The courtyard jungle, Kerry Carman

Life (and death) in a Small City Garden
Philippa Swan
Godwit, $24.95,
ISBN 1869620798

In the vast and varied field of literature, gardens and writing are a classic pairing. Well-told stories of personal experience are few and far between, grist to the armchair gardener’s mill as well as the green-fingered. Not that Life (and death) in a Small City Garden is soul-food or in a league with Peter Smithers’ thrilling Adventures of a Gardener, but as a first effort it has considerable merit. It is full of infectious enthusiasm reminiscent of Australian Barbara Wenzel’s Painting the Roses White (Confessions of an Amateur Gardener).

Life (and death) in a Small City Garden is the fascinating, funny and true story of the education of a gardener. Philippa Swan chronicles her personal odyssey from landscape designer to committed gardener with honesty and humour, nicely spiced with a healthy cynicism about current practices such as garden fashion, so-called “green makeovers”, television and the gardening press.

Swan’s account of her world travels in search of exotic gardens and a sense of “someplace else” makes some of the best reading in the book. On her return, she determines to bring to her Lilliputian Wellington city courtyard, “the size of a single-car garage”, a sense of this “someplace else”, an experience she recounts amusingly and accurately without ever taking herself too seriously.

She espouses the over-abundant “jungly” look in gardens, while commenting on the need for nature to be balanced by formality. She draws some interesting conclusions:

Having a nice garden often shows a woman is Respectable. These sort of women are usually found in villagey English dramas and are all frightfully well-bred and horsey: they wear Barbour boots and drive Range Rovers. No matter that they’ve had affairs with half the men in the village, and the vicar as well – they still do the church flowers and have the most charming gardens, and you can’t do much better than that.


Her definition of minimalism in the garden is “twenty astelias and a bit more concrete”.  For a modern landscape designer, she holds refreshing views, pouring scorn on “the urban grunge garden that takes its cue from the materials of the metropolis” and offers an entertaining essay on “the anal gardens of control freaks”.

The book is designed to amuse but is not frivolous, and as a first effort it shows much promise for the future. Tighter editing could have prevented unnecessary errors such as the strangely disconnected fragment at the top of page 28. I personally found the use of swear-words extraneous and spoiling, and I’m sure Charles Darwin would have been startled to learn that people who enjoy prancing around in the buff are called “naturalists”.

Philippa Swan’s is an original voice that is articulate, humorous and disarmingly refreshing. She has produced a book that is not only a jolly good yarn but full of pithy comment and common sense, well laced with an irreverent, healthy scepticism. Like all good tales, it leaves you wanting more. What happens next? Does Harry the dog still polish off the beer left out for the slugs? Will Ted the baby follow in her footsteps in the next garden, the garden of experience? Will there even be a next garden? Strangely, at the close of this book, she suggests not. I don’t believe her. She’s got the bug – both for plants and writing. More please.


Kerry Carman is gardening correspondent for the New Zealand Listener.    


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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