The constant (well, fairly regular) gardener

Wellington Botanic Garden – this may or may not resemble Nancy's garden

Wellington Botanic Garden – this may or may not resemble Nancy's garden

‘Every man should have a hobby,’ the saying goes – and so should every woman in my opinion. High on my list of preferred pastimes is gardening. I spend much of my time indoors working at a computer, so it makes a nice change to put on my gumboots and stride out in the fresh air. In this choice I am not alone – gardening is one of the most popular leisure activities in New Zealand. In 2000 a whopping 60% of New Zealanders got out in the garden, and many are interested in garden design.

Unfortunately, as a resident of Wellington, I picked the wrong place to pursue my hobby. I was raised in Waikato, famous for its colourful exotic trees and lush roses. There, the main problem that gardeners face is rampant growth – plants get too big, too soon. But the possibilities for creative gardening are endless, and Hamilton Gardens showcase some of them.

Here in Wellington, the obstacles are daunting. For a start there is the clay soil – great as a building material, but not so great as a growing medium. During wet weather it turns to cold, sticky mud; in times of drought it sets solid. Then there is the notorious wind, which often rises to gale force. It tears through my garden, ripping at leaves and branches, and literally blowing seedlings out of the ground. In winter it can get so cold at times that to venture outside is to risk hypothermia – making gardening in Wellington an extreme sport comparable with mountaineering, diving or aerial recreation.

All this can be a bit discouraging, but it forces you to adapt. Some people play it safe and go for the ‘low maintenance’ garden style – tufts of mondo grass in a dreary sea of gravel. Others preach the hardy native plant gospel. While I think there is nothing more glorious than pristine New Zealand bush, too many native plants clustered together in a garden can look rather monotonous. To my mind, real gardening is about artifice – carefully mixing different and sometimes surprising elements to create a harmonious effect.

I’m currently experimenting with blending natives and exotics. The highly sculptural and very hardy New Zealand flax is one of our most distinctive and beautiful native plants. Recently I transplanted a small, self-seeded flax from my rose garden into a grey, bucket-shaped container, and dotted thrift around the edge. No, not the sort of thrift described here, but the low-growing plant also known as armeria. Its dusky pink flowerheads are an excellent foil to the reddish strap-like leaves of the flax. Emboldened by this success, I have just planted a larger grey container with a dramatic black flax (‘Black Adder’) surrounded by dianthus. This lovely little plant has blue-grey, spiky foliage and in spring it will be smothered in feathery white fragrant flowers. At least that’s the theory – wish me luck!

5 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Fran || July 26th, 2010

    Apart from possible hypothermia, the humble garden was revealed in 2009 ACC statistics as being the most dangerous household area accounting for 17 per cent of all injuries.

    Even insects are getting involved, inflicting 25,000 injuries a year. Plants are responsible for about 400 injuries a week.

    More details are provided in a NZ Herald article online at

  2. Comment made by Kerryn || July 26th, 2010

    I’m interested in the WW2 phenomenon ‘digging for victory’ – when those at home were encouraged to keep their own vegetable patches in order to provide for themselves and keep healthy (see Perhaps a thriving Wellington garden can be seen as an alternative, contemporary form of the victory garden!

  3. Comment made by Caren Wilton || July 26th, 2010

    And I love the notion of the front yard as the woman’s domain, where she kept the public face of the house all prettied up with flowers – while the blokes slogged away in the back garden, producing bountiful veges to feed the family. We’ve got a lovely illustration of this division of labour in this cover of the 1963 Yates garden guide.
    But was it really like that in practice? When I was a kid, it was my father that did all our gardening on a suburban half-acre in Masterton – and I’m definitely the vege gardener in my own household.

  4. Comment made by Nancy || July 26th, 2010

    Gender roles in the garden seem to be breaking down nowadays – and so are the divisions between the ornamental and practical. It is becoming quite common for gardeners to plant veges in the flower beds (though I personally don’t go in for this). But I have seen parsley used as a very effective and pretty edging in flower gardens.

  5. Comment made by IGNOU || March 26th, 2015

    You are right, Apart from possible hypothermia, the humble garden was revealed in 2009 ACC statistics as being the most dangerous household area accounting for 17 per cent of all injuries.

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