New Zealanders’ gardens can best be described as an eclectic mix – in any suburb a kaleidoscope of styles and plant combinations can be found, reflecting both the history of the garden and the taste of the current owner. However, the majority of front gardens follow a simple format of paths leading to the front door and around to the back of the house, an area of lawn, one or more shrub and perennial flower borders, and a low front fence. This style of front garden resembles that of the early settlers.
Front gardens have primarily been for show, with an emphasis on presenting a tidy garden – one where the lawn was mown smooth, with clipped edges and no weeds.
Showy new plants
Gardens of the 1900s and 2000s differed from their colonial forebears in their wider variety of plants. New Zealand nurseries imported and distributed many showy exotic plants from East Asia, South Africa and the Americas. Those that are easily propagated, such as hydrangeas, fuchsias, freesias, gladiolus, agapanthus, calla lilies and red hot pokers, were grown widely. Rhododendrons (especially the low-growing azalea forms) and camellias were popular in cooler locations where year-round rainfall was reliable.
Local horticultural societies fostered an interest in flower gardens and promoted new varieties of plants as they became available.
Roses grow well in New Zealand’s temperate climate, and rose growing and breeding is a passion for many. Sam McGredy, an internationally renowned rose breeder, relocated his rose-hybridising business from Ireland to New Zealand in 1972. One major advantage was that he no longer had to raise his plants in greenhouses. Since his arrival he has bred around 100 varieties, including ‘Sexy Rexy’, ‘Dublin Bay’ and ‘Aotearoa’.
Breeding new garden plants
New hybrid plants bred in the northern hemisphere were keenly sought after. Hybrid tea roses proved immensely popular and remained so throughout the 20th century.
New Zealand gardeners have tried their hand at breeding ornamental garden plants, and a few have achieved notable successes. Some of the best-known known breeders include:
- Edgar Stead (Ilam Azaleas) – rhododendrons
- John Yeates (Melford Azaleas) – lilies and rhododendrons
- Emily Jean Stevens – irises and leucodendrons
- Tom Durrant, L. E. Jury, O. Blumhardt and N. Haydon – camellias
- Felix Jury – camellias and magnolias
- Keith Hammett – dahlias and sweet peas
- Terry Hatch – alstroemerias, cheiranthus, osteospermums and nerines.
The rise of the native
A few native plants attracted the attention of the first settler gardeners, including pōhutukawa, kōwhai, cabbage tree, flax and tree ferns. But it was not until the 1980s that a wide range of native plants became available to the home gardener. Prior to this, many gardeners considered native plants to be drab, preferring imported species with colourful flowers. However, enthusiasts and plant breeders propagated numerous cultivars of native shrubs, grasses and sedges that were more compact or colourful than their wild parents and were preferred by home gardeners.
Mowing lawns is a regular chore for suburban householders. For over a century lawns dominated New Zealand’s front gardens, but they are seldom an integral component of the garden design – rather, they seem to function as space holders. As suburban sections reduced in size, lawns have increasingly been concreted or paved over.
Typically, laying down and maintaining lawns has been men’s work. New lawns were originally grown on land that had been worked to a fine tilth after first growing a crop of potatoes, which helped to break up the clods of earth.
Most front lawns are sown with a seed mix containing browntop, ryegrass, and chewings fescue grasses. Hard-wearing backyard lawns often have white clover seed added to the mix. These combinations usually provide an attractive green sward all year round. On sandy soils, and in drier regions, lawns need watering through the summer.
Some gardeners opt for a ready-made lawn, buying rolled lawn grass turf, which is laid over a prepared soil surface.
Most towns run some form of home garden competition, and have done so since the first years of European settlement. Garden historian Matt Morris has suggested that there is a strong social control element to garden competitions – where the civic worthies encourage the working classes to beautify their sections and to conform to a shared vision of an attractive suburb.