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Secret Gardens of Aotearoa: Field Notes & Practical Wisdom by Jane Mahoney and Sophie Bannan

In Secret Gardens of Aotearoa mother-and-daughter team Jane Mahoney and Sophie Bannan have collaborated with other gardeners to share their wisdom, knowledge and a ‘diversity of gardening styles’. The complementary Secret Gardens website highlights the team’s deep commitment to promoting sustainable and regenerative gardening practices.

Secret Gardens features 12 gardens throughout Aotearoa as well as the gardeners – adults and often children too – who have developed and nurtured the land. All the gardens are, in one way or another, still evolving. Some are relatively new, others are set among trees that are at least a century old. Some gardens are small and urban (‘an average-sized back yard’), others are much larger and rural. Some include crops (even bananas!), and in several gardens the plants feed birds and insects too. Many of the gardeners are clear about their long-term goals and their plans to transform their land, although they also acknowledge that it’s acceptable to pause a project or change direction if something’s not working out. Mahoney and Bannan note that ‘the constant conversation between garden and gardener’ contributes to making a garden come alive.

The gardeners share the principles and philosophies that guide them. They are generous with their knowledge. The notes at the end of each chapter offer practical advice, including how to grow plants from seed, which plants are ideal for floral displays, and which natives are easy to propagate from cuttings. In gardener Ali’s notes she identifies all the plants she grows to brew tea – including lemon balm leaves, honeysuckle flowers, rosehips, and dandelion roots. (One of her favourite blends is a combination of mint, calendula, fennel seed and ginger.) She’s also keen to warn others about the risks of handling potting mix. Her activities are still restricted by the long-term effects of a severe bout of Legionnaire’s disease, which is caused by the bacteria often present in soil, compost, and potting mix. ‘Wear a mask and gloves when using bagged potting mix,’ she advises.

The gardeners are realistic, recognising that new methods are often ‘trial and error’. One highlights the importance of understanding the requirements of the landscape and seeking out plants native to the region – a firm believer in a ‘right plant, right place’ approach. There are often challenges associated with the terrain and there’s a common appreciation of how success (or failure) is influenced by the seasons, wind direction, and sun paths. It’s okay for a lawn to turn brown in summer, says gardener Sue, ‘because that’s just what nature does’.

It’s no surprise that many of the gardeners are keen composters and recyclers. One couple salvaged old windows to construct both a potting shed and a cold frame suitable for growing seedlings. Another pair used recycled materials to make a corrugated iron fence that prevents possums from wreaking havoc.

Colourful photos accompany the text, including many glorious double-page spreads. The names of particular plants are identified on some of the pages that have small photos, although it would have been helpful to have captions identifying some of the plants and trees in larger photos too. It’s odd that the book has no index. However, the Secret Gardens website has a good search function. The website includes resources and information about each garden, as well as video clips of some of the gardeners whose stories feature in the book. There’s a short reading list at the end of the book.

Every gardener starts somewhere and contributors have drawn on many different sources of inspiration, including gardening groups, YouTube channels, television and radio programmes. Many acknowledge the history of the land that they now cultivate and the early Māori who occupied certain areas, sometimes seasonally, as well as other former land-owners. One avid gardener resumed gardening as a student – ‘her first dabble in gardening since obtaining her Brownies gardener badge’ as a child. Memories of times spent in parents’ and grandparents’ gardens are recalled. A grandmother is remembered for her eagerness to collect manure left after the horse-drawn milk delivery cart had passed by, which she promptly spread onto her garden. One contributor has fond memories of her mother’s topiary shaped like cantering horses and the hours spent zooming on the flying foxes her father suspended high above their garden.

Merve, who grew up in Turkey, recalls her childhood collecting seasonal fruit from the forest. There was no need to buy food, as everything was grown in or around the local village and farmland. Her gardening in Aotearoa is informed by Māori culture and practices, including the knowledge she has acquired about rongoā (medicines), tikanga and the importance of treating plants with respect. She is deeply aware of the interconnectedness between the garden and the gardener: ‘…there is a wairua, a spirit in the land, and the gardener is part of that’. She also turns to Maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar, to guide her gardening. Her chapter has a summary of key activities associated with each lunar phase.

Perfection is not necessarily the end goal. If you sometimes find your own garden a bit overwhelming, it may be reassuring to know that one of the featured gardens is described as ‘somewhat unruly’. Mahoney and Bannan say that setbacks and failures are to be expected, plants sometimes shrivel and die. The book encourages us to be guided by intuition and our own likes and dislikes. ‘If a plant in your garden isn’t pleasing you … get rid of it. Give it away! There are too many exciting plants in the world to continually be considering/evaluating the merits of one that’s bugging you,’ says Violet. She urges other gardeners to make ‘bold choices’.

The black ribbon bookmark attached to the spine of Secret Gardens makes it easy to locate a favourite page or chapter. This is an informative and engaging book with a gentle pace and style that I will return to for guidance and inspiration as I potter about in my own unruly garden.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Allen & Unwin


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