Tag Archives: what makes a good garden

A sense of place

I illustrate this column with a few photos of gardens that have struck a particular chord, enduring in my memory long past the experience of visiting them. What they have in common is a strong identity and sense of place. 


I apologise for the fact that I can not recall the name of the creator of this very interesting house and garden landscape south of Blenheim but I understand he has since died. I have never forgotten this remarkable place

What is it that lifts a garden – a good garden – above other good gardens? I have seen that special character described with various terms over the years, including having ‘soul’ or ‘the wow factor’. Or, more pretentiously perhaps, possessing ‘genius loci’. I wrote about genius loci in a sharp column seven years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen gardeners, it now appears that the current term is that the garden has ‘a sense of place’. It is one that appeals to me more than the soul or wow factor descriptors because it is less subjective.

Gresgarth Hall near Lancaster in the UK

I came across the term twice this week, both from UK media. The first instance was a survey on the Thinking Gardens website, being carried out Janna Schreier. Searching for a more rigorous measure than the loose use of the descriptor ‘soul’, she defined ‘a sense of place’ as being one ‘with a distinctive character which fosters emotional engagement’. Her survey then listed possible attributes of that and asked the participant to rank each on a five-point scale. These were:

  • Uniqueness
  • Strong identity
  • Fit with surroundings
  • Thought provoking
  • Harmonious design
  • Brings back memories
  • Personal to the owner.

I would point you to the survey but it finished yesterday. In a subsequent exchange of emails, I commented that plantsmanship was missing from that list but was critical for us here when it came to top-level appreciation of a garden. I rank plantsmanship* as being of equal importance to harmonious design. But from that list, I probably ranked strong identity, personal to the owner and maybe uniqueness as most important. Though uniqueness is very hard to define – pretty much every gardener I have ever met who rates themselves thinks their own garden is both unique and original, though too few are. In my opinion.

Grahame Dawson’s small, urban, industrial chic garden in Auckland challenged my preconceived notion that such plots of land must, by definition lack genius loci

Two days later I saw a tweet from Dan Pearson*, the UK landscaper for whom I carry a bit of fan-girl torch.

Dan Pearson @thedanpearson 

Another inspiring day talking gardens with Troy at Sissinghurst. Sure progress with their project to key the gardens sense of place.

Could anywhere have a stronger sense of place than New Plymouth cemetery?

Aha! I thought. A sense of place is it, then. And I like that term. It is much more encompassing than just ‘genius loci’. Oddly, we have our own word in New Zealand. Our country is gently taking on more Maori words into our language, particularly when there is no word for word translation that captures the complexity of the Maori concept. The word is tūrangawaewae, about which Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand says:

“Tūrangawaewae is one of the most well-known and powerful Māori concepts. Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), it is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.”

I recently described our garden as ‘our place to stand’. Must have been a bit prescient there? Though a “place to stand” is more about the personal experience of the garden-maker than the “sense of place” which is the experience of the fortunate garden visitor. Certainly there is something special that sets apart some gardens over others, that makes a few gardens particularly memorable. I am happy to consider that above design, context, plant content and maintenance, that special quality that sets them apart is indeed that they have a clear sense of place.

I have not often seen that special quality of a sense of place in public gardens but the Oudolf borders at Wisley are a notable exception


*I continue to stick with Mark’s off the cuff definition of plantsmanship, even while I hesitate over the gender reference in the word: “The ability to use different plants in creative ways in the right environment and to feature unusual plants.”

*I subscribe to Dan Pearson’s weekly blog – Dig Delve. It is a gentle insight into plants and the very personal garden he is building with his partner, Huw Morgan.   There is no big-noting, self-promotion or even that faux modesty that is now favoured by many writers. Rather, it is quiet and modest, an insight into creating a garden from scratch that focuses on eco-systems, sustainability and soft-edged naturalism. I find it most refreshing and calming in this day and age when so much of gardening appears to be about whizzy-bang instant results to impress.

I had a special affection for Te Popo garden when it was in the hands of Lorri and Bruce Ellis and I now see that response as inextricably tied up with that strong sense of place that they created.

Te Popo again in Central Taranaki

Bury Court in the UK – much more than just beautiful buildings and an early Oudolf garden. A garden I wish to return to soon.

Wildside in Devon – a very strong sense of place is one of the defining features



Bring back plants! Please.

Even after 60 years, Pinus sylvestris Beauvronensis keeps getting better and maturing well, even though it remains under 2 metres tall

Even after 60 years, Pinus sylvestris Beauvronensis keeps getting better and maturing well, even though it remains under 2 metres tall

Until recent times, maybe only a decade or so, New Zealand gardens used to be all about plants. Sophisticated design concepts were rarely seen and terms like spatial relationships referred to Cape Canaveral. These days garden design is cock of the roost and plants are very much a secondary consideration for many people.

Good design is ageless and not to be derided in any way, but I mourn the devaluing of the role of plants in a garden. Frankly, you can only get so far with clipped hedging (usually buxus, sometimes lonicera or teucrium), renga renga lilies, mondo grass (be it black or green), catmint groundcover (nepeta) and white standard roses (be they Iceberg or Margaret Merrill). Maybe kumquat or mandarin trees in planter boxes or large containers. You can achieve a perfectly nice, tidy garden using those run of the mill plants which are in everybody else’s garden as well, but it is never going to be anything special, no matter how good the design framework.

To lift a garden above the ordinary, good design needs to be complemented by interesting plants combined in interesting ways. Mind you, I would say that. I have always believed that mass plantings of a single variety are best in public parks and on traffic islands. I find it exceedingly dull in home gardens. It takes more gardening skill to marry together a whole range of different plants but that is the fun part of gardening.

Start with trees. You can not magic up instant trees. You can buy advanced grade specimens but they are still going to be juvenile and take years to reach maturity. There is simply no shortcut with trees so the sooner you get them planted in the right positions, the sooner you will see some results. And make at least some of those trees good long term specimens. Some trees just get better with age, others look better in youth and get scruffy and past it too soon. Learn to tell the difference so when you cut out the short term filler trees, you are left with some good specimens. Pretty trees such as many flowering cherries, Albizia julibrissin, the blue flowered paulownias and some of the pillar conifers are great for quick impact but rarely age gracefully. Really good trees will take future generations into the next century so they need to be chosen carefully for the right position and given time to grow. They don’t have to be forest giants but you may need to do some research to make good choices. Not a day goes by here when we don’t mentally thank Mark’s great grandfather who left us a legacy of fine trees planted in 1880, and his father who added to it with many rare specimens in the 1950s. Trees give stature and backbone to a garden, be it large or small.

Search out treasures. If you have ever been on a garden safari where you visit many gardens in quick succession, you may have noticed how they can start to look very similar and meld in the memory because they use the same palette of plants. With an ever diminishing range of plants being offered for sale in this country, this scenario is going to get worse, not better. It clearly doesn’t matter if you don’t mind having a garden that looks the same as everybody else’s, but as a nation we tend to favour an element of uniqueness. We don’t want to live in a street where every house is identical, even to the floor plan, but we are leaning in that direction when it comes to our gardens. Good gardeners regard the sourcing of rare or unusual plants as being like a treasure hunt.

It is plant combinations, mixing and matching, that gives interesting detail to a garden

It is plant combinations, mixing and matching, that gives interesting detail to a garden

Experiment with plant combinations. While it is easy and quick to plant a swathe of the same plant, putting together a mix of different foliages and flowers that please the eye is more satisfying. Done well, there is an overall harmony which is pleasing at first glance while the detail invites you to linger and look more closely. Done badly, of course, it looks a hodge podge but you can always learn from that. If you are mass planting using only one or two different varieties, there is no reason to linger and look – you are just after the first glance impression.

In brief, the two rules of thumb in creating good combinations are to think of layering so that not everything is the same height and to get contrasts in foliage. Grasses are never going to look dramatic planted alongside other grasses but combined with a big leafed plant like a canna lily, a Chatham Island forget-me-not or pachystegia, they will have a great deal more zing. Plant combinations are about more than trendy colour toning.

There are a fair number of good designers around whom you can pay to give you a well planned garden in terms of the use of space but good designers who are passionate and knowledgeable about plants are as scarce as hens’ teeth. Good gardens are usually owned by good gardeners who know a great deal about plants themselves. And it is the plants which give the dynamic aspect to a garden and so bring life to the space.