Book Review Heading


A History of the Garden in New Zealand

Edited by Matthew Bradbury
Published by Viking, 1995

Reviewed by Walter Cook, Alexander Turnbull Library

In a sense, garden making is a human ritual. Through this activity we relate to the natural world, transforming it and bending it to our cultural imperatives. We have been doing this to a greater or lesser degree for more than ten thousand years.

In New Zealand it is possible to claim that our greatest achievement has been the creation of an economic and cultural landscape based in agriculture, horticulture and forestry. The Neolithic heritage is common to both Maori and Pakeha. Yet books dealing comprehensively with the history of this in New Zealand have been a long time coming. It is the fundamental matrix of our lives as a settled human society, but has largely been ignored by social and cultural historians here. Gardens, I think, have been, and are central to this history. The Garden is the primeval model for the transformation of the earth into the productive, precarious human artefact that it is today. Without the garden we would be quite a different sort of culture.

A History of the Garden in New Zealand does not deal with all aspects of the subject. Maori gardens were entirely economic, producing crops for consumption. One of the Pakeha equivalents is the vegetable patch, but others are surely the orchards, vineyards and paddocks of crops that supply the same need today. Nor does the book look closely at our national parks and native forest reserves. These are gardens too in the sense that they survive today through human intervention to conform to our human concepts and values. In order that nature as it is does not have its way, we weed them of invasive plants and rid them of other pests that we have introduced. They have now, more in common with the parterre than with their original pre-human autonomy. Then there is the greatest garden of all, our national lawn, the function of which is both economic and aesthetic. For those of us who have descended from an old world Neolithic heritage, after the earth itself, pasture is the ground of our being. Hence, perhaps, the suburban obsession with lawns and lawn mowing in the absence of grazing animals. Cultural conformity and racial memory.

The book largely deals with those gardens which we gather around ourselves for food, pleasure, and the display of conspicuous consumption. As far as I am aware, it is the first attempt to give a comprehensive overview of this subject for New Zealand. Given the nature of historical interpretation, and the fact that research into New Zealand history is still at an exploratory stage, its statement is bound to be provisional. This is expressed in the title and the structure of the book which is a collection of essays by different people, not all of them from horticultural backgrounds. As a result there is a range of separate statements and styles. The shape of the book also results from the emphasis of much garden historical research to date, which has tended to focus on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, the development of public parks and gardens for much of this century is not covered - an important topic in relation to the urbanisation of New Zealand and changes in the ways we live and use our cities. In Wellington this resulted in the rebuilding of the recently established Frank Kitts Park in the 1980's to provide a multi-purpose urban venue for outdoor events as well as for passive recreation. Sir Truby King's garden at Melrose exists today as an historic garden undergoing restoration, but it is also one of a new generation of public parks in the city. Its present function and meaning is different from that which lead to its creation.

Design fashions and their origins, and the economic and social forces influencing the shape and use of our gardens are well covered in the book. The missionaries used both the bible and horticulture in their strategy to convert and civilise the heathen. In the twentieth century, a similar, but secular agenda was held by the leaders of the Christchurch Beautifying Society. The collective garden suburb of the state house era asserted community values that were the antithesis of those expressed in gardens designed to serve the enlightened self interest of the share market boomers. Economic depression and war affected the priorities of home gardeners. It is a fascinating story.

Three chapters by Katherine Raine covering the development of Pakeha gardens from the time of settlement to 1920, make up the core of the book. Within this section John Adam has provided short bulletins on selected public parks and gardens with general information leading to their development in New Zealand. Preceding this is a very good chapter on Maori gardens by archaeologist Susan Bulmer, and another on the main garden traditions of Europe with an emphasis on England and North America by Matthew Bradbury. This chapter is also about the ideas that shaped our garden traditions. The author has obviously read, and givers a clear account of writers like Knight, Uvedale Price, and Burk who reshaped the landscape of the mind in relation to the sublime, the beautiful and the picturesque. Information in this chapter relates to Katherine Raine's accounts of 19th century New Zealand gardens where even the simplest might include design conventions originally promoted by great practitioners like Humphrey Repton. Even our early conservation estate is not immune from these ideas. In the 1900's the Scenery Preservation Commission reserved native forest to provide tourists with picturesque views along our roads, railways and rivers. Almost everything we touch in New Zealand provokes international echoes. Maori gardens developed a local adaptation within a larger Polynesian tradition.

The period from 1920 to the present is covered in the last three chapters. Those by Louise Beaumont and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins relate well together in terms of style and approach. Though common social and cultural imperatives informed the periods before and after the Second World War, there were important differences affecting the meaning and purpose of our gardens. War, economic depression, and concerns about the health and moral fibre of the race in the first case, and affluence, international modernism and the beginnings of a Pacific awareness in the second. New suburban architectural styles required changes in the look of gardens, and from the 1950's the concept of 'lifestyle' and leisure began to change the relationship of the garden to the house. But throughout this period the garden as an expression of fixed gender roles within the context of the nuclear family continued — the man growing vegetables or escaping out the back; the woman growing flowers in the front when she wasn't working in the kitchen.

Today such fixed roles and the nuclear family are giving way to a diversity of family structures and modes of life. Pluralism is the catchword of the 'post modem' movement. As our older, cohesive society fragments, overwhelmed by economic liberalism, the international mass media, and global culture, there is no single cultural focus that we can relate to. This has affected the styles and meanings of our gardens. We are left to devise our own meanings, histories and narratives. In a pluralist world here life is but a spasm and history a whiz, cultural eclecticism is inevitable. Culture becomes a supermarket with, among many others, a garden section. From it, those who can pay, select garden styles in much the same way as they choose wallpaper and fabric patterns. There is something nightmarish about Rodd Barnett's account of the last 30 years of the twentieth century. But in many ways I found it the most stimulating and challenging section of the book. In part this was because of the author's tendency to use current academic glossolalia called post modem discourse. I read it three times and I still can't be certain whether I've understood it. It is a chapter that also cause the hackles of many of my prejudices to rise. His account of the environmental movement contains a nice piece of satire, and in discussing the cottage garden in modern New Zealand he touches on a subject the history and narrative of which are certainly a recent creation. I also agree with his suggestion that in New Zealand there never was a country garden that was not a suburban garden, and also that a colourful heterogeneity typifies the New Zealand garden in this post modem movement. The latter with this proviso — that relatively speaking, this could always be said of New Zealand gardens, even when the environment of signs was less mobile.

The book is lavishly illustrated in black and white and colour. Many of the images come from the archives of our national heritage collections.

New Zealand Garden Journal: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1996 1(3): 30-32

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