Tag Archives: the new naturalism

A gardening year in retrospect. 2017

Sunset in Camembert. I am not joking . There is a village of that name in Normandy and I took this photo on a day in late June when the temperature hit 40 celsius. We nearly melted. The cheese did melt.

In all my years of garden writing, I am not sure I have ever looked back on a year just past. Looked forward, yes. Often. But reflecting back – not in the written word until now. Has 2017 been particularly distinctive in gardening terms? Not in extreme terms, but it has certainly been a very full gardening year.

The best gardening book of my year, without a doubt, was the collected columns of contemporary English garden writer, Tim Richardson. Titled You Should Have Been Here Last Week, it was full of thoughtful and opinionated gems and is a book that is worth going back to read again. For me, it eclipsed the gentle collection of Dan Pearson’s gardening columns, ‘Natural Selection’ which had its own charm but became a little heavy going after a while. I have not seen any New Zealand gardening books to recommend. But I can whisper that I have at least started work on my own, after a year or two’s procrastination.

New Zealand is left high and dry when it comes to TV gardening too and we keep going back to Monty Don and BBC Gardeners’ World. We were not instant Monty fans but have grown to really enjoy his delight in his own garden and his measured approach. I say that even after discovering he has two paid gardeners to assist behind the scenes. Gardeners’ World has been around since the beginning of time (or 1968, so coming up to 50 years) and still delivers quality gardening advice and insights in a low-key style that we appreciate.

While on media matters, a personal highlight has been getting to know Auckland garden designer and current garden media celeb, Tony Murrell. We have a weekly conversation on his Home and Garden Show on Radio Live but even more extended conversations off air. It is a rare privilege to work with someone who is a complete professional in his public life, full of enthusiasm, ideas and delight which carries over into his life off the airwaves too.

Breakfast in Tivoli. Bought in the local market and taken back to our AirBnB

We live in the country so I like to travel and to seek experiences and ideas beyond our self contained little patch of this world. Mark, not so much. In fact, he only participates in my advance planning in the most desultory of ways. But when I crank him out of the country, he is a marvellous companion who focuses 110% on the experience. Our trip to Italy, Normandy and England this year was a real highlight for us. It was my third trip to Italy, Mark’s second and we both fell in love with the place in a way we have not before. Mark credits AirBnB which put us right in the heart of the old town of Tivoli and gave us a far more personal connection to the locals than staying in a hotel can ever do. And while getting to Sermoneta was a traumatic experience that might have driven less staunch couples to divorce , staying there was a delight. Seeing the incidental wildflowers at Villa Adriana, the wonderful old olive grove and experiencing the classic architectural lines of the golden mean visible there were truly memorable, even in the heat.

Garden highlights were Le Jardin Plume in Normandy, the pond and the simplicity of the plantings in front of the villa at La Torrecchia (which, despite being in Italy, is early Dan Pearson work) and the privilege of being able to explore and experience the famed Ninfa Garden all alone and at our own pace. All confirmed for us that our gardening hearts lie with the gentle naturalism of more contemporary styles that is so evident in the approaches taken by many modern European and British garden designers. We have a long way to go in New Zealand in learning to garden so that we walk more lightly upon this fragile environment of ours and see beauty in Nature and her serendipitous ways.

Wildside Garden – still a major highlight for us second time round

When we reached England, we felt we were on more familiar ground. Because we travel so far and pack a great deal in to what are generally just three week excursions, we don’t often go back to see gardens that we have visited before. But on this occasion, we chose to go back to both Bury Court and Wildside and neither disappointed. These are two of the most exciting private gardens we have visited – gardens which delight at the time, stay in the memory and are a rich source of inspiration for how we garden at home. On this trip, we were also privileged to see a private garden that is the work of Dan Pearson and, on the day we visited, as close to a perfect domestic garden as we have ever seen. We can learn from every garden but sometimes it is a revelation to learn from the work of somebody who is at the top of their field right now.

The unexpected highlight of the English section was looking at the work coming out from Sheffield University landscape department and Nigel Dunnett in particular which we saw at the Barbican, at Olympic Park and at Trentham Court. Do a net search on Pictorial Meadows if you want to see more of the commercial work coming out of Sheffield. It is glorious.

The Sheffield style is at the extreme end of naturalistic gardening with lower inputs, low intervention, working in cooperation with the environment and ensuring that plantings enhance eco systems rather than imposing them upon the natural environment. But they generally lack strong design elements which are what give definition and longevity in a gardening environment.

Our meadow where we have reached some level of sustainability and consistency

At home, we have been focused on bringing together elements of the new naturalism style, meadows, sustainable practice and soft-edged romanticism that appeal to us but within a stronger design framework and working in an established garden with a fair swag of notable, long-term trees. Our meadow is progressing beyond the experimental stage as we have refined the low-input techniques we use to manage it and it is a real joy to us. The next step is to look for plants that will enrich the diversity and add visual interest beyond the spring peak. Mark finds the addition of larger flowered, dominant perennials or annuals out of step with the natural look so we are assessing resilient small-flowered options that we can naturalise without creating an environmental disaster of weed potential.

Not our garden. I have this filed under ‘meadow mistakes’ – using an overbred hybrid in a natural setting

Mark’s gardening efforts this year have been dominated by food production and seeing to what point he can keep us self-sufficient in a vegetable-rich diet. It takes a lot of time, effort, skill and space to be this productive and even then the grains and tropical fruits remain on the shopping list. We could, I guess, go without the tropical fruits but we are not that purist.

I have never grown a vegetable in my life and have no plans to start. But I have had a great deal of active pleasure, starting the plantings in our newest garden area which we currently call the Court Garden – on account of the large green space in the middle of the design which currently looks like a somewhat unkempt tennis court but is destined to become a meadow through the seasons in the style of Nigel Dunnett’s Sheffield School plantings. This is former nursery, maybe an acre or more in area.

Mark recently described this new garden area to a neighbour as our last lunge – a major development that we need to do before we get any older and the hard physical labour gets beyond us. In a mature garden, even a very large one such as we have, it is a different experience to be faced with bare space, full sun and open conditions. Years have gone into its planning and it will still take more for it reach the glory we plan. We have also factored in how we integrate this new and different area into the established garden we already have.

One of the double borders in our new area in its first spring

The court garden, started from a blank canvas

It is a development that we simply could not have done without the accumulated experience we have gained through our gardening lives. It also draws heavily on the inspiration and observations from our gardening travels. And it is possible because of the expertise gained in years of nursery work and Mark’s foresight in setting aside plants and growing them on in field conditions so that we could bring in the framework trees and shrubs as an advanced grade without having to spend money on buying them. We could not have afforded to do it if we had to buy the plants because it takes a lot to furnish a space as large as this.

I have loved developing parts of this area this year and seeing it start to come together as it grows. Mark, too, has been delighted by my efforts because he had not found the time or motivation to start the detailed filling in of spaces himself. I am delighted that he is delighted with my efforts because, in gardening terms, I will always defer to him as the senior partner here.  Will there be an end result? There will come a point when we feel ready to show this new garden to other people but gardening to us is always an active process with no plans for an end result. If we found no pleasure in the process, we would lose interest very quickly.

Finally, on a practical level, I recently raved about my new mini cultivator. It is terrific and I use it often. We have never gone in for all the whistles and bells of garden implements so we are VERY late to the scene with the Niwashi weeder which was a Christmas gift to me. And now, all I can say is, how did I manage so long without one?


Around the Barbican (part one of observations on the Sheffield School of planting)

The Barbican plantings by Nigel Dunnett

After a week in Italy and a week in Normandy, we hit the ground running when we landed in Britain. This is familiar territory. We can find our way around without too much stress and we know how most things work. Even the traffic comes from the side we expect so the risk of being run over crossing the road is greatly reduced. And we were very focussed on what we wanted to see. The contemporary directions. The modern trends.

When I use words like contemporary and modern in connection with gardening in New Zealand, I fear people may instantly think of hard edged gardening with mirrors and stainless steel, all those colourful cushions on hard concrete benches and mass plantings of a single variety that used to be seen in UK show gardens. No. No. And no again. Consign that back to the turn of the century, which is nearing two decades ago now. It is time to wake up to the new directions in gardening and in spaces both public and private.

The new face of sustainable and ecology focused gardening

The new focus is about ecology, sustainability, good environmental practice and creating eco-systems that support the diversity of nature – a worthy if didactic approach to gardening for this new age.  The unspoken aspects are where design and aesthetics fit into this somewhat radical approach. That is what we wanted to see.

At one end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘Sheffield School’, under the leadership of professors Nigel Dunnett  and James Hitchmough.  The work coming out of the Landscape Department of Sheffield University is exciting. In a nutshell, this is about lower input, low maintenance plantings that will co-exist with some level of harmony, develop ecosystems and bring visual delight. The skills lie in the range of plants selected (plant communities) and getting these established in the first place. That is a simple summary but if you want to know more, google them.

We first saw the Sheffield School signature plantings in the Missouri Meadow at the RHS Garden Wisley in 2009. I will return to that because in 2017, it is a little problematic and raises some interesting questions.

While there were a lot of kniphofia and phlomis in bloom when we visited, this is layered planting to take the garden through the seasons.

The first place we went to on this visit was the Barbican, having read about Nigel Dunnett’s new gardens there.  I have not been to the High Line in New York yet but I am guessing this is something like the smaller London version of that. A planting in a public space one story above the street. It is more about informal herbaceous planting as derived from New Perennials or the new naturalism than prairies or meadows. The new casual take on the classic, colour-toned and graduated herbaceous plantings that used to typify the best of English gardening. Meandering paths and seats through the garden encourage people to get in amongst it, rather than viewing from the side. We thought it was great. Full of movement and colour and more inviting in this day and age. There was no “amenity planting” look to it, although obviously it is in that category.

Mark went looking for evidence of irrigation to save you having to tramp on the garden yourself, should you visit

We were told that there were weight restrictions that reduced the number of substantial trees that could be used on this elevated site. It was also whispered to us a little later that the maintenance is not quite as light as claimed and that a team of volunteers put in work to keep it looking as good as it does. It is surrounded by high density housing and if some of the residents choose to take ownership of this communal space and keep it looking good, that is surely a benefit. Unlike most of the other Sheffield School planting we have seen, the Barbican must have used plants to start with, not seed. It gives a very different effect. Mark went looking to see if it was irrigated and found only the most perfunctory hose so our guess is that it was watered to get it established but the long-term hope is to follow the principle of planting to the conditions and avoiding a reliance on irrigation. How realistic this is with a limited depth of soil remains to be seen.

I have too many photos to post here, so have put an album up on Facebook if you want more details of this Barbican garden and its environs.

Next post is on the Olympic Park plantings. More prairie than New Perennials.