Pic 2

A plea for flowers in the long grass

This is the fifth article of a series of short pieces for landscapedesign.co.nz in which I look at current trends and ideas in garden design.


There is a lot of intensively mown grass in New Zealand–road berms, parks and reserves, garden lawns and various types of ‘unused land’–even if we exclude sports pitches. Most of this grass is seen primarily as a maintenance liability and it is responsible for the consumption of a significant amount of fossil fuels, fertiliser and pesticides, the emission of noise, greenhouse gases and other pollution, plus the need to dispose of waste organic material.


But mown grass appears to be indispensable. It is what we expect… a park without mown grass? Heaven forbid! A suburban garden without a lawn? – what would people think? Why is it that we are so committed to the lawn that is mown down to 15 mm and sprayed around the edges as soon as the daisies and dandelions start to flower? Why do we hire armies of peripatetic mowing contractors to drive round at least every two weeks to mow if not fertilise and spray with weedkillers? All so we can have a patch of green concrete.

I will not venture into the possible cultural and psychological reasons for the unfailing popularity of mowing grass! But I will offer some other options–and I don’t mean other plants that look a bit like a traditional lawn but don’t need mowing. In my experience lawn-substitutes like chamomile, Leptinella, Selliera and thyme have never really caught on for two reasons. First, they are expensive to establish compared to sowing grass seed because they have to be densely stocked with small plants and second, although you don’t need to mow them, there is actually quite a lot of skilled maintenance needed – more in fact than for pushing a mower around a grass lawn, because these plants easily become overtaken by weeds, often die out in patches and their vigour and success in any location is quite variable and hard to predict. These species are certainly very good ground covers in the right situation and in combination with other plants, but they are not an economical way of creating a good-looking, hard-wearing circulation surface. If we need lawns for running and walking and lying on there is nothing better than mown grass but it can still include other species which will add to the experience of the walking, running and lying.

So, my argument will focus on how to make grass-based lawns more interesting and better for the ecology, how to make them more diverse, better habitat, and much more attractive. I am not offering an alternative to sports turf, but I am going to suggest that we stop seeding huge areas with a limited range of over-vigorous grass species and them spend every weekend using lots of petrol and pesticide keeping them under control.

In nature, grasslands are the home of an extraordinary range of some of the most popular and colourful plants that have become garden favourites. Species such as Campanula, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Chrysanthemum, Geranium, Kniphofia, and many others are all grassland plants, adapted to and growing in the natural and semi-natural grasslands of North America, South Africa and Europe. Here in New Zealand the tussock grasslands of upland areas are also often associated with attractive flowering plants such as Bulbinella and Wahlenbergia.

Before the advent of motor mowers and agrichemicals, grass in gardens and parks was cut with shears and scythes and sickles and included a diverse mixture of other plants (called ‘forbs’ in the technical literature). These species were planted in the grass and enjoyed for their flower and foliage which added greatly to the attractiveness of the lawn – the ‘flowery mead’ was one of the highlights of the mediaeval garden.

Many of these species, such as daisy, buttercup, selfheal, violet and clover, remain familiar and common today. Just because they are common we should not underestimate their value, both visually and as food for insects including many important pollinators. These flowers are very well adapted to growing in even quite short cut grass. So, to gain benefit from them today, all we have to do is ease off with the mowing – do it less often and lift the blade height. The other thing to stop is the application of fertiliser, herbicide and pesticide. Poor soil is actually an advantage when it comes to plant diversity in grassland and, obviously, selective herbicide would defeat the object by killing the flowering forbs!

Pic 1


1 A low mowing regime in this olive orchard gives us a simple but lovely meadow with moon daisy and other common grassland species, all good for wildlife.

To share our lawns and grassy places with other plants again, to create meadows where there were only monocultures has great potential for the garden and public parks. It is what designer Arne Maynard calls ‘bejeweling the garden’. A recent visit to Europe showed me how popular this idea has become. The Europeans (and in fact the Americans too) have always been less fanatical about close shaving their lawns and parks and have preferred the luxurious, if not tousled, look over the ‘number 1’ or butch, shaved top. They are now enthusiastically creating ‘floral lawns’ and ‘park meadows’ by planting flowering perennials and bulbs into their lawns and parks and over-seeding with wildflower mixtures.

Pic 2

2 A floral front lawn in Auckland where the grass is a backdrop for a wonderful display of naturalized Ixia and other spring bulbs in October.

There are a number of models or precedents for this biodiverse grassland. The spring bulb field is a familiar one. Here winter and spring bulbs emerge through the dormant grass and are allowed to die down again before the first cut. An extension of this is the early summer meadow where early bulbs can be combined with later flowering species that are summer dormant (in New Zealand these would include for example Freesia, Sparaxis and Ixia).

Pic 3

3 A stunning lawn thick with Sparaxis, Ixia and Tritonia in Auckland.

The grass can then be cut regularly from mid-summer onwards (though not too close) so that it goes through two distinct personalities during the year – a colourful meadow of flowers and grass followed by a mown lawn (this is the regime at Christopher Lloyd’s famous meadow lawn at Great Dixter in the UK. It also echoes the traditional management of rural hay meadows where the sward would be allowed to grow to maximum foliage height, then mown and stacked for hay and grazed for the rest of the growing season.

Pic 4

4 The famous front meadow at Great Dixter. Some of the visiting public have been heard to comment on the ‘neglect’ of mowing! This meadow is in fact mown from midsummer onwards, after the flowers have set seed.

If desired and an objective is minimizing maintenance, the meadow can be simply left and cut at the end of the growing season for the sake of tidiness through the winter. Research is being carried out in the UK to determine which perennials thrive and persist in these conditions, and so can be introduced into rough grass which is only cut once or twice a year. Results so far indicate that many species of Geranium, Persicaria, Alchemilla, and Leucanthemum are perfectly happy growing with coarse grasses. These dense foliage and flower and seed rich environments are very good for invertebrates, lizards and other beneficial wildlife.

So, why not? Is it our anxiety about untidiness? Is it the fact that these plants are not New Zealand natives? Worry about weeds? About what the neighbours will think? Or simply a lack of understanding and the right skills? I hope it is the last of these because understanding and skills can be gained if we want them and the best way to learn is to try it!

Nick has twenty years’ plus experience of landscape architecture professional practice in New Zealand and Britain. Before setting up his own practice he worked on significant landscape projects across the North of England as a Landscape Architect for Arnold Weddle, for Rotherham Metropolitan Council, and as Design Principal for ECUS, the Environmental Consultancy of the University of Sheffield. This work included a number of award winning landscapes of industry, new roads, campuses, urban regeneration and parks. Nick has worked for over 10 years in New Zealand, gaining broad experience of landscape design in the varied natural and cultural landscapes of the South Pacific.

In addition to professional practice, Nick has taught landscape architecture at universities in the UK (Sheffield and Gloucestershire), USA (Cal Poly) and New Zealand (Lincoln and UNITEC) and has a range of publications to his credit including the Planting Design Handbook (now in its revised second edition) and journal articles. He has recently completed a sabbatical period working and studying at the Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield, UK, with a focus on current thinking on ecological approaches to urban design and innovations in planting design for biodiversity, and working with international experts on urban ecology, green roofs and green walls.

Contact Nick 

EIFS 2013 periscopes

Conceptual garden for the 2013 Ellerslie International Flower Show

Christchurch’s magnificent grand old trees have inspired a trio of multi-award winning British designers to design a second conceptual garden for the 2013 Ellerslie International Flower Show.

The Sometimes you need to see what’s above you garden by Britain’s Garden Designer of the Year Andrew Fisher Tomlin, emerging garden designer Tom Harfleet and his artist brother Paul, aims “to get people up close and personal with a tree”.

They say the garden complements their other conceptual garden, Sometimes you need to see what’s behind 

EIFS 2013 periscopes

you, which asks the viewer to celebrate the beauty of a tree by taking the traditional outward focussed tree seat and turning it inwards.

Fisher Tomlin says their second garden will focus on a single tree. “We will hang nine two-metre long periscopes from the tree, allowing people of all heights to look into the tree and see what is growing above us.

“Conceptual gardens are about ideas and provoking thought; whether people love them or hate them is of almost no consequence. What is important is that there are places where people, not just garden designers, can use the medium of gardens to express and explore ideas.”

Fisher Tomlin, who will also be the Convenor of Judges at this year’s Ellerslie show, has won awards for his work throughout the United Kingdom and internationally, while Tom Harfleet, working with his brother, won Gold and Best Conceptual Garden at Hampton Court in 2010 for his first exhibition, the Pansy Project garden. Tom also won silver gilt in 2011 for his Philips-sponsored Bright Idea garden.

The trio say they intend to donate the periscopes to a local school, leaving a legacy of Ellerslie in Christchurch and they plan to re-create the garden at other shows throughout the world. “There has been a lot of interest in having a similar garden at a show in Sweden and we’re exploring other options within the United Kingdom.

“There is tremendous scope with conceptual gardens to re-create a simple idea in a multitude of settings and achieve a multitude of responses – that is the true beauty of conceptual gardens.”

MR Dichelachne full

Coastal garden, Leigh – O2 Landscapes

Landscape design and construction case study by O2 Landscapes 

The section of coastline that this house is located upon is a good example of the diversity of ecologies that characterises New Zealand’s flora. It shares many similarities with southeastern Australian ecologies, include a subtlety that sits well with many of our beliefs on planting design. Geologically, it is also an especially interesting place, with uplifted and tilted greywacke/argillite cliffs forming the edge between sea and land. The award-winning architecture of the house (which received an NZIA New Zealand Architecture award) was in part inspired by the cliffs that form so much of the context of the site. The way in which the house occupies the site presented varied opportunities for the design, from the open northern  side of the house which extends on to the sea view to the more intimate vegetable gardens, which are nestled between the house and the hillside.

One example of the different feelings that various areas create is the intimacy of the entry space, in which one works through a corridor created by the walls of the two pavilions of the house. We treated this area simply, to retain this sense of intimacy, by the use of pre-cast concrete units, which have been formed from timber boxing, to take on the impression of the timber grain (thereby establishing a sense of continuity with the timber flooring of the house). The planting within this space is the simplest within the garden, consisting of rough grass (of the native pasture species, Microlaena stipoides) and several specimens of shrubs such asCoprosma crassifolia and Pittosporum pimeleoides. The overall impression is that of a remnant glade, which is neither wholly human nor natural.

Extending from this area towards the driveway is one of the more interesting design problems presented on the site, the specification of a fence which was required to join with the corner of the house, in order to provide adequate fencing for a dog. The solution was the use of a fence of ‘points’, rather than a solid line. We utilised rusted steel rods emerging from the ground level, which relate to the corten steel sheets specified by the architect for external walls, at various points on the house.

The fence required a gate for access to the northern side of the house, which presented an additional design problem associated with the use of rusted steel rods for the fence. The solution was a pivot gate (which removed the necessity of outside posts that would have broken the rhythm of the fence), whose design is heavily based on vernacular gate forms – especially those that one might see around new Zealand schools. The gate is coloured in ‘Pioneer Red’, which is the colour of anti-rust paint that is typically used in New Zealand’s rural landscape (the colour associates especially well with the colour of rusted steel).








On the upper side of the house, large drystone walls were constructed to retain the clients’ vegetable gardens. These are made from greywacke, sourced from local quarries. As a stonewalling material, greywacke is comparatively difficult to work with, in comparison to volcanic stone types that are typically used in northern New Zealand (due to its sedimentary nature, it does not chip off in as predictable a fashion). However, it is important to be site-appropriate in selection of stone, and the drystone walls match the material that forms the cliffs on this area of coastline. Capping either end of the drystone walls are concrete walls, with vertical shuttering lines and timber grain impressions which have been left by the boxing.

Perhaps the most enjoyable piece of experimental concrete work that we carried out in this garden was the ‘profile wall’. Its form is derived from the stratification of local cliffs. We have been eager to utilise this method for quite a while, and the appropriateness of the site and the enthusiasm of the clients towards the idea gave us the chance to carry it out. The base layer of the wall is composed of normal concrete, whilst the middle layer had a small amount of very hard clay added to it (to provide a brownish colouration), and the top layer has been amended with addition of oyster shells into the concrete mix. The low wall is tilted, in the same manner as the local cliffs have been tilted by geological activity.

The planting design is inspired by and investigates the subtle ecology of the northeastern coastline of the North Island. A major feature is small grass species that are adapted to these areas, including Poa ancepsDichelachne crinita and the northern coastal cliff dweller,Chionochloa bromoides. The northern coastal small tree,Coprosma crassifolia, is specified to provide an ethereal character to the entry/driveway area. The rare Three Kings Islands small tree,Myrsine oliveri, is used within the garden, for its narrow form and the attractive russet colourations of its leaves and branches.

An interesting shrub from the Surville Cliffs at North Cape, Coprosma spathulata ssp. hikuruana, is one of several species that Oratia Native Plant Nursery has introduced to cultivation in the last two years. It is now critically endangered within the wild. It has attractive dark spoon-shaped leaves, and a creeping habit – in contrast to the typical form of the species (C.spathulata ssp. spathulata), which is found within this area. Another uncommon coastal native that will play an important role in the garden is tawapou (Planchonella costata). This tree has a statuesque form, and develops large berries which are highly attractive to native pidgeons (kereru) – one of the most enjoyable aspects of spending time on the site is the volume of native birds that frequent the area.

This garden featured in the Summer 2009 issue of Landscape Architecture NZ magazine. To view this go to the  ‘Publications’  section of the O2 Landscapes website.



NZ Native “Kiwi gems” – some hints about care, selection and planting for your garden

By Wally Richards

New Zealand has a vast array of native plants which many New Zealand gardeners sometimes take for granted, as they are very common in their homeland.

Overseas, many of our indigenous plants are well sort after and considered prized processions.
I remember several years ago Kew Gardens contacting me to assist in obtaining a number of natives in ‘fresh seed’ form. I was able to purchase some for their requirements from local seed collectors and send them over to England for a special New Zealand Native Garden Kew was developing.
I still have a photocopy of the Kew Garden’s cheque, as it was such a highlight for me.

Through the Internet back in the 90’s several gardeners in America also contacted me for seeds of various native plants that they wanted for their collections. This stopped when seed importation into the US had to be put through expensive checks for bio security reasons.

Natives can be planted at any time with due care to their establishment, but the very best time to plant is in the autumn, as they require very little assistance to establish.

Native shrubs and trees have adapted to New Zealand conditions over thousands of years making them very suitable to grow in your gardens. The chances of failure is low as long as you don’t try to make one grow in conditions that it is not accustomed to. (Soil type and moisture aspects)

The more readily available natives from garden centres have labels outlining the best site and care. Some cannot handle wet feet for extended periods but most will grow in heavy soils as long as the drainage is reasonable.

Once established they need only an annual trim to keep them in shape and prevent their hogging the sunlight from their neighbouring plants. A few pests can attack them but as they are used to native pests they will survive without any intervention from you. (Mind you its nice to remove the pests and keep the foliage clean…)

Most natives are very suitable container plants as long as you give them a good size pot to grow in. A mix of mostly compost and a little top soil is a good mix for them and if you can, put a few worms into the mix to keep it open and aerated in the pot.

Cabbage Trees – Cordyline

Cordyline australis (image Bakerboys Wholesale Nursery)

Cabbage trees are good container specimens for large containers. Juvenile foliage makes an impressive display as the plant grows towards to sky. Later as it matures the older leaves can be discarded showing the trunk. (More impressive in my mind than Yuccas which are currently popular container plants.) Take the rich colour of Cordyline australis purpurea (the purple Cabbage tree) with its bronze like purple leaf colouring and you have a majestic plant for both garden and tub.
They take from very wet to dry situations with ease, don’t mind a bit of shade or care about soil type. The only pest problem they have is with the cabbage tree moth, whose caterpillars eat the foliage in summer.

Sprinkle Neem Tree Granules around the base of the plant in spring and again in summer for reasonable control. In fact most natives that have any insect problem can be solved with Neem Tree Granules and an occasional spray of Neem Tree Oil.

There are other Cordylines that you can grow also for their unique foliage such as Cordyline Stricta with its narrow sword like leaves.

Cordyline indivisa



A very popular native family is the Pittosporum of which there is such a diverse range of foliage types and colours. They do not tolerate wet feet for extended periods but are fine in drier areas. In one place I lived I had a very wet heavy clay section and found that my first plantings of Pittosporum failed until other natives were established and then they never looked back. They seed well and you can collect as many seedlings as you like later on. If you have a few different types near each other you will get cross pollination and the seedlings can be very different from the parents.

Growing from seed will generate much better plants than from cuttings but both propagation techniques are straight forward. It is easy to collect the ripe seed and sow them where you want the plants to grow. Ideal for wind breaks, screens, individual specimens as well as container plants. Spray the foliage with Neem Tree Oil about every 2-4 weeks from November through to March to keep the pest insect (Psyllids) under control. Psyllids cause the bubbles and distortions in the leaves.



Hebe wiri mist (image NZ Plant Pics)

Another big family of natives is the Hebe with a big range of foliage types and flower colours. Hardy, as they are suitable for any location that is not too shady. Several years ago a gardener in Palmerston North gave me a cutting of Hebe ‘sport’ that had appeared in their garden a few years before. It had foliage that changed colour with the seasons and lovely pink flowers. I had the plant registered as Hebe ‘Pink Goddess’ and is available still, to the best of my knowledge.

There are Hebe that have a slightly sprawling growth pattern and if you take one of these and plant it into a good size container. Next lightly trim the tips off all the branches and allow all the new shoots to grow. When they have reached a good size, tip them again. This can be done as many times as needed to get a thick display of foliage that sprawls over the sides of the container and reaches sky ward in the centre.

When the plant flowers, later on, you will have a great display as it should be just covered in blossom. I have not found any problems with any Hebe unless they become too crowded from other plants and then they become misshapen seeking the sun.

Hebe vernicosa


Pseudopanax arboreus (image NZ Plant Pics)

Pseudopanax are another very hardy plant for any situation. Fast growing with larger leaves than many other natives and they don t mind a shady spot. Tolerant of wet areas and the new forms have a great range of foliage colours including near black and yellow.
The coloured ones must have plenty of sun or they will lose their colours.
I used to love visiting a local nursery (P.Nth) called Midlands, when I had a garden centre and pick out Pseudopanax for resale from the great selection they have. Sometimes the coloured or variegated ones start to revert to green and when this starts to happen the green should be cut out. They are ideal for containers too.

Pseudopanax also can be affected by Psyllids marking the foliage, so spray with Neem Tree Oil when that happens. If I had more room, I would have a good collection of these natives.

Pseudopanax arboreus (image NZ Plant Pics)

Manuka – Leptispermum

Manuka – tea tree

Manuka or Leptospermum is another range of natives that now have a good selection of flower colours. They are hardy plants but are often attacked by scale insects that cause the black sooty mould. Neem Tree Oil will also keep the pest at bay. A few Manuka planted will thrill you when they flower.

Leptospermum scoparium ‘Burgundy queen’ (image NZ Plant Pics)

Kowhai – Sophora

Sophora microphylla kowhai (image NZ Plant Pics)

No garden is complete without a Kowhai or two to grace an area or container. I have one that I made into bonsai many years ago and at only just over a 40cm tall it flowers every year making a neat display.
The natives above are some of the most popular and you will find a good selection of them in your local garden centre and from the nurseries on findaplant.co.nz

Tekapo detail2

Subalpine beauty in the Mackenzie Basin – a Findaplant.co.nz article

The Montane garden, Lake Tekapo.

An article by Philip Smith, O2 Landscapes

The diversity of New Zealand’s flora is, in large part, due to the kaleidoscope of landscapes that we possess. Ranging from sub-tropical forests in the north to the alpine herbfields of the South Island, our country provides us with a myriad of ecologies to study and use as inspiration for making gardens.

Amongst the most interesting of these are the subalpine scrub and dry grasslands that characterise the Mackenzie Basin and nearby natural areas (such as Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park).