The secret to a beautiful garden lies in choosing the right plants for the right location
Story & Photos: Lyndell Shannon
Throughout my career as a landscape designer, I have confronted some especially tricky soils and climates, including coastal gales ripping through Wellington and heavy clay soils in the Auckland region.
There are some things you can do to lessen the impact of the conditions. These include planting shelter and adding drainage and compost to lighten clay. This will work up to a point but it is often easier, cheaper and more appropriate to accept the conditions you have and, by choosing plants that thrive where you put them, create a garden that embraces its environment.
Fortunately, there are plants for almost every situation imaginable and a skilled designer with wide plant knowledge can transform the most unpromising corner into something special.
There are thousands of plants out there, so there’s really no excuse for sticking to the “same old, same old”. On the other hand, some of our most popular plants have earned their place and it would be a shame to dismiss them. For example, the Griselinia hedge may have become the “Weetbix of horticulture” but it’s hard to beat its clean, glossy foliage, disease resistance and ability to thrive with minimum attention.
Below my studio there’s a clearing on a steep slope in the bush. There’s a spring above and the soil is sticky, yellow clay. Not only do the plants have to cope with the constant wet ground, they also need to look good from above as well as against a native bush backdrop. The plants also need to have tough, strong roots to hold the bank together. This is the type of tricky situation that calls for knowledgeable planting design. I selected green-gold Canna ‘Bengal Tiger’ for bold impact in the wettest area, and contrasted it with the slender native rush oioi. Nearby are the glossy-green, dinner-plate leaves of Ligularia reniformis, delicate ferns and golden, grass-like Hakonechloa macra ‘Aurea’. Bromeliads tuck into adjacent dry spots under the trees.
The principles behind this plant choice can be applied to any garden design or style. If you select plants that perform well in their chosen location — abiding by the old saying “right plant, right place” — they will look good together.
Choosing plants for the quality of their foliage gives you long-term colour, form and texture. I enjoy the contrasts that can be achieved by juxtaposing bold and delicate; stiff and fluid. However, there has to be harmony, too and sensitive colour choices allow things to blend easily.
Colour is nearly as fundamental as soil type and climate in plant choice. In a drier coastal climate such as in Wellington I find myself using silver and grey foliage, and clear, cool colours. These colours not only look “right”, the plants that suit the quality of the light in that climate are often those colours.
On the other hand the clay soils and humid climate of much of Auckland spell death to many silver and grey-leafed plants and, at best, they look out of place and uncomfortable. The intense light and bright greens of the Auckland region led me to choose lime and yellow foliage set off by rich, deep green highlighted by orange and red. If you are alert to it, the land and the light will suggest the colours you should be using in your garden.
The fuzzy, tangled twigs and tiny leaves of divaricating plants are unique to New Zealand and are a fantastic addition to a designer’s plant palette. In a coastal or mountain garden, they look right at home and front up splendidly to the tough weather that they have evolved to cope with. In lush, subtropical-style planting, their misty texture sets off big, glossy foliage to perfection. A favourite combination of mine is Coprosma virescens with the big, bright leaves of Fatsia japonica. Both are easily adaptable plants that thrive in most situations and as a bonus the fine-textured coprosma traps rain and dew to sparkle in the sun. There are divaricating plants for most environments — from sun to shade and wet to dry.
Although I love the effects you can obtain using foliage alone, I enjoy flowers as much as anybody. As we emerge from the minimalist era, people are once more admitting their love of flowers and the less fashion-influenced among us always planted what they liked regardless of what the “experts” said.
Flower colour choice should relate in some degree to interior and exterior house colours, but don’t become a slave to this. I encourage clients to go beyond the safety of white ‘Iceberg’ roses and try apricot, yellow or red roses against black or neutral house walls.
A garden overlooking Wellington Harbour required plants that could cope with extreme salt winds and enhance the view without overwhelming it. I went for the local divaricating Coprosma ‘Red Rocks’ and grasses that sway in the wind and catch the light.
Part of the raised garden was filled with pure sand in order to grow pingao, the rare golden native grass of sand dunes. I combined it with another native dune dweller, silver Pimelia prostrata. The owner was fond of cottage flowers so we added Flower Carpet® roses along with pretty annuals and perennials. Over time, pansies self-seeded among the pingao and daisies among the grasses. You know you’re doing something right when your chosen plants become the “weeds”.
Nowadays, we want the softness and tranquillity of lush planting alongside the clean lines and functional hard landscaping of the contemporary garden. The effect that intricate planting can achieve is more interesting than that created by relying solely on massed blocks of only a few plants. If all the plants are chosen for suitability and performance, as well as looks, it’s no harder to care for intricate planting. Balancing intricate tapestries against simple blocks of bold masses prevents the garden from becoming a meaningless visual jumble and lets us enjoy the best of both worlds.
Good planting design and wise plant choice can make or break a garden that’s intended to be low-maintenance and appropriate to its location.
Lyndell Shannon has been a garden designer in Auckland and Wellington since 1995. Lyndell’s gardens are characterised by simple lines and rich planting. Each garden is unique, reflecting the personality of its owners and the spirit of place. Lyndell is currently chair of the Auckland Branch of Landscaping New Zealand.