Tag Archives: starting a new garden

What a difference a year makes

Off topic but a pretty flower to lead – Nerine bowdenii coming into bloom. The last of the season to flower and the easiest of the nerines we grow

Remember those TV programmes from ten or even twenty years ago that were all about instant makeovers? You too could have your messy back yard transformed into beautiful, landscaped space within a day. Fortunately, we seem to have moved on from the techniques that had to be used to make a photograph-ready scene immediately. Nowadays, it is more common for programmes to include a more modest, practical make-over section where the presenter talks the viewer through the process and explains how the plants will grow to fill the space, rather than trying to create the illusion of instant show garden.

The techniques of creating a show garden – reaching their zenith at Chelsea Flower Show – are very different. Those are a combination of ideas and illusion, designed for a temporary installation and they don’t have a whole lot to do with actual gardening. For starters, the plants are generally kept in their pots and packed in really tightly before being covered with a carpet of mulch to hide the evidence. But those earlier makeover TV garden shows seemed to imply that it was possible to create an instant, fully furnished garden. It isn’t. Gardening takes time.

We are blessed by a benign gardening climate where we live. Most of New Zealand has extraordinarily fast growth rates compared to other parts of the world and you can accelerate the growth rates even more if you are willing to apply large amounts of fertiliser often. We don’t do that, preferring to rely instead on home-made compost, gardening in line with our ethics. For how we can we complain about modern farming practices and the deterioration of fresh water in this country if we are doing the same thing on a smaller scale in our own gardens?

April 21, 2017

It was interesting this week to chart the growth we have achieved through photographs of the new gardens we are working on. This photograph was taken just over 12 months ago – late April. The area was a blank slate and had been nursery so laid in weed mat for three decades. This had compacted the soil badly and after planting the first few plants, I decided it was all too hard to dig and I would take up Mark’s offer to rotary hoe it.

December 2, 2017

Come December, it was pretty much planted out. I, personally, have planted every single perennial in there and added no fertiliser except some compost at the time of planting. Nothing has been watered. We garden without irrigation here. Mark often describes our place as ‘a poor man’s garden’ (excuse the gendered language – I have yet to come up with a pithy, gender-neutral term which would be more accurate). If we had to go out and buy the plants, we could never afford to garden on the scale we do. I think I bought maybe 10 new grasses to go in this garden. Everything else has been relocated from elsewhere here.

May 7, 2018



Now, in autumn, the whole area looks remarkably well furnished and under 13 months have passed. All that is needed is some tweaking. I want more blues in summer. Fortunately, Mark has a row of very good blue agastache in his vegetable garden (for the butterflies and bees, you understand) that I can raid. I am a bit worried about the phlomis which look overly enthusiastic out in the sun. They are far more restrained in their habits growing in the woodland gardens where we have them established. The Calamagrostris x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (feather reed grass) may prove to be too vigorous in our conditions. But that whole process of editing and tweaking and modifying as I learn is what gardening is all about.

The caterpillar garden this week

The grass garden took priority. Over on the other side of this new area, I have nearly finished planting out the caterpillar garden. It is a very different style of planting, far lower and more restrained although the area involved is similar – about 30 metres long and up to 8 metres wide. It is also under siege from the local rabbit population. I find the rabbits generally leave the plants alone if they are surrounded by wood shavings. We have tried various strategies to deal to the rabbits but have grown desperate enough to think we may have to resort to poison. For us that is really desperate. We prefer to keep to trapping or shooting vermin rather than poisoning. It will be interesting to see how quickly this area fills out. The planting has again been carried out using relocated material – from the former rose garden that I have been stripping out. No plants have been purchased. But even I am amazed at how many plants it takes to fill in a blank space – hundreds and hundreds of divisions, maybe thousands. Mind you, I am planting closely. That is how I will get a carpet covering within the year.

Gardening is not an instant activity. But a year to go from blank slate to looking well-furnished and established seems the next closest thing to instant results for us.

The making of gardens, old and new

I came over to my office first thing this morning, prepared to put in a solid hour or two on a tax return which has a deadline of Wednesday. GST, which is our sales tax. It is my six monthly ordeal by boredom. But the early light was so appealing that I grabbed my camera and was diverted to way more interesting thoughts.

Echinacea, eryngium and miscanthus in the new grass garden 

I only started planting the new grass garden maybe ten months ago but over summer it has filled in and it is looking remarkably well established. Not ready for the grand photos of the whole scene yet but it is coming together and bringing me great delight. Reassuringly, given the amount of effort that is going into it, I am now confident it will work.


The central sunken garden is to remain

The decision to strip out the central borders of the rose garden was more recent. It was Tony Murrell, friend, Auckland-based designer and garden media personality, who suggested last October that I strip out these beds and I have now reached the point where I am fairly confident he was right. The central sunken garden will remain as the landscape feature and I have fully renovated it. We have lost more treasures than we have kept in this highly detailed area but the pleione orchids have thrived, to the point where I thought I should rename it the pleione garden. Mark’s father dug this area by hand back in the early 1950s and lined it in granite and marble.

The outer concrete edging in the centre is to go and the area will be grassed around the remaining shrubs

The feature dwarf camellias, of which there are eight, and two dwarf maples, are to stay. They give some botanical interest, form and character but the outer edging in concrete will be lifted and removed and the area grassed. It should be a crisper look to an area that I have never enjoyed gardening. I knew I had to do something because I averted my eyes from it for the better part of last year and possibly much of the year before. I have never enjoyed working in this area.

I now realise if there is no pleasure in gardening a certain area, then something is wrong with either the concept or the execution. It is not for want of trying. This central area has had at least three major makeovers done on it in the last twenty years and none of them have really worked. This fourth one is the most radical. Gut most of it out and make it simpler and visually stronger.

We describe the new caterpillar garden as a blank slate but we are still working around a beautiful Podocarpus henkelli and a grapefruit tree. We never get totally blank slates here.

Gutting a garden is a major task unless you are willing to scrap all the plants, which is not our way at all. No. I must lift and relocate most of them and that is a detailed job. A few went to the grass garden – irises, liriope and eryngiums, mostly. Most are going to another new garden which we loosely refer to as the caterpillar garden. This is because Mark has laid out the structure in dainty little Camellia microphylla (just coming into flower now) in the form of the basket fungus, so based on pentagons. After it has flowered for this season – and it has a very short flowering season – he plans to start clipping it into the shape of an undulating caterpillar. For this idea, we acknowledge leading UK designer, Tom Stuart-Smith.

Camellia microphylla for the caterpillar hedging. And colouring in some spaces with blue asters

The design gives separate compartments for planting, somewhat like in-fill housing. We want it simple, eyecatching and easy(ish) to maintain. Mark’s vision is of the central enclosures rising up above the caterpillar shapes in blues and whites and the outside blocks in shades of blue, lavender, lilac, white and a bit of pink but not too much. If you are trying to envisage the scene, the caterpillar garden alone is about 25 metres long and 8 metres at its widest with 5 central enclosures and about 15 outer spaces to be coloured in. It is not for the faint-hearted gardener and we could never afford to do it if we had to buy the plants in. But the gutting of the old rose garden area has supplied many which I have lifted, divided and replanted into compost in the freshly dug new garden area. These are larger block plantings in a far more modern style than we have in the older areas of the garden.

The challenge is to integrate a more modern area into the existing garden so the transition is seamless, rather than disjointed or jarring. It helps that this is a sunny, flat, open area that is by its very physical attributes different to the rest of the garden.

Morning light shining behind the first grape leaf to colour for autumn

We are not into instant gardening. These things take time and we will not be doing the big reveal for another year or two yet. But it is keeping me busy because I am doing most of the planting. I am leaving Mark to worry about the structural elements that still have to go into this area and the small matter of moving the propagation houses somewhere else entirely. It should happen. It just won’t happen in the next few weeks or even months.

I was born impatient but time, experience and age have taught me patience and how to take a longer term view. Mark describes this new garden development as ‘our last lunge’. We want to get it right before we settle down into our dotage. There is no great rush and there is much delight and satisfaction in the process. And really, for us, gardening is an ongoing process, not an end product.