Award-winning landscape designer Xanthe White is hosting a tour of top town and country gardens in this weekend's Heroic Garden Festival.
1. How did you get involved in the 22nd annual Heroic Garden Festival?
I've been involved for over 20 years. One of the first gardens I designed was for this festival. I built it myself making detailed mosaics on my hands and knees in the rain. It was pretty special. The festival started out as a fundraiser for people with HIV and Aids needing hospice care. As their need for palliative care has lessened it has shifted to hospices more broadly. It has become hugely popular. In 2015 we raised $110,000 which is a pretty big deal.
2. What will people see on the bus tour you're hosting this weekend?
There's a real mix from designer gardens to country gardens to community gardens. One of the things that makes this festival really special is most of the gardens have been made by the owners themselves, who are there to talk about their experiences. Each garden is so different but there will be a moment in each that will inspire you. You might fall in love with a plant or a shape or the fullness of colour.
3. What's fashionable in gardening right now?
I don't believe in the concept of fashionable gardens. Like homes, they're intimate spaces that we connect with. The character has to fit the person. It's like when you see someone in a beautiful dress but you know no matter how much you like that dress, you'd never wear it. It wouldn't be right - you'd look kind of weird in it. Gardens are like that. If there was a trend at the moment I'd say it was just green. You see it in interiors, too, people have realised that just looking at something green is a really good start. Sometimes I try to be deliberately unfashionable. We put in a garden filled with dried flowers because we thought that would be really unfashionable but now there's dried flowers everywhere.
4. Did you grow up in a gardening family?
Both of my grandmothers were gardeners. One was an awesome vege gardener and the other had lots of pretty roses and painted watercolours. My parents taught me how to observe nature. Dad was a mountaineer and mum's a writer. We tramped a lot in the Himalayas and Seattle and across New Zealand so I spent lot of time studying the flowers and leaves and insects. Growing up I wanted to be a psychiatrist - until I did a work placement at Carrington when I was 16. I found the emotional load too much. I did sciences at school and arts at uni. In my job you need to be good at both. Your left and right brain have to dance together.
5. Are we experiencing a generational loss in gardening skills?
Yes, as our sections have shrunk and we've become time poor, gardening has become a luxury that we're starting to treasure more. I don't have the time to garden in the way that my grandparents did and I refuse to garden in a way that it takes my love of it away. But at the same time getting home and looking into the beautiful green actually does make you happier.
6. Do you have some common values underpinning all your gardens?
Using beauty to engage. Doing things in a way that leaves the least footprint. A focus on the plants and green spaces as opposed to the built architecture. Creating spaces where nature can breathe. Focusing on who we are as New Zealanders with respect for our indigenous flora and our history and the truthfulness of that.
7. Growing up in Orakei, how would you describe your relationship to that land?
I'm actually working there at the moment helping Ngati Whatua achieve their vision for the land which is really amazing and special for me because it's home. They're beginning the ecological restoration of a beautiful creek running through there while also making sure the landscape provides in terms of employment and housing outcomes. It's a great example of what we should all aspire to. Not everyone is prepared to think in terms of hundreds of years. I'm privileged to be working with people who have that level of vision.
8. What is your own garden at home like?
We're at the back of Three Kings so we've got a nice "borrowed landscape" of the maunga. We're about to redo our whole garden, which is fun, because we've built a new deck. It's little and modest and it's my husband and kids' garden so they get as much say in what happens as I do. My daughter loves flowers so I've promised her we will have more flowers when we finish.
9. Are your children into gardening?
Yes, their school has a Garden to Table programme. It's wonderful, they get really excited about it. That applied learning is so good for children, they can relate to what they grow when they cook it. There's an empowerment that comes from being given a really sharp knife and told to chop something up when it's not your mother worrying.
10. You've written three books. Why did you decide to write the last one about soil?
After 20 years of working in the field I realised soil is the most important aspect of gardening. When that's not working right nothing is. So the book's really about gardening. I'm coming at it in practical terms from someone who has dug the holes myself and observed the differences in the way things grow or struggle in different situations. Soil is an undervalued resource that we're losing to erosion and run-off into our water systems. It takes a long time to make good-quality soil and if you don't have it, gold's not very useful. That's why foreigners want to buy New Zealand land because they understand its worth.
11. You've designed numerous award-winning gardens, including the Chelsea Flower Show - which are you most proud of?
I always find it quite difficult to look back. My head's so focused on what I'm trying to understand now. Sometimes it's the gardens that get the least attention that can be your best work. Gardening is a process, not a destination so for me the joy is in the making and the doing. It's the collaboration and the relationships that matter. Once the judges arrive, I like to leave.
12. Of all the gardens you've seen, which has blown your mind and why?
My mind is most blown when I'm in nature. I just can't get over the landscape itself; the feeling you get from a beautiful vista or a moment in the forest. The other weekend we went out to Piha and spent a lot of time looking at this huge rock. I could look at a rock for a long time. Maybe I'm easily pleased. It's just appreciating what's in front of you.
• The Heroic Garden Festival is this Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 Feburary. Tickets $60 http://heroicgardens.org.nz/