This is another longish one I’ve let by, just as a warning for those of you with short attention spans. Having seen so many similar owner entries in the Yellow Book over the years (“This other Eden, demi-paradise” ..) I was riveted. Wonderful stuff. Thank you, once again, Abbie.
Anne Wareham, editor
For the past 25 years, we have been opening our garden as part of our regional garden festival. In that time, it has moved from being a community event with no quality control through to being a professionally managed annual event which attracts visitors from around the country and even overseas. Alas, garden descriptions have not always kept pace with the professional management. And oh, the folly, the folly of letting garden owners write their own descriptions.
Some years ago, when I grew weary of quite how many “tranquil havens filled with birdsong” we had, I volunteered to rewrite all the garden descriptions – about 70 of them at the time. It was a mammoth task, trying to capture the individual character of each garden (many of which I admit I had never visited) within the required word count, while avoiding cliché and repetition. I recall deciding in an arbitrary fashion, whom I would allow to claim birdsong but there were no tranquil havens left by the time I had finished.
I quipped at the time that we could have saved a lot of work by doing just one generic description for the lot and publishing the addresses:
“This tranquil haven filled with birdsong is an evolving garden full of hidden surprises. Sweeping lawns are edged in buxus/mondo grass/teucrium/clipped griselinia hedging. Natives, magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons, maples, roses, hostas, primulas, heuchera and iris abound in this wonderfully idyllic environment.”
That would cover most bases for my area. It wouldn’t matter that the natives are unspecified and commonly undervalued, because they are politically correct. Nor does it matter that the magnolias and camellias will have finished flowering long before the festival starts – they are always mentioned. The primulas are 99% common old P. helodoxa which is bordering on a noxious weed here but it is mandatory to plant them with Iris sibirica.
I was reading a programme for an Auckland garden festival recently and their situation is clearly a little different. These predominantly small urban gardens are all stunning. Apparently. These stunning gardens are visually stunning with stunning views from inside and out the home (but not to be confused with vistas to the landscape which few have in this sprawling urban area) and stunning features – many of which are also surprises waiting to be discovered by the discerning garden visitor. Not only that, but these hidden gems are best-kept secret paradises, usually subtropical paradises, sometimes palm-fringed paradises and even an impressive, sublimely subtropical paradise. If it is not a paradise, then it is the more understated suburban oasis.
They don’t appear to suffer from modesty, the garden openers of Auckland. One couple even claimed their garden was “every gardener’s dream”. Cos we ALL want a garden that looks just like theirs?
There are undoubtedly some modest garden openers. Their descriptions of their own garden plot lean to the prosaic as they struggle to meet the allotted word count. Often they resort to listing the plants they grow: “This is a garden with a large variety of natives, trees, shrubs, roses and perennials” or “A vast array of plants include natives, maples, roses, rhododendrons, perennials and established trees”. For a change we have: “Natives, rhodos, roses, hydrangeas, shrubs, herbs, perennials and fruit trees underplanted with daffodils, box hedging….”
Alas it is far more common for garden openers to hype up their place by counting plants. “More than 700 rhododendron varieties” (I think they actually meant plants, not varieties). Or: “Every tree and shrub on the property has been planted in the last 29 years, about 8000 in all. Approximately 100 vireya rhododendrons, 350 camellias” That only leaves 7550 unaccounted for, all on ¾ of an acre. One hopes some of the original 8000 have died in the intervening years.
I wasn’t at all confident of the maths when it came to the following garden:
“A very tranquil garden that is only 8 years old with 95% being native plants. Meandering pathways lead you to differing frames of plantings. From ferns to clipped hedging’s (sic) to Dendroseris litoralis to numerous weepers to 60 fruit trees to a mondo grass lawn.”
The ferns may possibly be predominantly native but the rest of it doesn’t sound as if it is.
Worse are those who have garnered such writing skills as they have from the real estate pages. These people do not believe in hiding their light under a bushel. Nor do they subscribe to the philosophy of under promising and over delivering. All is fair in the battle to ensure garden visitors come to your garden when competition is tough. Who cares if the reality falls disappointingly short? By that time the visitors have bolstered your numbers and, in some cases, your coffers. So why not claim the total size of your property as garden – a 4 hectare garden – when in fact the garden itself is only half of that?
I was a bit taken aback by:
“This popular garden is memorable for its sophisticated response to the elegant 1860s house it surrounds. Shaped by the desire to create attractive, comfortable spaces that flow from the house and respond to the Auckland climate, this crowd-pleaser will once again be a must-see.”
Deffo real-estate speak in my books.
The try-hard award might go to the following garden:
“Exciting new extensions have been made…. Hostas, heauchera (sic) and hanging baskets also add delight while ‘ascot ladies’ overlook the colourful iris beds. Mondo grass and large ‘white iberis’ flowers edge the sealed driveway. Buxus hedging and roses also make a statement.”
What can I say about the following? Words fail me.
The garden is based on a series of carefully articulated spaces which wrap around the house. The visitor is drawn through by a series of incidents such as pergolas, sculptural features, borrowed views and feature vegetation. The route unveils hidden delights …. A garden for the connoisseur. (Garden name) welcomes you.”
Then, in the quest for novel appeal, we get the owner whose garden speaks in the first person:
“You cannot see me from the street. I am 1/3 of an acre with 5 boundaries, the smallest is the front. … Hidden pathways conceal some of me from instant view.”
That garden is called Les ‘N’ Roses, I kid you not.
I would not be so critical of one particular garden festival which makes sweeping claims way beyond reality, were it not for the fact that they continue to draw on community money in order to distribute their programme nationally. Unfortunately none of that money is used to pay somebody to proof read the programme which finds new depths to plumb.
“A mixed planting of Rhodo’s, Alzaleas, Roses, Specimen, Trees, Perennials, Grown cover borders” is bad enough, especially when added to Mapel’s and Astibe, but who let the following go to print? “A large garden in progress a beautiful brick bungalow surrounded by mature trees to give us scope wonderful that is a little bit different.” Run that past me again. It is, by the way, called The Fairy Bungalow and, scarily, promises fairies in the garden.
Then there are the garden descriptions which don’t perhaps say quite what the writer intended.
“… is definitely a work in progress” – not ready to open yet?
“Built from the ground up in two years” – also probably not ready to open yet but apparently undertaking a ground breaking approach to building a garden starting from the ground.
“Come and enjoy our sometimes windblown haven.” Windblown and haven might be mutually exclusive ideas, even without adding enjoyment into the mix.
“A classic treasure reflective of the finest Kiwiana displays of yesteryear” – filled with kitsch and made on a very slim budget? Probably has red begonias, brightly coloured celosias and old car tyres painted white and cut to look like swans.
“This is a garden worth the visit.” Because we think that some of the other open gardens aren’t?
“This timeless cottage garden with flowers in bloom was created in no time at all (just two years). A large open courtyard with Greek urns and wrought iron furnishings. You’ll be impressed by the detail and thought behind this classically inspired setting.” The garden owners know nothing of garden history and style but take pride in their good taste. And besides, aren’t they clever to get their garden to opening standard in just two years?
Then there are the faux pas. “Hard linear landscaping with contrasting soft FAUNA give it that wow factor.” Fluffy ginger cats lolling around, do we think? Or “Natives welcome you”. I do not think we are talking the indigenous people of this country doing a haka or karakia here. Perhaps ‘native plants’, but how they are carrying out their meet and greet function is less clear.
The added attractions can be… curious, really. The display of butter wrappers I find almost intriguing. The screen wall of miniature houses has me slightly perplexed while the “quirky garden ornaments” simply strike terror in my heart. I’m not big on garden ornaments at the best of times. When they are quirky, I know I will hate them. But the most worrying is the garden that promotes itself with its “Walk through cowshed, old worldly toilet, an assortment of Clydesdale gear.” What, I worry, is an old worldly toilet? Is it a vintage long-drop which has seen a vast number of different bottoms and accordingly become worldly-wise? Or, horror of horrors, could it be an old dunny made into a garden “feature” with pansies planted in the bowl? Perish the thought.
The worst case of a garden opener writing her own description still ranks as the one who was allowed to go to print with: “Simply the best. Better than all the rest.” It wasn’t. Believe me, I know and so did the visitors who went there. But the garden owner cared not a whit about that.