The mysteries and pleasures of growing a garden

By Michele Hewitson

Moving garden can be a harrowing experience, writes Michele Hewitson. Enter garden guru Xanthe White, who puts all to rights and helps her to feel in the pink.

Garden designer, Xanthe White. Photo / Richard Robinson
Garden designer, Xanthe White. Photo / Richard Robinson

On May 1 this year we moved garden.

We moved house too, obviously, but it was more about moving gardens for me. A month before, an hour before the auction, I went down to the shed, sat on the stoop, looked at my garden and cried. I had spent 20 years pottering about here. It was my first garden. It was full of mistakes and the composted corpses of many costly garden centre impulsive buys.

My first, mad idea had been to make it a mini-Sissinghurst. I suspect that is the first, mad idea of many mad, first-time gardeners. Instead, the garden did its own thing, with some help from me. It became a jungly, completely private, mostly green space that we, and the cat, whose garden - with secret places and trees to go up - it really was, loved. Bits of it I never got right, of course. A garden is never right and it is never finished. But it was as finished as it was going to get, unless I ripped out large bits and started again. I didn't want to do that: this garden was the sort of garden it was and, much as I loved it, I wanted a different sort.

So, 18 years after a kitten turned up and went up the old plum tree, then walked inside and went to sleep on the couch, we carried him outside and laid him under the now much older plum tree. (It keeled over, gently, a year later. Ah, well.) I made him a posy of gardenia and bay leaves and forget-me-nots. I'd never planted forget-me-nots; they'd hitch-hiked a ride on some other plant, years ago and happily self-seeded themselves through the lime-green euphorbias and the ligularias with their funny, lovely, yellow splotches. That's one of the things about gardens: the happy accidents make up for the mistakes. Another thing about gardens, if you make them for cats, you can't move. We could now but first we had to find a garden - oh, yes, and a house - we loved more than the one we had.

It would not be until two years later that the real estate agent reported a number of the tyre-kickers who had come for a look were put off by the trees. People are frightened by trees. People want a deck (large enough that they can adorn it with a huge and hideous gas barbecue) that opens out to a flat back lawn where the kids can kick a ball and bounce on a trampoline while remaining within sight of their parents.

My garden offered none of this. The garden we had just bought offered none of this and, because we have no kids and so no balls or trampolines and certainly no gas barbecue, we couldn't have cared less. When I told the garden designer Xanthe White about what people want in a garden, she said what people wanted was a garden for them, meaning the grown-ups. They didn't want a garden for the kids at all. Kids, like cats, want corners and secret places and trees to go up and make huts in. They want places to hide from grown-ups in. Kids are not frightened of trees.

I liked White. She is very pretty and speaks very quietly and doesn't make sudden movements. She is the ideal person to have in a garden. She seems to glide though gardens like a very pretty and quiet butterfly, in her lovely silk dress from Ingrid Starnes and her serious - and seriously muddy - gumboots. My gumboots are red and have paisley patterns on them. They are not serious gumboots and I had washed them the first day White came to look at the new garden. I was feeling very nervous. I had asked her over because I had developed a fear of trees.

Xanthe White has just published her second book, The Natural Garden. She is an award-winning landscape designer (a Silver Gilt medal from Chelsea; the Supreme Award for Excellence in Design from Ellerslie.) She writes a column for the Listener. I seldom read gardening books (because they are either as dull as mud, and bossy, or full of lavish pictures of fashionable gardens that all look the same and which lead you to try to plant mini-Sissinghursts in Auckland.) My favourite gardening book has no pictures and is called A Gentle Plea For Chaos, by the English gardener Mirabel Osler. It is a lament: "A mania for neatness, a lust for conformity - and away go atmosphere and sensuality." Now she is a mad gardener. She once tied stones to the ends of roses in an attempt to create a waterfall of flowers down a rock wall. This failed, of course, but you have to applaud that sort of craziness.

My other favourite gardener is a rather grandly intellectual French geezer called Gilles Clement, who is a proponent of what he calls the "French mouvement", towards "wilder, more natural gardens: the concept of a natural wilderness". I have, for 20 years, been looking at pictures of one of his gardens and coveting that sort of garden. Now I had the space to do it and, despite having gardened for two decades, no idea how to set about it. Because the thing about making a garden look natural, of course, as White writes in her new book (which is neither dull nor bossy nor silly), is that it is "in some ways a more complex approach to gardening as it requires a specific knowledge of each site and a broad understanding of the vast kingdom of plants". Also, you need structure, which doesn't mean straight lines. "Our gardens should be celebrations of the complexities of nature, not rows of monocultures that mimic architecture in their rigidity."

It's about, she says, the magic of plants. She also said, in response to an email I sent about the perils of throwing sheep pellets about after a few stiff gins, forgetting I'd done so and, the next day, accusing the cat of pooing in the herb garden, "Really, though, there is no better time to deal with sheep shit than after a gin."

I liked her book, and I liked the gardens in the pictures in her book. Gardens are like the people who make them and hers are clever without being showy - curvy, gentle and with the element of surprise. What they are not is fashionable. She says, "My work is not really about fashion." She likes cinerarias and grapefruit trees. Most people would cut down a grapefruit tree. She likes the historical notion of a citrus in a New Zealand garden. "Because you couldn't have them in England, so when people came out here they could grow citrus and they could send letters home about 'my lemon tree'. You could grow citrus here, on your own bit of land."

I was stuck, on my own bit of land. Which is why she came to have a look. At least that was what I thought she'd do - and she did, obviously - but what she really did (which is why I've decided she's a sort of a garden shrink) was to make me work out why I was stuck.

For one thing, this new garden was a much bigger garden. At about 750sq m, the two little back gardens (entirely enclosed by low stone walls, then by clipped ficus hedges and hugely tall old-fashioned honeysuckle hedges) are about as big as our last garden.
My uncle - a keen gardener who has been known to spend an entire Saturday weeding his berm and who I swear threatens his cosmos with court martial if they don't stand to attention - came to have a look before we put in an offer and said, "Even I'd be frightened of this much garden."

"Oh," I said, airily, and idiotically, "I really wanted a bigger garden."

White said: "It would frighten me too. Well, I know what's involved." That had the peculiar effect of making me feel less frightened. I wasn't just being feeble.

But the size wasn't the real problem. The real problem was that you can't replicate the experience of your first garden, which is like first love. You don't have a clue what you're doing but it doesn't matter because it's all new and exciting and you've got no money, but you've got time. Ignorance is bliss, in other words. You learn, later, to be ruthless and to kick out bad influences - or you can eventually move on, wiser, and leave them to someone else. Really, do not let a stand of ti-tree plant itself by the deck unless you enjoy sweeping six times a day on a windy day. But, it smells wonderful on a rainy morning - that unique smell of the New Zealand bush - and the fantails love to play in the lower branches, just above your head.

The other problem was that, with the old garden, I'd inherited a dog run, a cabbage tree, a couple of old daisy bushes and the lovely plum: a blank page.

This garden was an old, loved and established garden, as populated as a Dickens novel. The plants in it meant things to the people who had planted and nourished them in the way that the plants in my old garden meant things to me. The real estate agent told me the people who bought our house were going to cut the ti-tree down. I would have too, but it didn't mean that I wanted to know.

It is a nice thing to buy a garden from nice people who are gardeners but far easier, in many ways, to buy a dog run. It is entirely my problem that I felt as if somebody was following me around the garden, saying, "You can't do that. Surely you're not going to plant that there. This isn't your garden." But I did. Hence the need for a garden shrink.

If anyone had suggested to me previously that I needed help from a garden designer, I'd have got the huff. I know how to garden. Why do we need a Xanthe White? Because she knows about gardens and structure and plants, obviously. But she also knows about the psychology of gardens. That might sound a bit airy-fairy, but it isn't. Gardens are about emotions, or they should be. If they're just about concrete edging and great squares of front lawn (she is not a fan of slabs of front lawn and says the only person you ever see on them is the lawn-mowing chap) and easy-care shrubs plonked here and there, that's not a garden, it's just an extension of the housework.

White's method is this: she comes over, doesn't look at the garden. She listens to you talk nonsense, then does look at the garden. She listens to you talk some more, then gently dissuades you from planting a hedge of rugosa roses in the shade of another hedge. She suggests you politely ask the previous gardener if they would like a cutting of a treasured plant or even the entire plant dug up and put in the mail. She asks you what you love and don't love, what colours you love and hate.

You tell her you hate pink. There is quite a bit of pink in your new garden. She goes away, returning with her architect colleague, James Walkinshaw, to take photos and measure the space. Then she turns up with either a planting plan (the plan for the gardens directly under the house) or a concept plan (the plan for the larger, front garden), which is for people who want to choose their own plants.

The planting plan has quite a bit of ... pink in it. This is very clever. What she has done is drawn in some of the older the trees I'd developed my fear of - a magnolia, a rhododendron and a winter flowering cherry; all pinks - and made them part of a planting scheme which linked the garden. I now quite like pink in my garden! Told you she was a shrink.

The other clever thing she did was get me over the feeling that this wasn't my garden. She firmly suggests the softly, softly approach and says a garden's history has to be respected. Think of adding layers, rather than removing character (you can later remove and call it "editing").

How much does all of this cost? Between $300 and $400 for about four hours for a "simple but considered sketch showing the general layout of the garden as well as some lists of plants to get you started". A full service, including site surveys, elevations, detailed planting plans of a full site, is anywhere from around $1000 to $3000.

The sky's the limit, of course, if you don't want to do anything yourself. She thinks people should be involved in the planting of their garden. Those who are, "are likely to be looking after it in 10 years time, even if they've forgotten who the designer was".

Is that a lot of money? I don't know if you can get a therapist for $100 an hour.

A rough reckoning of the plants for her planting plan is, conservatively, about $1500, excluding compost and her beloved sheep pellets. That's a lot, for what in the grand scheme is only a smallish bit of the new garden, but only when you add it up. God knows what you really spend on gardens over the years. I've always been too scared to add it up.

I prefer her answer. "Budget: unknown, especially to non-gardening household members." And I argue, to the non-gardening household member, at least it's not being spent on the wrong plants.

I sometimes wish I'd never started gardening. It's an obsession, after all. It's expensive; show-offy, of course you want to have the best garden in the street; bugs eat your plants; you plant your plants in the wrong places; sometimes rats take up residence in your compost bin; the cat sometimes really does poo in the herb garden. It's a bother and a worry. But then I go and look at the seed trays of herbs and and lettuce and poppies and blue salvia in the sun porch, and go outside and look at the sweet peas just putting out their tendrils. And it's exciting because it's about what you can do with a packet of seeds and a bit of dirt and sheep shit (and quite a few dollars.)
My first garden will go on - or not - without me. It seems to matter that it stays the same, but it won't, and it wouldn't even if I were the one still tending it. That's the fun of gardens and why they capture us; they change and so do we. And it's once we leave them behind that they do stay ours, because they're imprinted in our minds, as they were.

I don't have many photographs of my first garden. I don't need them. It grows on, in my mind. As Osler writes in her lovely little meditation on gardens and being a gardener: "Wherever I go ... whatever garden I may finally sit in, I'll never be free of this one. Like some deep tenebrous scar I'll carry the making of our garden with me forever. It has been the first; the one from which so many garden thoughts have quickened, filling my mind with all those circles beyond circles of ever-widening ideas."

Half an hour after Xanthe White, garden shrink, left, I went outside, put on my clean, red, paisley-patterned gumboots and put the spade into my new garden for the first time. The new potager is going to go here but I'm taking care of history too; taking care not to disturb the dear old daphne bush or the two dearly loved old dogs beneath it.

The Natural Garden by Xanthe White (Random House $55) is available now.

- NZ Herald

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