Kristin Lammerting, photography by Ferdinand Graf von Luckner, Inspirational Gardens of New Zealand, Penguin Books: Auckland, 2010, 228pp. ISBN 9780670074785. 

Stuart Read 

This book looks great on first glance. If you picked it up off a bookshop shelf and flicked through, von Luckner’s photography alone would start you thinking, “I should buy this”.

Perhaps that’s symptomatic of what in recent decades garden books have become. Cook books of my mother’s era were workaday things, with colour photographs. They were mostly small format and had pages heavy with text. Cookbooks, like garden books, have become a phenomenon, with rising standards of photography, typesetting, books-as-seductive ‘must-haves’, often regardless of whether they have any meaningful content. Quite collectable for those who never cook: are there similarly garden books for lounge-chair non-gardeners?

I suppose garden selections depend a great deal on the author’s contacts and extent of travel: how well do they know a country?; can they convince owners to ‘share’? Some gardeners are proud to show off, others shrink and value privacy above all else.

It’s interesting to flick through Lammerting’s book and to contrast it with Derek Fell’s Great Gardens of New Zealand (2003), Mary Burnard’s The New Garden Heritage of New Zealand (1990) or Barbara Matthews’ Gardens of New Zealand (1983/8). Contrast helps to flesh out the trend: and that trend is less and less text (and history), and larger and larger images – even when a selection of the same gardens bobs up in each survey. Perhaps the differences in selections say more. Will a long-resident Kiwi make a clearer or muddier survey of what makes Kiwi gardens ‘tick’, to convey their essence? Will a newcomer/outsider have a clearer view unclouded by local loyalties, small-town and bloodline ties? There are merits either way. It’s not easy to pinpoint what makes a New Zealand garden unique. It may be easier to say what makes it inspirational. Inspiration in the owners or creators of course can differ from inspiration given to a visitor – and varies with their familiarity and frequency.

I wanted to like this book more than I ended up doing. Dipping in and out of it (another modern trend with book production, targeting and time-poor buyers/owners) is fine, a brush over each garden gives an idea of its character, place and the intent of the creator(s). A lingering leaves one aware of the ‘glissando’ approach that seems the book’s strength and its failing. Not much depth is given, or can be, in such a format and product.

In Inspirational Gardens, twenty-seven gardens are featured from north to south. Some are old but most quite young – 10 to 30 years seems the more common time span covered. Statistically, we buy and sell homes every 4-6 years so perhaps this is a long time span? But as someone who often finds gardens the more inspiring the older (and less titivated) they are, I beg to differ.

The book leads you to conclude that New Zealand gardeners are still taking inspiration from European gardens, albeit transplanted into and onto Antipodean landscapes. A good acid test for any purportedly ‘national’ garden survey is how many of them have native plants in them and how are these treated. This is very telling of ‘bedding down’ in a landscape; putting down roots beyond the first few generations of migration, ‘camping’ and ‘settling’, the process of mental and physical embedding, belonging. By this I don’t mean ‘native-only’: but it is instructive to focus on the few such shown.

The text is ‘coffee table’ and saccharine in tone – laced with adjectives like ‘stunning’, ‘breathtaking’ – not that New Zealand landscapes aren’t, but over-use can quickly diminish their power or credibility. Lammerting describes the landscapes as ‘endless’, something risible to a Kiwi long-residing in Australia. New Zealand’s landscapes might be big and seemingly ‘empty’ to a European used to paucity of scale and density of settlement, but hardly ‘endless’. What about Africa’s, America’s or Russia’s plains?

Sloppy botanical naming and captioning let this book down. It’s hard to get right every time but for the book’s price it should be better. Butler Point’s ‘manuka’ trunks shown on p.9 are clearly kanuka to be that tall! It’s a garden book but barely two images show anything of Butler Point’s historic buildings – a great pity. Captions such as those on pp.10-11 point up imported ornaments yet omit to ‘locate’ them in the South Pacific. The New Zealand cabbage tree (p.10) and New Zealand kawakawa (p.11) go unmentioned. If I were a foreigner buying this it’s exactly such plants I’d want identified. English buyers gaga over New Zealand flax cultivars might be delighted to learn more of our plants. Captions like that on p.12 mentions daisies where none are anywhere in view, whereas the ‘lichen’ shot on p.15 makes no mention of the New Zealand tui perched mid-shot: why?

Escapism and conjuring up ‘somewhere else’ (from New Zealand!) seem common here. Lammerting’s PalmCo garden in Kerikeri is described as “South Sea/Pacific”, yet the plants shown are mostly Californian desert fan palms, Canary Island dragon trees, South African birds of paradise flowers, Central/South American in origin. Does ‘look’ or ‘theatre’ over-ride accuracy: who cares where the effect comes from? Many a Hollywood Tarzan movie shot inside a warehouse in California never got any closer to an African jungle than the local pot plant shop – does it matter in a garden book? On p.23 is the first of several mentions of Gardens of (Inter/)National Significance, and the New Zealand Gardens Trust. I am suspicious of the vaunted claims of this system. It seems heavily weighted towards ‘feature’ gardens open to visit, often ‘commercial’ in focus and presentation. Of course visiting gardens is a major popular pastime and pleasure. This phenomenon is nothing new: Vauxhall Gardens in London’s suburbs or Caserta’s palace grounds near Naples offer 17th and 18th century equivalents: what bothers me are the criteria – judged by whom for whom. And the youth of the chosen gardens. Most date from the early 1990s, some after 2005, and surely all of which are too young to be nationally significant. And their quantity?  I wonder how many can be of ‘national significance’ before the term becomes a cliché. Would ‘regional’ be more honest /less marketable? Is the focus more on ‘show’, ‘surface appeal’ or ‘makeover’ than sustainability, endurance and soul? Should it be?

‘Chinaberry’ on p.29 might be more widely known here as white cedar or Persian lilac or Indian bead tree. ‘Ixia viridiflora’ on p.30 is lime green: the lilac/pink one shown is I. flexuosa. Its home, Woodbridge, is claimed to be a New Zealand garden, large and with a ‘free spirit’, yet noting its owners annually travel overseas and bring ideas home with them, it seems derivative, with few New Zealand plants bar tree ferns and renga renga lilies. It could be anywhere, in England’s south, South Africa, south-eastern Australia?

Ted Smyth’s name changes from the title on p.36 to column two: now he’s Tom! He of course deserves inclusion here as a notable modernist and minimalist, much copied. Perhaps these are less gardens than wealthy stage sets but they are no less marvellous for that. He seems also genuinely curious about and reflective on the landscapes he works in: with Auckland’s volcanic scoria, boulders and plants always featured or somewhere in view, along with a few favoured exotics: aloes, bromeliads, aeoniums. Note that spelling, the italicised “Bromelia” (p.38) doesn’t exist: these are Alcantarea or Vriesia sp. I wonder if the kaitaki stones on p.38 should be ‘kaitiaki stones’ – i.e. guardians, or is their origin Kaitaki? I love the irrelevant p.39 mention of stones worn smooth by the sea, “like those found in the Seychelles”. Perhaps the author’s a regular there – stones on any sea coast are sea-worn! I think it open to challenge that Smyth is the ‘founder’ of modern garden design in New Zealand: he perhaps founded minimalist garden design, quite a different thing. What about modernists such as Alfred Tschopp, Odo Strewe (publishing in magazines) and Anna Plischke producing modern gardens in the 1950s? All were influential two decades before Smyth. Poor history perhaps, but good myth-making!

Ayrlies always shows up in such surveys. What a pity that one of its highlighted plants is the Cocos Island/Queen palms over the pool (p.43). This species is a serious environmental weed in Sydney and I wager is getting into South and West Auckland bush as easily. There are far better palms to feature in such a prominent, visited and over-published, location. The yellow candelabra primulas above are in fact P.heladoxa: the caption’s P.bulleyana is apricot. The ‘lime green cypresses’ (p.47) seem far more like golden honey locust (Gleditsia) or black locust (Robinia) in form and colour than any cypress. The ‘Bush Noon’ (p.48) would be a more helpful caption if it added ‘kangaroo paw’.

Trudy Crerar’s formal row of titoki trees in giant planter pots are the best thing in her garden (pp.52-3), yet their name is New Zealand ash, not ‘NZ oak’: the leaves are pinnate like an ash. And Lomandra x ‘Tanika’ is a matt rush, not a grass. Again sloppy captioning won’t help keen gardeners find the right plant if they want to emulate some of these ideas. This garden is of interest, being basically urban and formal but making use of native plants. Perhaps there should be more of this in New Zealand’s gardens as a whole?

Mark Read’s prize-winning Takapuna garden (p.57) is intriguing yet poorly described. If its planting at the front and lining the drive ‘incorporates it into the surrounding environment’, this is not borne out by the photographs, which show a high grey cement wall that obscures the house/surrounding environment. Text and images seem at odds here, which is unfortunate.

New Zealand is one of the great rhododendron-growing climates in the world and Hollard Gardens (established, 1927) and Pukeiti (established, 1951) feature this genus, in two of the book’s oldest gardens. Sadly no image actually shows Hollard Gardens, an inexplicable omission. Couldn’t one of the loving close-ups of “rhodos” been substituted for a landscape shot of Hollard’s?

One of the best gardens in the book for me is Te Kainga Marire in New Plymouth: all native, rich in ‘bush feel’, texture and layering – beckoning exploration. Yet again poor botany lets down its captions: ‘ponga’ trunks (p.74) are in fact wheki ponga (Dicksonia spp. not Cyathea) with quite distinct ‘bark’ effects. This may not matter to a European but to an Antipodean or someone trying to grow wheki ponga, the former is far hardier than the latter. Southern English gardens such as Heligan can keep dicksonias alive. Accuracy matters. Cyathea medullaris (mamaku) is shown with its larger fronds (top right p.74 and ditto p.75) yet the distinction is not made – again, a pity. The standout plant Xeronema’s home on the Poor Knights Islands (p.76) is to, not ‘in’, the north of New Zealand – bad grammar.

I think it sad that the Richmond Garden in Carterton is vaunted as being internationally significant – it’s hardly Versailles, Schönbrunn, Studley Royal or Aranjuez, all formal gardens listed on the World Heritage List. Perhaps the New Zealand Gardens Trust thinks it needn’t convince anyone but itself of such stature? The garden seems wholly derivative – a kind of ‘House & Garden’ lift – the oeuvre of undoubtedly lucrative and successful garden ‘designers’ such as Paul Bangay (Australia), Russel Page (UK/Europe), but ‘New Zealand’? More like a stage set from France or Italy dropped in and around a New Zealand house. I can’t make out a single native plant – the water at least is local. Odd but undoubtedly the garden of an architect’s daughter and a mathematician: and good on them, having fun! How much more exciting would this be if the pleached hedges were Nothofagus sp. and the box balls and cubes were made of Gaultheria, Coprosma, Lophomyrtus – move over, France! Of course even the captions get it wrong – fanned hedges are of beech, not ‘beach’!

Assisi Gardens, near Masterton, is full of Echium pininniana, (not ‘pinnifolium’ – p.90) and Viper’s bugloss is actually Echium vulgare, a lower weedy species, quite different. At least they’re playing with native hedges (Corokia sp., p.93) – bravo! Spiky combinations of flax, grasses and echiums work very well here. And animate in the constant winds no doubt.

Woollaston Estates’ winery with its green rooves (not as stated ‘roofs’) of tussock seems eminently well-grounded in a sea of grasses, though contrasting with bright green paddocks beyond! It’s good to see an industrial building trying to fit into its landscape and using all-native plants to do so. More of these would be inspirational indeed. No doubt the insulation value of an earth roof on a winery building makes good economic and thermal sense too.

Lammerting’s lack of research again shows on p.100’s claim that wine has only been grown and pressed professionally for a few decades in New Zealand – rot: perhaps ‘on an industrial scale’ might be true. James Busby’s vineyards in Waitangi and Northland in the 1830s; the Reverend Samuel Marsden’s in Kerikeri from 1819 and the French (Lavaud), Monte in Otago from the 1860s offer mockery of this ‘fact’ – the second wave of wineries and perhaps widespread export date from the ‘Dalmatians’ and 1970s on, but not the first.

Hortensia, Blenheim’s gazebo, is claimed to be French (like its owners), yet isn’t. ‘Gazebo’ isn’t the French word for ‘beautiful view’ – that is ‘belle vue’. Gazebo, the word, has disputed origins (likely Middle-English/Latin, corrupted) though these structures are built for views. My French dictionary says gaze means ‘gauze’, actually! P.114-5’s captioned ‘Acacia podalyriifolia’ is in fact Podalyria calyptrata, a pea bush from South Africa, not wattle.  Last time I knew the plural of chateau was chateaux (cf ‘chateaus’, p.123) – Madame’s French seems lacking for someone German!

A highlight for me is Jimma’s garden by the sea at Seddon (Marlborough). To my expatriate eyes, this is ‘stunning’. Striking in its sensitivity to the wind-blown, salty yet beautiful coastal views and its all-native (bar the golden lupins redolent of coastal dunes) plants and rolling drifts of planting seem well-adapted and settled: yet it only dates from 2000. The house has a green roof and nestles into its surrounds. Only a folly skylight pokes up above the green and gold waves. Restraint and ‘fit’ seem well-thought through and likely to survive, far more so than some ‘transplanted Sissinghurst/Versailles’. I found his grove of upright lollipop ngaios amazingly formal. Either he’s pruning them up on straight trunks or they’re something else, like a Pseudopanax: the crowns are so marvellously tight they seem far from ‘shaggy/irregular’ ngaios. Again why can’t natives be pruned, like a marvellous parallel ‘sand dune’ garden on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula, Fiona Brockhoff’s Karkalla is pruning local she oak (Casuarina glauca) into lollipops on poles/half spheres on ground. She clearly has had great fun and in its way, exactly what the wind does to them in such situations: why ever not!?

Similarly Ralf Kruger’s Queenstown gardens seem well-adapted to their adopted landscape. He’s clearly been growing and studying NZ plants for decades in Germany before migrating. Perhaps, too, Otago’s dramatic montane landscapes are not such a change of ‘scenery’ for high-altitude Germans, Austrians, French or Swiss? His work deserves wider coverage. He appears to have a real feel (like Jimma) for the landscapes and plants he has adopted. A certain boldness and largeness of scale fits such large scale settings very well, in my view.

Ohinetahi (1970+) bobs up time and again in such books, deservedly so. Gardening on a volcanic rim and not far from fault lines brings rather more chaos to the evident order here than perhaps has been its experience to date. Sissinghurst-transplanted the garden plane may be, but Kent has nothing like a caldera as backdrop, nor the limpid mud-silt-blue of Lyttelton Harbour as backdrop. Such advantages! Again an architect’s garden and it shows. Great to see Miles Warren reworking it into bolder reds: way too much cream in such situations! Nice too to see plain concrete block used so elegantly (he has for decades), an overlooked very ‘kiwi’ everyday material worth elevation. But England holds swain: a kowhai, single cabbage tree (and some wonderful ‘lines’ of Hebe topiara) seem the only natives to have ‘jumped the fence’. Bit more reworking would make it sing stronger. Libocedrus, Plagianthus,  Hoheria, totara and Coprosma could replace yew, hornbeam, beech and box – surely?

Sloppy history again appears in Lammerting’s discussion of Akaroa’s Tree Crop Farm. It wasn’t Capability Brown who ‘jumped the fence and saw all nature as a garden’. It was William Kent, his competitor. Brown demolished the fences altogether and brought grass and sheep up to the house’s windows.

Hamilton Gardens’ history guidebook claims that New Zealand gardens are getting more conservative with time. This seems borne out by many of the selections in this book, such as the Trott’s garden in Ashburton (p.172). Isn’t a knot garden being ‘a natural work of art’ a tautology? A ‘work of art’ is by definition ‘art-ificial – something made cf. ‘natural’ – even if the ingredients themselves are living, natural plants. And I think it fairer to say knot gardens were not ‘rediscovered’ in the 20th century. They’d been lovingly replanted in some instances in each century since the middle ages, but were popularly revived in the 20th.

The other highlight for me is Broadfields near Christchurch – reinvented European formality but using New Zealand plants instead – boldly and well: with totara hedges, native shrubs replacing herbaceous border plants… Makes others trying to ‘do formal’ look very formulaic. Not to knock them: they’re done beautifully – but less ‘inspirational’ than this is. Pity p.194’s formal vista isn’t centred on the power pole over the fence and hedge (can’t hide it. Perhaps in time those kauri trees will!) Wonderful that this is an ‘allotment’ garden with no house either. It is intriguingly silent on what David Hobbs’ wife thinks of it all. Does she want flowers? Or does she enjoy having time free to herself!?

Larnach’s Castle garden also is a regular flag-bearer for New Zealand gardens (and buildings), and with ample justification. This is gardening (heritage ‘rescue’ and business-running) with verve and aplomb. And great to see it under snow. But here small things let the text down: ‘Neo-Gothic’ is less accurate than Italianate-Gothic for the house. European trees and shrubs are not the only things planted near the castle. Two cabbage trees flank its front steps, a rimu grows close to its northern side and several large native beech are to its south (shown on p.212 and labelled ‘cedars’!) and a large northern rata is on its northern lawn not far from the house. Are these not all native trees? I’d question whether the glass-topped cupola, box parterre (a very French word/concept) and border are in fact ‘British’ style par excellence. Far more continental (Franco/Italo/Indian) in effect and eclecticism, I would say. If that’s British, so be it. Interesting that Margaret Barker is growing totara-clipped hedges and planting a great number of native plants in the gardens now – in its own ‘transplanted exotic’ way, the castle is innovating. Its south-Pacific garden full of Gondwanaland-shared plants between fragmented continents is one of the absolute highlights of this place. It’s worth a visit alone.