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The Unusual Life of Edna Walling

Sara Hardy
Allen & Unwin
Reviewed by Chris Segelmann

BUT for a twist of fate, the name of one of Australia's best known landscapers might have meant more to Christchurch gardeners than it does to their counterparts in Melbourne.

Edna Walling came to Christchurch from Britain in 1911 as a 16-year-old. In five years she had a stint working on a North Island cattle station before becoming a nurse aide. But when her family moved to Melbourne, Edna went, too - sparking the career of a pre-eminent landscaper who designed more than 300 gardens between 1920 and 1960 and whose writings informed a generation of Australian gardeners.

Sara Hardy, playwright and actress, became captivated with this singular woman when she played the part of Walling in a play. While other books have explored Edna the garden designer, Hardy says her purpose was to probe "the woman behind the work".

There's no doubt that Hardy's research is exhaustive - there are allusions to lesbianism and a comparison of one friendship to that of Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf.

Despite the wealth of biographical material, the author is forced to resort to transparent conjecture to set the scene for episodes and relationships - a device that fails to ring true.

Nonetheless, Hardy's depiction of this tireless gardener and her relentless determination sweep the reader along. Walling's will to succeed in a male-dominated domain and to stamp her own style is richly portrayed, particularly in the story of the 'village' that was her vision, Bickleigh Vale and her own house, Sonning.

Walling's attraction to stone as a medium and the evolution of her style to include predominant plantings of natives, rather than exotics, will strike a chord with many Kiwi gardeners.

The Unusual Life of Edna Walling is an absorbing read and whets the appetite for more detailed reading on her landscaping legacy.

Reproduced with permission from the former Weekend Gardener magazine. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the RNZIH

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Last updated: March 1, 2021