Careful selection, definite intent, Angela Sears

Palmers Garden Show Guide to Gardening in New Zealand
Random House, $39.95

Garden Style in New Zealand
Rod Barnett,
Random House, $49.95

Perennial Gardening in New Zealand
Christine Dann and Tony Wyber,
Bridget Williams Books, $49.95

Plants and gardens are among the very few topics that can lure me from my own garden to watch television, but I am not a fan of the Palmers Garden Show, which seems bitty and superficial, the authority and expertise of the team undermined by irritating backchat. But I also suspect that thousands of fans warm to every familiarity – and that the grins of cheeky friends Maggie Barry, Rod Barnett the landscaper Ruud Kleinpaste the bug-man, Bill Ward the plantsman and Marge Green the cook on the cover will sell a lot of books.

The cheeky friends’ contributions, however, total no more than 20 of the 260 pages of this thick paperback book – merely the tinsel on the tree. Moreover, my dealings with Palmers garden centres have been with helpful and knowledgeable staff. My overall impression of the book is on balance positive. It does have some of the bittiness of the television show but there are so many bits that many of them are likely to meet the information needs and tastes of many gardeners.

The book covers garden planning, plant selection and garden activities in three broad divisions. An interesting section on planning for the senses includes useful tips on choosing texture, shape, scent and colour, albeit with an odd omission of colour from the fragrant rose lists. Plant selection may well be the most useful section, unusual in its great detail, with useful tips on seed and other propagation, varieties, care and possible dangers for every one of the several hundred plants covered.

Other nice touches are the margin quotes throughout from past gardeners or about earlier New Zealand gardens and the seasonal quotes from Ursula Bethell.

Ruud Kleinpaste has a fascinating essay on bugs, but the anonymous section on dealing with them was far too unrelievedly chemical for my taste.

The biggest disappointment was Rod Barnett’s contribution on garden design, which was patchy and unsatisfying, alternating between simple, sensible advice such as choosing a theme and obscure and dogmatic philosophising on the social, physical and culutural analysis of the site and the principles of design.

It might have been wiser to have given the references to the books of Hugh Johnson and others for those who wanted to pursue design aspects deeply and to have concentrated on a simpler outline of suitably illustrated basic design principles.

Another niggle relates to the lack of photographs of some of the people and gardens mentioned. It was frustrating to read raves about details in Moss Green gardens or Titoki Point without an illustration, but perhaps such detail belongs in another book.

Still, there are numerous excellent photographs. Along with the comprehensive range of plant and garden topics and its price, they are its best aspect.

Barry in her foreword describes the book as “destined to become a well-thumbed, ready-reference point”. This, I can well imagine. It would make a good present for a range of practising gardeners from beginners to old hands with mixed gardens and a wish to keep up to date with new varieties of plants and techniques.

Barnett’s Garden Style in New Zealand is a handsome, stylish production, with elegant, clear typeface and layout and striking if sometimes rather dark photographs. The text design and production is by Graeme Leather.

It is an unusual book and difficult to classify. It is informative, reflective, opinionated, practical, philosophical and stimulating in turns.

It attempts to define garden style, then to present six “pure styles” which have evolved in other countries and how these have been modified in New Zealand. He gives a series of case studies demonstrating site analysis, through problem solving to new concept plans. The last chapter is a lyrical essay on gardens and their poetic essence. Finally there are appendices on site surveying, transplanting trees, a very incomplete glossary of terms and people in the text, plant lists for various styles of garden covered and a bibliography.

Barnett states the broad aim of the book is to help develop an appropriate theme for a garden and he is passionate about what he regards as appropriate for New Zealand. “We find more Sussex garden clones and Rio‑type gardens than those which appear to have sprung naturally from our own native soil”. But he is very optimistic about our progress: “[New Zealand] has a rich garden history which is alive and well … an eclectic history, full of famous gardeners and big ideas and full of the abundance and variety of the New Zealand geomorphology.”

Barnett’s description of garden types is fascinating, ranging the world and centuries of garden history. He assumes a wide knowledge of garden terms and concepts, many of which are not included in the glossary, for example, positive and negative space. And the awful quincunx – I am tempted to offer a prize of a thesaurus to any non-landscaper or mathematician who knows the meaning of that!

Another frustration relates to his international name-dropping of people and styles with inadequate referencing or backup. It is not good enough to read detailed allusions to works of Mies van der Rohe, Marx, deco and post-modern style without glossary or reference inclusion.

It is an extended and closely-worked essay on garden design, arguing passionately for a design language appropriate for architecture, site, region and country. It is not a book to dip into but one to read reflectively and return to. It is probably an essential text or reference book for serious students and practitioners of landscape design. It would be a great gift for amateurs keen on the history of style or gardens, although for beginners supplementary reading seems essential. It would be of some practical use to amateurs designing or redesigning a garden but they are perhaps more likely to wear out library copies.

A quote from Gertrude Jekyll in Barnett’s book is an appropriate introduction to Perennial Gardening in New Zealand:

I am strongly of the opinion that possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection. Having got the plants, the great thing is to use them with careful selection and definite intention.

 

The emphasis in this book is what you do with plants, with gardening creatively with perennials, rather than merely collecting them.

Dann and photographer Tony Wyber say they were motivated by the lack of innovation in the use of perennials in the average small suburban garden. They have made suggestions on integrating perennials with native shrubs and trees. “We are probably exposing our necks to the secateurs, but we felt that some comment was needed on alternatives to classic English styles, beautiful though they may be.” There is an excellent section on the use of natives, so no excuses for producing yet another imitative replica of a British border”. Very refreshing content and style: friendly, direct and, above all, assured.

The description of national and regional differences is informative and provocative. Dann points out that many of the northern hemisphere books widely used here are inappropriate for a climate which is milder, with longer daylight hours and with significantly different soils.

Pondering why she feels so few New Zealand gardens are “great”, Dann concludes that design flair is often lacking and the book attempts to stimulate thought and to give a variety of guidelines to better design. Practical advice is given to help with colour and layout, on soil and regional, climatic differences and how these factors affect plant choice.

There is also some beautiful description of the New Zealand landscape, for example: “In the low, slanting evening light of autumn, buttery-yellow poplar leaves, dull golden tussocks and shiny red rosehips spring into dramatic relief against the slabs of grey schist in Central Otago.” How that evokes the unique landscape remembered so vividly of campsites round Kyeburn in the Maniototo.

Wyber’s excellent photographs are attractively integrated into the text with clear and informative captions – a feature less common in gardening books than it should be. The photographs are also of a broad range of sites, huts and humble buildings, with beautiful plants, not just the grand farm gardens and “great Dixters”.

To help the selection of plants, there are over 400 alphabetically listed photographs in excellent colour, both common and rarer plants, with easily followed cultivation codings.

A final section, “Pursuing Perennials”, gives addresses of specialist New Zealand nurseries, local and overseas seed suppliers (with cautionary notes on seed importing) and a full bibliography.

A very satisfying book for the novice and experienced gardeners alike who grown perennials.

The notable feature of all three books is their insistence on native flora and their helpful optimism about the development of indigenous garden design. The future sounds exciting.

 

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