 2) – the grand, historic and famous

???????????????????????????????My first encounter with a garden strongly promoted for its romanticism was in northern Italy – Villa San Remigio. If you have ever been to the Italian lakes district, you will nod in agreement when I say that the whole place seems impossibly romantic. Stresa, Mennagio, Bellagio (the Lake Como one, not the Las Vegas one) – in the right circumstances these are places of charm bordering on enchantment.

Villa San Remigio had a wildly romantic back story – the love affair between a Neapolitan poet and musician and an Irish artist. If my memory serves me right, there was some sadness, earlyish deaths and childlessness. It had the mandatory handsome villa and a particularly lovely old church along with beautiful views across Lake Maggiore. But were the gardens romantic? It was all gentle decay when we were there, especially of the old concrete (and there was a lot of old concrete in larger than lifesize shrine-like constructions and terraces) and whoever managed the place was hoping to get grants for a major restoration. It may have been done by now but competition for restoration money is stiff in a country with such a long history and so many things in need of major investment.

The gardens at the Alhambra are re-creations. Note the gentlemen on the left, politely trying not to intrude on my photo.

The gardens at the Alhambra are re-creations. Note the gentlemen on the left, politely trying not to intrude on my photo.

I searched on line and found an article in the UK Telegraph, listing their pick of the ten most romantic gardens. Villa San Remigio wasn’t on it, but the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain and Monet’s water lily garden in France were and I have been to both of those. The Alhambra is an amazing place but the gardens are a modern re-creation. It is the whole package there that makes the romance – the history, the beautiful palaces which are on quite an intimate scale, the light, the view across to the Albaicin (or medina)…. The garden enhances but does not generate the romance. The most recent. modernistic gardens at the Alhambra were anything but romantic.

There is nothing romantic at all about the latest, hard-edged modern garden addition at the Alhambra.

There is nothing romantic at all about the latest, hard-edged modern garden addition at the Alhambra.

Monet immortalised his garden in so many paintings which imbues the place with added mystique. An analysis of the garden itself rather belies that. However the water lily garden is loosely maintained and in a naturalistic style which contrasts with his more rigid stripes in the upper garden.

Monet’s waterlily garden is charming enough, as long as you don’t mind sharing it with many strangers.

Monet’s waterlily garden is charming enough, as long as you don’t mind sharing it with many strangers.

What these gardens have in common is a rich history, age and gentle decay, some solid architecture of note and romantic back stories. The gardens do not necessarily stand on their own merits. And let’s face it, in this country we lack most of the above although some of us can manage some gentle decay. But age is measured here in decades, not centuries.

These gardens – and most of the ones on the Telegraph list – are all well out of private ownership now but the love of romantic gardening dates back to the original visions of private owners, albeit generally ones with considerable personal wealth to achieve their dreams. These days the romance is a product of sophisticated marketing. I am yet to be convinced that an institution or business ownership model is capable of generating a romantic garden.

But private individuals can and do. I would disagree with the Telegraph’s list but that is because I am interested in the modern return to romantic gardening – what is being done here and now, not what was done last century or the centuries before.

The soft-edged naturalism, helped by French village style, showed romantic gardening at a very domestic level.

The soft-edged naturalism, helped by French village style, showed romantic gardening at a very domestic level.

We spent a couple of nights in the village of Giverny where Monet’s garden is located. I am quite willing to admit that our delight in the charm of the village may have been influenced by the departure of the daytime crowds, the soft evening light and the consumption of the fermented fruit of the French vine, but we found ourselves more engaged with the village scenes than we were with the star attraction. This was romanticism on a very personal, domestic level. The soft-edged naturalism, often with charming detail, has nothing to do with great wealth, grand vision and power. It is equally within the reach of the individual.

In the village of Giverny, even le chat français and le yellow plastic pot had a certain romantic charm in the evening light.

In the village of Giverny, even le chat français and le yellow plastic pot had a certain romantic charm in the evening light.

The Romantic Garden Part 1

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.