Green thoughts, Judith Dale

The Garden as a Room: Decorating and Furnishing the New Zealand Garden
Robin Shafer,
Random House, $39.95

The Dry Garden: Gardening with drought-tolerant plants
Jane Taylor,
Godwit, $59.95

Delights of Floral Languages, Delights of Lavender, Delights of Little Flowers, Delights of Roses
Olive Dunn,
Random House, $14.95 each


Mean while the Mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas,
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.


Quite so. Readers of New Zealand Books and especially of this poetry issue may well feel that garden books rather than gardening – the Marvellian Idea, a garden of the Mind – offer a ‘far other’ source of happiness. ‘What wond’rous Life is this I lead!’ surely beats the ‘pleasure less’ of slogging it out at the end a spade:

Casting the Bodies Vest aside,
My Soul into the boughs does glide.


Yet none of the three authors reviewed here would ‘prudently [our] Toyles upbraid.’ As Robin Shafer says in her introduction:

We live in the age of the small garden where employed gardeners are a rarity and where spare time is a precious commodity…. General interest in garden is at an all-time high. Nurseries are big business, book-stores are filled with garden books and magazines, and garden building materials are becoming more and more prolific … Amid this flurry of commercial activity home gardeners, although surrounded by products, remain bereft of the vital techniques they need to undertake the garden design itself.

Whereupon, believing that ‘gardens are more than their plants’, she introduces ‘the garden room‘ or The Garden as a Room as an image for garden design, layout, furnishing and embellishment. The garden is a space like a house, or a series of spaces – rooms, passageways, steps, stairs ‑ with floor and wall surfaces and ceilings as well. They are linked; they lead into each other narrowly or open up to each other more widely. They have furniture, just as the rooms of one’s house have, and one may arrange them to their best advantage for convenience and aesthetic effect.

The first chapter deals with enclosures – gates and boundaries which structure the outwardly enclosed space, screens enclosing areas within and from above, even windows which may open onto nearer and further sights and ‘surprises’. Discussing the floor she spends time on a great range of path and paving surfaces, as well as steps and lawns. ‘Embellishments’ comes as the most radical departure, including garden seats of course, and container planting, but also sculpture and statuary and the use of water for formal pools and bog gardens. She discusses plants and planting for effects of height, weight, balance, scatter, and in terms of colour schemes. (It is permissible to have an all green garden, as both Marvell and Hildegard of Bingen – with her notion of veriditas, greening, already knew: see review of Musica Ficta on p2.) There is also a chapter on ‘Practical Applications’ – how to construct all kinds of walls, steps, paths, mowing strips and so on.

In establishing style in the garden room Shafer recommends you start with the literal house, your domicile, and that the demands of the site come second, she writes as if we are all starting from scratch. I suspect this is an Aucklander’s point of view, not a Wellingtonian’s. Our garden-making situations – those ‘secret gardens’ at the top or bottom of flights of steps throughout Wellington suburbs – already have their own character that the designer must work with more ingeniously. This is a sophisticated book, with beautiful photographs of beautifully lush and sophisticated gardens (Auckland, possibly Christchurch?) taken by the author’s sister Rosemary Dahl. Both are professional designers and come from ‘a long bloodline of nurserymen on both sides of the family’, and the horticultural aspects of the book, lists of plants for various design factors, are thoroughly professional too. Does the whole thing seem a trifle too glossy, a do-it-yourself guide for people who are probably able to pay someone else to do it anyway? Perhaps. But the general approach can be applied more modestly, and I for one am now inspired to create a garden in a new way.

Design notwithstanding, the Marvellous ‘green Shade’ needs plants which can thrive. The second of these garden books, The Dry Garden, is a local issue, unchanged except for its title, of Jane Taylor’s Plants for Dry Gardens (UK: Frances Lincoln Limited, 1993). It is a beautiful book doubling as gardener’s handbook and work of art, written with flair and authority by an internationally acclaimed horticultural expert who has gardened in California, Florida, Pakistan, Switzerland and in Britain where she restored an 18-acre garden for the National Trust. It is exceptionally well designed, with generous photographs of both plants and gardens, sharply detailed and exquisitely coloured. But the English edition’s title is nearer the truth; it is a ‘guide to choosing plants that will flourish during water shortages… a unique comprehensive catalogue of more than 1,000 drought-tolerant plants.’ The sections on your actual dry garden and gardening in dry conditions are discussed comparatively briefly.

And in New Zealand? ‘Drought is a relative term‘ says Jane Taylor, pointing out that ‘more or less’, severe droughts, intermittent, recurrent or persistent, are forcing many of us, in many parts of the world, to think again…. It is perhaps gardeners used to maritime and island climates who are most, affronted by drought.’ In a much too brief foreword Jack Hobbs, Curator of the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens, adds that New Zealand’s eastern districts have relatively low annual rainfalls, we have many areas with sandy soils, we too face increasing water shortages – and ‘modern dwellings’ may well suit ‘a Mediterranean ambience’. The New Zealand re-issue of an important gardener’s handbook like this surely needed a more substantial discussion of precisely how and wherein it applies to our climatic and geographic conditions, and a much fuller commentary on specific plants. Jane Taylor barely mentions us at all.

More parochially, there is my own high-rainfall but windswept and rapidly drying rocky clay ridge. What might I plant? As my neighbour, an expert gardener and keen horticulturalist, says, many of the plants listed would not survive in this virtually frost-free area in Wellington because summer temperatures are not consistently high enough, while other plants would quickly become vicious invaders (as Mr Hobbs notes). We approve the sensible segregation according to growth habit – trees and shrubs, climbers, bulbs, etc. And it is refreshing to see that grasses are given space. But there are omissions in these lists. Only one climbing rose is mentioned when there are many rose species which will tolerate dry conditions and romp away happily. The grapevine and related species have been omitted and the section on bulbs (which have developed a system for coping with drought in an efficient way) is particularly sparse, with no mention of familiar groups such as babianas, lachenalias or watsonias. There are no proteas or leuchadendrons. It is a lovely book but may cause considerable frustration to gardeners, as opposed to readers of garden books.

Readers of flower books and those in search of a gift for a flower-and-garden friend are the designated market for Olive Dunn’s ‘Miniature Delights’ – Delights of Floral Language, Lavender, Little Flowers and Roses. At $14.95 each the publishers cleverly thought that this was a better strategy than a single volume: four tiny separately bound presentation hardbacks, rather than the larger format of her earlier cottage gardening books. Olive Dunn lives in Invercargill with a half-acre garden open to the public, and has worked for over thirty years in floristry, horticultural festivals and herbal crafts, she was involved with the planting of the fragrant gardens at the Blind Centre in Invercargill. These indeed delightful books are filled with surprises: compilations of horticulture, history, literature, medicine, crafts and recipes. Lavender meringues filled with lavender-flavoured cream? Balmoral rose sandwiches? And the floral photographic end papers are exquisite.

Marvell says, nostalgically and misogynistically

Such was that happy Garden-state,
While Man there walk’d without a Mate
Two Paradises ’twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.


He was clearly wrong. These three authors of garden books offer not only the way to nicer gardens but also the feminine companionship of something to read while enjoying one’s Garlands of repose:

How could such sweet and wholesome Hours
Be reckon’d but with books and flow’rs!


Judith Dale is a medievalist with a hortus inconclusus.


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