In their new book, the writer and photographer visit Jo Wakelin’s Otago dry garden, which thrives without a drop of extra water to drink. Below is an edited extract.
Jo Wakelin’s half-acre garden in the Central Otago region is dominated by its surroundings: mountains that reach up to 2000m. There are no obvious boundaries, and the garden, as she notes, “may be under an acre, but I feel like I’ve got thousands of acres”. She feels she has “a very strong connection to the landscape, my place of standing — tūrangawaewae in Māori”.
The plants in Jo’s garden blend in with their surroundings through their form (gently curved, hummocky shapes, generally organised into rounded planting borders) and their colours (muted greens, greys, fawns). The bleached grass of the pasturelands, the grey rock and the occasional dark-leafed evergreens are all echoed in the garden, the forms and colours becoming more tangible here, as if the vast landscape has been distilled down, concentrated.
“It’s very dry here — 250 to 400mm of rain a year, six to eight weeks with no rain, often above 30ºC in summer and -10ºC in winter,” says Jo. “It’s a tough climate, and it’s very windy.” She adds that the soil is a “low-nutrient, gravelly glacial outwash”.
Inputs are minimal: no feeding, no pest control and, crucially, no watering, although there is a large pond that provides a somewhat damper habitat for some native species, such as the dramatic clumps of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), one of the iconic plants of the South Island.
Local stone plays an important part in this garden. One low mound of stones forms a shape that echoes that of the surrounding boulders. “It mimics the early goldminers’ tailings, piled rock by rock during the gold rush in the 1860s,” says Jo. “I also built mine rock by rock!”
New Zealand’s native flora is very singular, particularly visually. There are few species with prominent or colourful flowers, but many with distinctive foliage colours and strong shapes; nearly all are evergreen. Many of these species are used extensively in landscape design elsewhere, particularly in Britain and France, where the climate is roughly similar; indeed, Britain has seen a growing New Zealand aesthetic across its public spaces since the 1990s. Here, in a harsh steppe habitat, the range of native species that will survive is limited, with relatively muted colours and forms.
Jo’s a teacher of horticulture at a local college, and passionate about the ecology of the region. When she started this garden in 2005, there was a strong urge to use only regionally native plants. She’s done a lot of what she calls “eco-sourcing” — collecting the seed of wild plants such as the kōwhai (Sophora microphylla) in an effort to get more people to grow them in gardens. However, she describes herself as “a bit of a magpie”, and loves the colours of exotics. The result is a garden of two halves: one dedicated to native plants and one to non-native exotics. The latter area is closer to the house, while the former forms the bridge between landscape and garden.
“I decided to try to keep them separate,” says Jo. “I trained as an ecologist. I cannot bring myself to combine them.”
Although Jo consciously rejects European models of garden-making, it is, ironically, a British gardener who helped shape her thinking about what to do here. Beth Chatto (1923–2018) was possibly the most influential gardener of the latter part of the 20th century in Britain, as she introduced the idea, now perhaps obvious, of choosing plant species on the basis of the existing garden habitat. Her gravel garden, created on the site of a former carpark and part of a larger overall plot, was possibly the most influential garden of the period. Jo is one
of many who are inspired by its selection of drought-tolerant plant species and by the aesthetic of low-growing plants scattered across a gravel-mulched soil. The gravel garden comes into its own in severely water-stressed situations. Gravel mulching helps stop water loss from the soil, keeps roots cool and creates a visual linking element that can flow from one part of a garden to another. It’s also a very good backdrop for showing off foliage shapes and colours.
The visual appeal of dry gardens like Jo’s revolves around a set of shapes and colours that are essentially year-round features. A surprising range of species flower throughout summer until autumn, many of these being common Northern Hemisphere border species, such as stonecrop (Hylotelephium spectabile). The fact that plants from stressful environments are generally evergreen provides continuity, although Jo notes that “seasonal change is hugely rewarding in this garden, especially given that I don’t soften the effects of summer by watering. Without supplementary watering, I feel connected to the larger climate cycle I live within. Autumn rain comes, and the plants respond. I think it actually intensifies the seasonal pleasure in the garden for me, compared to an earlier garden where I did water.”
Pragmatically blending a love of colour with a strong sense of local identity and a commitment to growing local flora, this garden succeeds visually by making a seamless connection between its dramatic surroundings and an ornamental version of ecologically appropriate planting around the house.
Edited extract from Wild: The Naturalistic Garden by Noel Kingsbury with photography by Claire Takacs (Phaidon, $88).