Book Review Heading


Cottage Gardening in New Zealand

By Christine Dann with photographs by Tony Wyber
Published by Allen & Unwin and Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1990

Reviewed by A. R. Ferguson

Whenever I see the words "cottage garden", I immediately have a vision of a romantic thatched cottage, a profusion of roses, hollyhocks, lavender and other herbs, an abundance of diverse flowers, fruit and vegetables, sweet scents and the hum of bees and cooing of doves. Vision? Fantasy is perhaps a better word for what I am imagining is not really a cottage garden (the garden of a villager) but the ideal of the cottage garden style. This was the style that developed as the English cottage garden was gentrified towards the end of last century and the beginning of this century, a process that Edward Hyams aptly called "Jekyllism" — "the cottage garden having an influence on the great gardens of the rich and on the medium-sized gardens of the urban middle class". Hidcote, Great Dixter and Sissinghurst can all be considered as being amongst the most proficient of this style of gardening, a style that became popularised not only because of the writings of practitioners such as Gertrude Jekyll or Vita Sackville-West but also because of a whole school of English painters. Indeed, as pointed out by Andrew Clayton-Payne and Brent Elliott in Victorian Flower Gardens (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), the gentrification of the English cottage garden can be followed by comparing the works of earlier artists such as MyIes Birket Foster or Helen Allingham with the much more romanticised paintings of Arthur Claude Strachan or David Woodlock.

In recent years there have been many books advocating the cottage garden style and now comes one specifically written for New Zealand conditions, Cottage Gardening in New Zealand, which, according to the blurb on the back cover, shows "how relevant this tradition is to contemporary New Zealand". So what is the cottage garden in New Zealand? This is the question that Christine Dann addresses and if I find her book ultimately somewhat disappointing it is because I am not really convinced by the guidelines she offers "to those wanting to identify or create an authentic New Zealand cottage garden". She says that the cottage garden should be productive, practical, profuse in its plantings, ecologically sensitive; it should combine utility and beauty. Possibly, but these guidelines are sufficiently broad to include many other gardening styles and I find little to suggest that the gardens she describes belong to an authentic New Zealand tradition, especially when her book is illustrated with so many photographs of Sissinghurst. Instead, I think it better to consider this book as a good description by a New Zealander for New Zealand gardeners of a style of gardening that is undoubtedly popular and that can be most satisfying.

Ms Dann gives a brief history of cottage gardens in England and points out that the cottage gardening style developed as a reinterpretation, a conscious development of an old tradition. This is a point which I felt deserved more emphasis. There have been many histories of cottage gardens in England and I therefore found much more interesting her account of early gardening in New Zealand. Here she has some most apt quotes and some delightful photographs which deserve careful study. The reproduction of Margaret Stoddart's painting of her family's garden at Diamond Harbour is likewise most appropriate. This section of the book could well have been expanded because I believe that it is studies such as this that will allow us to better understand the development of our own gardening traditions. I kept wondering, for example, how different early gardens in this country were from those in England, or for that matter, how much colonists from the various parts of England, Scotland or Ireland differed in their gardening practices. I wondered too why men were so often responsible for the vegetables and fruit trees, women for the flowers — was this a carryover from the days of allotments or just the traditional division of labour being continued? I would also have liked more on the development of what Ms Dann disparagingly calls the "New Zealand twentieth-century stereotype" because I believe that what she dismisses as a stereotype is actually part of an authentic tradition in this country.

According to M. R. Gloag writing in 1906, "a true cottage garden can only be created by a villager ... in imitation a strange under-current of educated taste peeps out that spoils in the copy the character of the original; much of the charm of which lies in the simple combination of flowers and vegetables that only a cottager can produce." Vita Sackville-West in describing Hidcote as "a cottage garden on the most glorious scale" said that there was a "kind of haphazard luxuriance, which of course comes neither by hap or by hazard at all." Both she and Gertrude Jekyll emphasised that for the romantic profusion wanted in the cottage garden style great skill was required in both planting and design. Ms Dann in turn reiterates the importance of design and careful garden planning. Her chapters on "Contemporary cottage gardening", "Designing your cottage garden" and "The practice", although somewhat repetitive, contain much commonsense and good advice useful to almost all gardeners. Very sensibly, she points out that the climate of most of New Zealand is very different to that of the cold European countries from which most traditional cottage plants originated. Many of these plants are therefore quite unsuited to our climatic conditions, particularly those of the north of New Zealand. Ms Dann provides a most useful list of plants appropriate for our warmer gardens and suggests alternative approaches — for example, why not replace snowdrops and bluebells with Agapanthus? I do, however, take exception to some of her comments. To compare the use of inorganic fertilisers with the use of steroids by athletes or with takeaway foods is, in my view, just plain silly (which is not to deny the importance of composting or soil quality.). Inorganic fertilisers properly used have their place. Nor do I accept a "good cottage gardener is a good organic gardener" or that "spraying with toxic chemicals is for ignorant gardeners". Sprays likewise have their place and I would prefer a more balanced view of the danger of garden chemicals. After all, many household products are of equal or greater toxicity. The important thing is to use sprays under the appropriate conditions and with the necessary precautions.

In the traditional English cottage garden the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees was often out of economic necessity, even if writers and artists considered that it was the mixture of flowers and vegetables that provided so much of the charm. Most current books on cottage gardening give fruit and vegetables little attention but Ms Dann considers both utility and beauty with useful information on vegetables. The bulk of the book is, however, devoted to flowers and foliage plants, almost entirely perennials with bulbs and annuals getting mainly brief mention. There are lists of "Traditional English cottage plants", "Cottagey newcomers", "New Zealand cottage plants" and "Cottage roses" with concise details as to plant type, growth habit and requirements and flower colour. I do have doubts as to the correct placement of some plants — for example, accepting the dates of introduction as given in the RHS Dictionary of Gardening, can Cynoglossum nervosum (introduced 1894), Iris chrysographes (1911), Lilium regale (1903), Meconopsis regia (1931), or Thalictrum dipterocarpum (1908) really be considered as traditional cottage garden plants? Futhermore, Geranium maderense, also so listed, is generally considered as too tender for most parts of Britain and is certainly not a traditional plant. Most gardeners will also think of additional "cottagey newcomers". To me, Eomecon chionanthum, Thunbergia natalensis and some of the Plectranthus species are obvious candidates. These comments, however, are comparatively minor quibbles.

Much more serious is the problem of correct botanical nomenclature. The botanical nomenclature of garden plants is subject to frequent revision and is often more difficult, indeed, often much more difficult to establish than that of wild plants. In her preface, Ms Dann discusses the need to refer to plants by botanical names as well as by popular names, and in a book such as this with long lists of plants, correct nomenclature is very important. Unfortunately, there is an unacceptably large number of errors in generic, specific and cultivar names. In this respect, the index is particularly bad. There is also confusion from the outset between varieties and cultivars and too often cultivar names are given as if they were of varieties. These problems could easily have been avoided by checking with a few standard authorities, as should certainly be done if a new edition is contemplated.

Cottage Gardening in New Zealand is well illustrated and Tony Wyber receives generous acknowledgement for having provided the original idea for the book. The photographs of Sissinghurst are particularly attractive even if I do wonder about their relevance. The detailed photographs are generally good and most serve well their purpose of allowing the identification of nearly 400 plants. It should be noted that many of the plants photographed are not discussed in the text or included in the lists of cottage plants.

There is a useful bibliography providing further reading and a most valuable list of nurseries and seed suppliers.

My comments make it obvious that I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Cottage Gardening in New Zealand. Let me therefore conclude by saying how pleased I was to get a book published in New Zealand and written for gardeners in New Zealand. Usually, all that is available are books written and published overseas: what we read is often not suitable for our climatic conditions or, even, appropriate to our landscapes. Accordingly, I hope that many other New Zealand gardening books will follow. Furthermore, although I didn't always agree with the author, she cannot simply be ignored. She writes well and there is no doubting her enthusiasm and her commitment. Most gardeners will gain from this book.

Horticulture in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1991 2(2): 30-31

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