Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pebble gardens

During this past week I have been corresponding with a Christchurch-based researcher who is writing a history of New Zealand gardening.  He was interested in the changing way we have gardened over the past forty years, the time I have been active as a gardener, nurseryman and garden writer.
It made me think of the huge changes made in the garden world, with the demise and diminution of many of the specialist flower societies that were once so popular – who has a cactus club in their region any more? – and to the many fads that have come and gone during that time.
The writer was especially interested in the cult of the pebble garden in the 1970s, wondering whether it really was as popular as some of the literature of the time would indicate. 
I can certainly recall the intense interest in this form of gardening, which seemed to involve me unloading truckload after truckload of bags filled with dirty and heavy scoria, the pebble of choice, even this far away from the source, and the thousands of dwarf conifers and small Ericas that were very much in fashion for these gardens.
I suspect the fad came from a combination of the popularity of the Western American Sunset series of garden publications, which stressed the idea of planting gardens that required little maintenance, combined with the English notion of heather gardens, largely comprised of Ericas, Callunas and dwarf conifers.
In New Zealand we added some native elements – the variegated Hebe ‘Waireka’ seemed to be in every pebble garden, along with the yellow flax, Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, and the dwarf  dark leaved kohuhu, Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’.
The craze did not last very long, but in a way it has a continuing influence, with many modern gardens having stone mulches and, especially in northern areas, a Californian planting style.
In our rush to get away from such plantings we have also abandoned many of the plants that were such a feature of ‘pebble gardens’, and maybe it is time to rethink our attitudes to these once-popular garden features.
I recently stopped and looked at a heather bed in the Wellington Botanical Gardens, and I was underwhelmed.  It contained a number of cultivars from both the Northern Hemisphere, generally with smaller flowers in clusters that flower in winter and spring, and those from the African continent, which have larger flowers, a greater colour range, and also flower for a longer period.  I think most of the plants would work be of more value when planted in a mixed planting, and should not be isolated in a ghetto of Erica-only beds.
For winter flowering it is hard to go past Erica melanthera, especially the form sold as ‘Improved’, which has a vibrant mass of pink haze from early June, and the exciting  Erica ‘Surprise’, a supposedly pure white form of Erica melanthera which sometimes produces both pink and white flowers hence the name.


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