Reaping what you sow, James Beattie

A History of Gardening in New Zealand
Bee Dawson
Godwit, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869621568


Published on glossy paper with quality full-colour images, A History of Gardening in New Zealand is a most attractive book. Bee Dawson provides a whistle-stop overview of gardening in New Zealand that will appeal to readers new to garden history. Ultimately, however, Dawson’s book disappoints, adding nothing to our existing understandings of garden history in this country. Relying overmuch on the work of others right down to recycling their quotations, there is virtually no evidence of any original textual archival research or argument.

What is required in this field is a work that builds on the pioneering scholarship of older and more recent garden historians, rather than one that just liberally quotes from them. An exciting base of garden history exists in this country. One thinks here of the work of Walter Cook, Helen Leach, John P Adams and Thelma Strongman and, more recently, of Matthew Morris and others. Where, one might ask, are Charlie Challenger’s articles on early colonial plantsmen (from Garden History) or even references to Australian Garden History? What about taking a leaf out of overseas scholarship, such as the work of J D Hunt, or from Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes? Matthew Bradbury’s A History of the Garden in New Zealand (1995), if not for design, then certainly for content, well and truly shades out A History of Gardening in New Zealand.

My criticism may appear harsh, and this is not meant to belittle Dawson’s effort, but I strongly feel a more imaginative approach, evident of deeper thinking and drawing from a broader range of hitherto unpublished sources, is necessary. This is not to say there are no gems in Dawson’s work. The book is well-written and beautifully produced. Interspersed throughout its nine chapters and epilogue are also informative overviews of particular topics. Her chapter on gardening clothes and beekeeping I especially enjoyed.

The work begins with the lively and fascinating story of the introduction of gardening into Aotearoa by Polynesians some 800 years ago, relating the remarkable adaptations and changes to horticultural practices required for a tropical people with tropical plants to survive in a largely temperate climate. Succeeding chapters describe the gardening activities of explorers and of later missionaries, sealers and whalers. Particularly fascinating to readers new to garden history is the well-known story of the remarkable adaptation and adoption by Maori of a host of newly-introduced edible plants. Maori, Dawson observes, enjoyed great commercial success, exporting crops as far afield as North America.

The Treaty of Waitangi, she notes, significantly altered gardening practices, releasing a veritable biological floodgate of European migrants and plant introductions into New Zealand. For colonists, Dawson comments, the necessities of survival focused initial gardening activities on the growing of vegetables and fruit, rather than ornamentals. Within a relatively short time, however, nurseries in Australia and New Zealand were supplying settlers with a host of exciting and varied edible and ornamental species, ranging in rarity, extent and value from those of inveterate horticultural enthusiast Arthur Ludlam, who settled in the Hutt Valley, to the proud displays of flowers planted amongst vegetable plots undertaken by settlers of more modest means.

By the 20th century, Dawson shows, European gardens and gardening were far more established. Flourishing nursery and landscape design businesses, such as Duncan and Davies, catered to the demands of a variety of customers both at home and overseas, while the suburban garden took on a new importance with the rise of urbanisation and fears of white degeneracy. Urban beautification accompanying the garden city movement gathered pace, as several companies also designed gardens for its workers. The Depression changed the fortunes of many, with the slump placing added importance on the home garden. Later, war became a patriotic (and feminised) activity under the aegis of government schemes to promote the growth of vegetables to aid the war effort and keep the home population well-fed and healthy.

The title of British politician Austin Mitchell’s cheeky book The Half Gallon Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise (1972) typified the ideals of New Zealanders in the immediate post-war period, as men and women industriously gardened veges in the backyard and, in the front, tended well-kept lawns, a task made easier by the more widespread use of lawnmowers, hedge-cutters and other labour-saving devices (including pesticides, herbicides and the like). Post-war, too, garden designers enjoyed unprecedented popularity, while modernism also shaped many of their designs. More recently, Dawson writes in the epilogue, the declining popularity of gardening (and garden centres) evident over the previous few decades, has been checked somewhat by economic necessities driving younger generations to try their hand at gardening.

The book contains several inaccuracies and points at which analysis and context are totally absent. For instance, it would be easy to imagine that, after the 1870s, Maori left New Zealand and its gardening history because they simply vanish from the narrative. Equally, the interpretation that early colonists were not interested in garden design is simply wrong: examine the images on pp72, 83 or 119, as well as Christopher Johnstone’s book, The Painted Garden in New Zealand Art (2009). For a book purporting to be a social history, much of the historical context of gardening is left out. And where’s an introduction and conclusion? Finally, while I commend Dawson for her choice of illustrations, they needed to be better integrated into the text as well as more closely analysed. For example, the left-hand image on p279 is significant in showing the new trend in Japanese garden-designs evident from the 1960s and forming part of modernism, but this goes unmentioned.

In sum, while I greatly admire Dawson for tackling this topic, A History of Gardening in New Zealand is a sadly missed opportunity to contribute an original and innovative history that truly furthers the subject.


James Beattie teaches in the History Department at the University of Waikato.

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