Tranquil Havens full of Birdsong by Abbie Jury

April 18, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

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

old worldly toilet copyright Abbie Jury for thinkingardens

Old worldly toilet: Never, just never recycle your old dunny as a garden feature

Abbie Jury:

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.”

Hostas for thinkingardens copyright Abbie Jury

Everybody has hostas…..

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.

Magnolia for thinkingardens copyright Abbie Jury

Don’t forget to mention the magnolia, even though it will not be flowering at the right time for your garden opening.

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.

Primula helodoxa for thinkingardens copyright Abbie Jury

Common old Primula helodoxa

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.

 Abbie Jury

Abbie Jury’s website  and Abbie tweets as @Tikorangi

Portrait Abbie Jury copyright Abbie Jury on thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham, Veddw

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Helen May 8, 2013 at 12:00 pm

This did make me laugh. Reading the NGS guide is quite an art. I avoid those with ‘wildlife gardening’ or similar as in my experience it means its overgrown. I also avoid ‘work in progress’ for obvious reasons and I am beginning to think twice about ‘plantsmen’s garden’ since although my first love is plants they are generally a bit or a mish mash which I can see in my own garden!!


annewareham May 8, 2013 at 3:04 pm

You reminded me of this with the idea of reading the Yellow Book as an art…


Weeding the Web May 2, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Robin Lane Fox in last Saturday’s Financial Times noted a predilection for certain descriptions in this year’s NGS Yellow Book. “Twists” and “havens” are in


annewareham May 2, 2013 at 4:53 pm



Abbie Jury May 2, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Clearly a man after my own heart! I guess we should be grateful that Mrs Pickering of North Bitchburn has an old bath for her frogs and is not reliant on a recycled loo.

But will the NGS choosing to use a promotion tool for the Society of Garden Designers which, in the eyes of some, will bestow an air of supremacy, not generate a great deal of ill will among other garden openers?


annewareham May 2, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Could be controversial. A great many gardeners in the uk hate the very idea of design when it comes to gardens.


Abbie Jury April 20, 2013 at 8:25 pm

“Disdain” and “ridicule”? Gentlemen, you may possibly be a little hypersensitive.


James McInnis April 21, 2013 at 1:43 am

Do forgive me. A blunted perception is the goal I strive for but struggle to achieve.


James Golden April 20, 2013 at 12:37 pm

I’ve read many garden descriptions in the USA Garden Conservancy Open Days guide and rarely find one that tells me much. Oh, my god! I had to write my own copy this year. Did I do it myself? Did I veer into purple prose? I asked others to get objective opinions, but fear I may be ridiculed by our own version of Abbie. Should I have mentioned the trees that fell over in Hurricane Sandy?


annewareham April 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I think you should show us what you said, James *sternly*….


James Golden April 20, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Okay. I’m open to your critical eye, though it’s too late to change it: “When we moved into a mid-century house overlooking the woods, I immediately knew only a naturalistic, informal garden would be appropriate to this place. The garden is hidden. You enter through the house, where you first glimpse the landscape, a sunny glade in the woods, through a wall of large windows. Featuring many big perennials and grasses that evoke an “Alice in Wonderland” feeling (many plants are taller than you), the garden is in the tradition of such “new perennial” designers as Piet Oudolf. Visitors have described it as a highly emotional garden. Plantings emphasize structure, shape, and form as much as flower. Begun as an experiment to explore the potential for working in unimproved, heavy clay, the garden is ecologically like a wet prairie, and is maintained by cutting and burning in late winter. Flowers and butterflies peak in mid-July, then a second peak occurs in October when low sunlight strikes fire in the blousy russets and golds of the grasses. A small pond attracts hundreds of frogs, insects and wildlife.”


annewareham April 20, 2013 at 5:53 pm

James, that is so long! Most people aren’t allowed all that. But it’s an excellent invitation to your garden: wish I could accept it.


James Golden April 20, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Yes. I went over the limit to tell a story. I was surprised they didn’t edit it.


annewareham April 20, 2013 at 10:57 pm

They clearly need someone ruthless, like me…


James McInnis April 20, 2013 at 9:36 am

I like to think of gardeners as enthusiasts who are free to enjoy plants on their own terms, immune from the disdain of others.


Jennifer Stackhouse April 20, 2013 at 1:18 am

Excellent blog Abbie! Similar problems are encountered here in Australia too. As editor of Gardening Australia magazine I banned stunning along with amazing and gorgeous (and others) from the magazine. There’s always a word that adds real information without resorting to these exuberant claims. Since I left the magazine I’ve noticed all the banned words piling back in including, most recently, ‘gorgeous’ on the cover referring to a planting guide. I looked. It was well laid out, possibly useful, but not gorgeous.


Amy Murphy April 19, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Very amusing to read as a thinkingardens subscriber! It’s another thing to read it as someone who has just recently had to write her first garden description. Here’s a challenge: find and submit garden descriptions that are well-written, accurate and convey a sense of the garden. No toilet mentions please.


annewareham April 19, 2013 at 10:56 pm

Just been to a pub which had the following on a noticeboard: “Trip Advisor: ‘horrible horrible horrible‘” Have they got the right idea?


Amy Murphy April 27, 2013 at 12:32 am

A little more detail would be appreciated…Horrible horrible horrible how?


annewareham April 27, 2013 at 8:41 am

The pub was quoting a review of itself which said it was ‘horrible, horrible horrible’. I thought people might bring the same cheerful spirit to their garden descriptions. Everyone has probably had at least one usable put down.


Abbie Jury April 19, 2013 at 9:17 pm

I am delighted that others are enjoying this piece. I guess I should not be surprised that this is a common problem in other countries as well, though until I talked to Anne, I had not considered it beyond my own territory. I laughed at the comment left on our garden Facebook page ( “I went to an open garden here in Auckland that was described as full of unusual plants, shady and exquisite. It was full of weeds and overhanging branches that should have long ago been trimmed.” I alluded to the gap between description and visitor experience – this may be a fruitful area for a follow up? Though it might be better
crowd sourced.


annewareham April 19, 2013 at 10:02 pm

That’s a very hot one – the gap between description and visitor experience. I’m not sure that people in uk are willing to open that one up. But other countries have different attitudes and some are more used to being blunt. If anyone has any thoughts about it please get in touch? (editor)


Paul Steer April 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

I had contemplated applying for NGS but having read this amusing article, I wouldn’t dare. In my own fantasy world my garden is ‘simply the best’ ! In reality I’m not sure what it is really. Perhaps it would be best to leave the descriptions to those who know !


Vanessa Gardner Nagel April 18, 2013 at 9:02 pm

I nearly fell off my chair laughing at Abbie’s humorous writing. Please invite her to write more for you, Anne! While we here in the Pacific NW of the USA do not have a yellow book, we do have the HPSO Open Garden book. I’ll be reading through much more critically in the future and will no doubt re-write my own description the next time I open my own garden.


Charles Hawes April 18, 2013 at 8:54 pm

What a great piece! Hilarious. I’m a bit astonished that no one has pointed out that the garden owners which open under the National Garden Scheme in the UK write their own entries. You have been warned. On the other hand the entries alone in the NGS scheme could give you entertainment worth its cover price.


Pat Webster April 18, 2013 at 5:47 pm

What a great laugh you’ve given me, Abbie. Very much appreciated on a (still) cold and rainy day here in Montreal. Like landscapelover, I’d enjoy a follow-up piece about good garden descriptions. Too bad they can’t be as long and thoughtful as the descriptions/critiques of three English gardens in Rory Stuart’s recent book.


annewareham April 18, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Sneaking in – one of those gardens is Veddw ( and the book referred to (What are Gardens For?) is here- (editor)


Marie McLeish April 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm

An entertaining and timely piece. Encourages a spot of thinkin too.


Weeding the Web April 18, 2013 at 10:13 am

Excellent! It also ties in with all the large public gardens that make it sound as if they’re the only ones with with rhodos and azaleas, when every garden within a 50-mile radius is crammed full of them.

And Fiona – love the fashion slant. Surely there’s a blog in that idea?


annewareham April 18, 2013 at 10:16 am

Yes, Fiona – or a thinkingardens piece??


Fiona April 18, 2013 at 10:34 am

Sure. Let’s talk about it. Email?

What fun.


annewareham April 18, 2013 at 10:44 am

Yes. Great!


carolyn mullet April 18, 2013 at 9:52 am

Wonderful to read this with my first cup of coffee this morning. Filing under “What Not To Do” when I write descriptions this fall for the Garden Conservancy Open Days in my area in the U.S.


Michael B. Gordon April 18, 2013 at 11:52 am

My garden has been on the Conservatory Open Days in the past. I need to revisit my garden’s description. I would love to see examples of well-written ones. Maybe there just aren’t enough gardens of the highest quality out there?


annewareham April 18, 2013 at 11:57 am

That is a large part of the problem. Before I got thrown out of the NGS (see I used to rely on borrowing a quote from something someone else had written about the garden. (usually complimentary – I was not that radical, but a rude comment would be fun, wouldn’t it?)


Fiona April 18, 2013 at 9:37 am

I’ve always thought it would be good fun to borrow some of the language of fashion journalism to apply to garden descriptions. Gardens could be ‘fierce’, ‘luxurious’, ‘chic-but-comfortable’, ‘edgy’, ‘naughty’, ‘iconic’, ‘minxy’, or, of course ‘trendy’. Designers could have breakthroughs or comebacks, they could ‘play peekabo’ with ‘must-have’ plants, they could set pulses racing by showcasing ‘exclusives straight from the runway’. They would have muses and they would be motivated by a selfless desire to make the modern garden owner feel good about herself, to be comfortable in her own skin. Because every garden has an inner beauty based on confidence. Why not bring in Art? A garden could ‘serve as an intellectual base camp for planting’ and there could be a ‘singularity between three concepts’ that calls to mind the ‘dark connotations of leather and latex’. One’s inner child could be recalled, or even one’s first love. Things could be inspired by other things: a light fixture, a Mondrian cake, a whisper. And then there’s ‘eco-chic’.

Any takers?


annewareham April 18, 2013 at 9:48 am

O, yes.


landscapelover April 18, 2013 at 10:40 am

I quite like the idea of a garden inspired by a whisper – or indeed a Mondrian cake…
This is all delightful stuff; I wonder if Abbie could be tempted to write a follow-up piece on good practice in garden describing? Not as amusing maybe but still very useful.


Sarah April 18, 2013 at 8:56 am

Hysterical – has inspired me to have an evening of comedy with family and friends reading from The Yellow Book 🙂


Jack Holloway April 18, 2013 at 7:08 am

EEK Better go take a long hard look at what I say about my garden… 😉


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