Tag Archives: tropical gardens

Saving my best for last – Auckland Heroic gardens part 2.

We visited a Mellons Bay garden which had a location and view to die for. It is still very much in development and the owners are making the most of creating a garden space that maximises its remarkable location. It was there that I encountered a grass I had not seen before.

Vetiver grass, not miscanthus

At first I thought it must be a mass planting of miscanthus but no, it is vetiver grass from India, botanically Chrysopogon zizanioides. I learned this from my friend and tour host for the day, the effervescent garden designer, Tony Murrell. Vetiver is apparently being widely promoted in Auckland for its erosion control capability. I looked it up. It puts its roots down four metres in the first year alone and is hardy to drought, prolonged flooding, fire, some frost and grazing. The roots can go down as far as six metres. By this stage, my eyebrows were pretty much reaching my hairline but it is apparently sterile and non-invasive so it doesn’t spread. And if you change your mind about it, you can use herbicides on it, though I can’t imagine digging it out without heavy machinery.

Personally, I wouldn’t be rushing to plant something that grows quite so strongly but we don’t suffer from erosion or land that slips so we don’t need something quite as drastic. If you prefer to use native plants, there are many references on-line that will give various options, such as here.

The view from the deck in city suburbia

From there, it was to see four smaller, city gardens. I had seen all of them before but not for several years. When you live in a densely populated city, sometimes with long thin sections that are not a great deal wider than your house, this sort of vista is pretty amazing. It is in Glendowie and the owners of the two open gardens had the wisdom to buy properties that looked outwards to reserve so there is a seamless visual flow. Added to that, the row of houses have maximised what was once more or less wasteland that runs along the base of the properties. You wouldn’t want to go swimming or paddling in this water (I am guessing most of it is stormwater, supplemented by springs), but it is a delightful, sheltered common space at the end of the gardens.

The light was too bright and the shadows too deep to do justice to this cluster of bromeliads but I particularly noted it because it was a counterpoint to the vibrant and bright use of bromeliads mentioned in the first post of these two. This was restrained and understated but maybe more charming for that.

From there it was to a garden I have written about before – industrial chic I called it then and I did not change my mind on a second visit. Quirky, detailed and full of energy. I don’t want to own it but it makes me laugh. It is also on the market, should you feel such admiration that you want to own it. Although it is such a personal creation that the future owners may feel imposter’s syndrome until they make it their own. I would have taken more photos, but there wasn’t much room to move with so many people and rather a lot of accoutrements.

The box-shaped plant in the centre of the photo is the purple loropetalum.

Finally a gem of a garden, to which I returned as a private visitor the next day so I could have a closer look with the owners, Geoffrey Marshall and John Hayward (who also happen to be the Heroic Festival organisers). They are friends who will read this, so I don’t want to seem as if I am fawning, but if my lot in life was to be a tiny town section, this would be my personal choice. Despite its small size, good architectural design has given it total privacy and a good garden design has given it a sense of containment without being cramped. The level of refinement and detail is exquisite. The foliage is layer upon layer of detail without looking cluttered and the level of plant interest is extremely high. Wherever I looked, there was more fine detail to be uncovered with just the right amount of exotica. It takes a skilled eye and sure hand to be able to achieve that level of detail without it looking confused.

It seems a good place to finish my weekend of looking at the gardens of Auckland.


Tropical gardens re-created in Asian hotel-style

The distinctive spindle palm or Hyophorbe verschaffeltii at Kota Bharu airport

The distinctive spindle palm or Hyophorbe verschaffeltii at Kota Bharu airport

I mentioned I had been to the tropics. It was Malaysia and included the magical Perhentian Islands which were pretty much a perfect tropical hideaway. Waving palm trees, golden sand, warm sea with coral reefs just off the beach, no roads, so no vehicles, not even motor bikes. All transportation was done by small boat and wheelbarrows. What they did have was a sewage system and a daily rubbish collection (by boat) which is always reassuring.

The wheelbarrow as the main transporter of freight

The wheelbarrow as the main transporter of freight

Did I come home with a yen to re-create my holiday experience by building a tropical garden? Well, no. See, there is something missing here. The temperatures in the tropics are consistently in the 30s. Soggy, cold tropicalia in winter does not seem so evocative of warm holidays, in my opinion.

Many others do not share my reservations, however, and the tropical garden has become increasingly de rigueur, particularly in Auckland but also in points further south where the folly is magnified by even cooler temperatures.

It occurred to me that we may have evolved our own tropical gardening style in this country. It is perhaps best described as “cool climate Balinese-hotel-style” or, if you have been to Bali, even more specifically as “Ubud hotel-style”. I have never seen that garden genre beyond a hotel environment in the tropics and it does not reflect the wider environment.

In Malaysia, the closest I saw to domestic gardening was more akin to a food forest. The focus was on production, not aesthetics, so tended to feature a mango or two, coconut palms, plenty of bananas and maybe a breadfruit. Ornamental gardening is more likely to be limited to a bonsai bougainvillea in a pot.

Nor does the forest resemble a tropical garden as we understand it and our domestic, cooler climate version cannot be seen as an interpretation of that. Besides, we lack the monkeys (big, long-tailed ones ripping the beachside abutilons apart when I saw them).

Fake trees in Kuala Terengganu

Fake trees in Kuala Terengganu

Plantings for beautification are clearly the domain of the public sector and commercial entities (hotels, in particular). Growing conditions are pretty forgiving in the tropics. They can often cut things off and stick them in the ground with no special preparation and a reasonable expectation that they will grow. I saw Cordyline terminalis treated in this very fashion, growing in pure sand. So it was a puzzle to me as to why the riverside in Kuala Terengganu was furnished with fake trees. Fake trees designed to look like Norfolk Island pines and oak trees colouring up for autumn, in fact. Bizarre. Yet the street trees included the much favoured and very fragrant Michelia alba which is devilishly difficult to propagate in this country.

Blocking off a street in Kota Bharu

Blocking off a street in Kota Bharu

As in so many Asian countries, it is possible to beautify cities with planters, often ceramic. Indeed, I saw a row used to temporarily block off access on a road in Kota Bharu. Anyone want to take bets on how long these would last in any New Zealand city? It is just one of those unspoken reminders of the vandalism and theft we live with. No council is ever going to contemplate using something as easily destroyed, let alone putting little clipped topiaries into them.

The two dimensional traveller's palm is in fact not a palm at all (Ravenala madagascariensis,)

The two dimensional traveller’s palm is in fact not a palm at all (Ravenala madagascariensis,)

Palms are planted everywhere and the public plantings go well beyond the ubiquitous coconut palms and the utility monoculture of the palm oil plantations. The beautiful bismarckias and curious two dimensional traveller’s palms (which is not a palm but actually related to strelitzia) are certainly stand-out plants.

Frangipani - usually seen as a hotel garden plant

Frangipani – usually seen as a hotel garden plant

Underplanting? The only places I saw underplantings were on roadside verges and in hotel gardens. These are commonly the tropical crinums and ornamental gingers. The gorgeous frangipanis which we associate strongly with the tropics are mostly in hotels. Of course these are Central American plants, not Asian. Mind you, so too is the bougainvillea and it has done pretty well in establishing itself as a first choice plant in warmer areas across the globe.

All of this made me realise that the many “tropical gardens” in tropiNZ are eclectic mixes of plants from around the world put together in the classic layered style, but tidy. We won’t accept the wild abandon of tropical growth, the droop of scruffy banana leaves, the debris and litter of the forest floor. No, this is warm climate plants put together with a little tasteful Asian ornament or two, straitjacketed into suburbia.

In fact the model is those immaculately groomed gardens you find throughout Asia in better quality hotels. Presumably for many such garden owners, the evocation of happy, holiday memories centres primarily on their hotel and the hotel pool. It does not have a whole lot to do with the wider environmental or actual gardening in the tropics. As I said, Ubud hotel-style, but without the warm temperatures.

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