Susan Wardell reviews Common Ground, about the social history of gardening in Aotearoa, and Karl Maughan, about, well, Karl Maughan.
Houseplants were my gateway drug. Watching for growth, getting dirt under my nails. Parsing plant names and learning how best to love them. For a few years, I chewed through these new knowledges, and was sated. Then eventually I began to eye the patches of dirt around our scrubby little lawn, and dream.
I learned to dig. I treated myself to a packet of wildflower seeds that grew around the rotary line and became a sodden colourful mess when it rained. Then last year, we moved into a house with a big, beautiful garden. I looked out my window in happy disbelief, every morning, for months. And then deep within the hot chrysalis of summer, it happened. I became a gardener.
As always, new books were towed into the wake of my new interests. First, books to tell me the how. And then books to tell me why. Why it mattered. Why the sweat and mundanity felt so good. Why my labours followed an invisible pattern, were part of a bigger project, specific to this corner of the South Pacific.
When we talk about what is in a garden, we need to know what preceded it, because gardens are never made in a void. They are always shaped by what is already there.
This is where Common Ground: Garden histories of Aotearoa, came in. Matt Morris has written it drawing on his PhD research, but also his decade’s work with the Sustainability Office at the University of Canterbury.
As a social anthropologist, as well as a (very new) gardener, the book was spot on for me, as a thorough, detailed, and tender view of the epochs of changes in gardening throughout Aotearoa’s human history. Morris opens this book describing a walk through Christchurch’s abandoned and overgrown Red Zone. Lawns turned to meadows, plants shooting up between rubble, and fruit trees standing, laden, when the houses right beside them were demolished. A gesture of hope, he calls it. And so we can see from the very start, that a book on garden histories also motions towards the future.
It isn’t just a book of ideals, however. Common Ground deals with the mundanities of gardens. Not just the big fancy ones either, but the scratchy little backyard ones too. It is oddly intimate, reading diary entries from 100 years ago about how many rows of different vegetables had been planted that day, and what was hoped of the berry patch that year. Reading letters sent between friends, exchanging home remedies for slugs, sharing proud results in pumpkins, and failures in figs.
But entangled with these literal gardens, the book deals deftly with the imagined gardens, the metaphorical gardens, to which the very real labour of planting and reaping can be attached. Settlers’ efforts to make an Eden of New Zealand show just how early gardening featured in the identity of the (colonial) nation-state.
Coming out of the poverty and stratification of Europe, both owning land and making it fruitful were earthly miracles.
Yet Morris also pays close attention to deliberate efforts to ignore, erase, and undermine the expertise (as well as the literal economic value) of Māori gardening. His chapters work chronologically and he refuses to start the story with the first European gardens and gardeners, instead honouring Māori ancestors and the seeds they brought with them.
He continues to acknowledge these entangled histories, making gardening a window into wider sets of social relations – from the commercial trade of vegetables, to worries about colonial deforestation, to trends in popular, native or imported foliage, to debates about use of “night soil” by Chinese market gardeners.
He makes clear the amazing way that trends in ordinary backyards track currents of racism, economic shifts and changing class structure, environmental movements, new types of cities and changing community values; debates about what should be and dreams about what could be. It is clear that actions of planting vegetables, pruning roses, or pulling weeds are almost always attached to bigger ideas, about being a good citizen, and a good neighbour. In this sense, anyone who gardens, gardens in the company of others – imagined and real, past, present, and future.
This is an academic book. It is not heavy in jargon, but maintains a formal tone and a rather relentless rigour, through heavy use of references and quotes from archival materials. Even as an academic, part of me finds that a pity. Not because there is anything wrong with this book – it is a fantastic contribution. But just because I can imagine an even more accessible, popular version. Just as gardens can be for everyone, so too could the story of gardening in this country – through migration, war, economic depression, counter-culture movements, earthquakes, and more – be for everyone. This place-based, plant-based history is a new way to see ourselves, and I’d love more people to have a taste of that.
This book gave me a sense of connection to the past, as a real place populated with real people, enlivening its complexity and mundanity in a way I haven’t often experienced in reading and found heady. It was all more familiar than I expected. As early as 1890 there are concerns about deforestation and species loss. In eerie echoes of some Covid discourse (albeit often the bits hinged on privilege), Morris documents suggestions in 1932 that some people had been happier since the Great Depression; spending more time at home, working in their gardens as a “source of spiritual uplift”. There were people in the 60s dithering about whether to spray or not, just as I do. I don’t have many people to talk with about my gardening dilemmas. This book helped me feel in good company.
Morris talks about a “whakapapa of garden knowledge”, noting that for a long time gardening knowledge came from personal experience and generational knowledge sharing, but explaining that the process of transfer dropped away a bit in the 60s. Funnily enough he doesn’t pay too much attention to gardening books as part of knowledge transfer. They have certainly been essential for me.
When I started gardening I got one from a secondhand book sale, and another few from my aunt. So generational knowledge transfer was not separate to, but part of, the passing on of books. In turn my kids dig or play beside me in the garden, and snuggle up under my arm as I read as well.
One thing I learnt quickly is that gardening books are almost no use if they are not place-specific. While plants may travel, may settle, their preferences and their relationship to the environment varies enormously in new geographic settings, and even region by region.
But people, like plants, travel too, and so the context and application of their garden knowledge shifts.
It was my mother who taught me to love flowers. She cleared a corner of earth in the verdant section that surrounded our home, to call my own, and to plant my $1 pots of polyanthus, pastel poppy mix, and cheerful pansies. It was also my mother who taught me to love books, and in turn it was books that taught me that gardens were enchanted places. But my beloved flower fairies seemed to reside in a different garden than the one I grew up in – filled with peasblossom and sloe and other names I didn’t recognise.
My mother herself had been in New Zealand for less than a year before I was born. She didn’t always know the names for native flora, and so the plants I was intimately familiar with, underfoot and overhead, sometimes had no correlate on my tongue. My adult life had to involve a deliberate effort to learn their names. To learn to name is to learn to see differently.
In my new garden – lovingly sown with both native and introduced plants, by nameless heroes, over many decades – I walk around with my phone open. On it, I have an app that performs a magical translation from photos to names. In addition, one of my favourite “how to” gardening books includes a section unpacking the etymology of botanical names, which feels like unlocking a secret language, one with a colourful, sweet-smelling heart. Alsoemeria auria (Peruvian lily; the “auria” refers to something golden), Verbena hastata (American blue vervain; hastata refers to something spear shaped, like its leaves), Acer rubrum (Red maple; “acer” thought to come from the latin for “hard” or “sharp”, for the qualities of its wood, and “rubrum” for the colour red), Achillea millefolium (Common Yarrow; after Achilles of Greek mythology, who treated the wounds of soldiers after the seige of Troy, with this plant, and “mille” for many “folium” or leaves).
Reading a book on gardening can be a comforting way of being in the presence of other gardeners, without inviting them in to see your weeds. Another avenue of connection to fellow aspiring green-thumbs, is social media. In Facebook groups for gardeners, people share endless pictures of their plots, both big and small. The huge vegetables, the perfect blooms. The weeds and the bugs and the blight too. On Instagram, warm filters make for a felt experience of the magic of laying in the sun surrounded by wildflowers, give extra gloss to apples, make the grass greener. It is a very specific pleasure, to enjoy other people’s gardens like this. To walk their paths with your eyes.
Karl Maughan is one of New Zealand’s most successful living artists. And for four decades, he has painted gardens, gardens, and more gardens.
Maughan’s work, and the way it is framed in the book of essays and images edited by Hannah Valentine and Gabriella Stead, feels like it connects to Morris’ book somehow. The essays imply that it is about something, that it means something. That there is a reason for painting and repainting, to looking and looking again, and gardens. This is what the book shares with Morris’ book. Gardens as a window into wider societies and ourselves – “cultural microcosms” designed in our own images, and a way to visualise ourselves, as Tyler’s essay in this book suggests. Which is not to say they are not simply beautiful. And joyful. And aesthetic. They are all of these things and they are more.
The book presents a foreword by Dick Frizzell, an introduction by the editors, essays by Linda Tyler, Phil King, and Gregory O’Brien, and a swathe of colour plates of Maughan’s paintings (more than 150!) plus studio and gallery photos. The art is divided into three different eras of his work: 1986-1994 in Auckland, 1994-2005 in London, and 2006-2020 (in Wellington). It is a book of large dimensions, which is necessary to grasp the size and overwhelming brightness of the paintings.
Oddly Maughan’s paintings do not often give me a sense of place at all. Sometimes a peek of background includes a mountain. Sometimes punga trees feature. More often the rows of bright exotic shrubs seem to exist in a world of their own.
Perhaps it is because these paintings, as the book explains, are not real gardens. Maughan’s process is to visit gardens and take pictures, then stitch together different features on his canvas, under a “filmic glow”, like the light of another planet, as King writes. For all it offers images of nature, there is an air of irreality that sucks you in. Flipping through the pages is like taking a picnic in uncanny valley. The garden is clearly a simulacra, as Tyler’s essay suggests, and not pretending to be otherwise.
My favourites are the paintings with more darkness. The ones that let your eyes rest; that give, and comfort, and enchant, rather than demand. These are the ones from earlier in his career where, the essays explain, not all of the decay was pruned out. The later ones, interestingly, came after Maughan had a tumour that was pressing on his optic nerve removed. I never knew there could be something so brooding, so discomforting, in technicolour. But there is definitely a note of the manic in the clippering of the rows and rows of bushes, their painfully cheerful oranges and pinks. They invite you in, they are immersive, but they are also claustrophobic at times, as Tyler observes.
This is visceral and material, even in paint rather than dirt – with an “inescapable urgency in the pigment” of these works as “conglomerations of energy, form, and colour”, as King puts it. This feels true even on the glossy pages of the coffee-table book, rather than the globular surface of Maughan’s canvas. The images that show his studio, his materials, his process, help convey the textures of their making, and bring the book to life as the story of an artist, not just an art. There are parallels between gardening and making art, in that is it physical, and transformative, as Tyler writes. A garden always feels personal, whether real or invented.
This volume takes care to provide a whakapapa of Maughan’s garden knowledge: his family history involves adventures in landscaping for both his parents, and deep efforts in cultivating their personal garden, especially by his mother, who also pursued academic knowledge of horticulture. But despite reading about his life across several eras, and from several authors, I still don’t feel like I fully understand Maughan as a person. Perhaps it is partly that it feels strange to read essays about a living artist, interpreting his practice and his goals, but to hear so little in his own words. Perhaps it is more than that.
Maughan spent four decades standing in a studio and painting gardens. Working over and over the leaves of plants, cultivating, crafting and controlling an imaginary greenspace in a way that seems almost obsessive, commercial success aside. O’Brien’s essay wanders through a strange thought experiment on this. What if, at the end of his life, Maughan lined up all of his paintings and realised that they in fact joined together seamlessly, to create one giant garden? Looking at images of his words lined up in galleries, it is easy to imagine. Yet it is also an eerie thought, that has stuck with me; reminding me of the version of my childhood garden I persistently return to in dreams, real features stitched together with other bits of garden I have known, going on and on as I run through it; away from someone, towards home. Perhaps the garden of my new home will be incorporated into this subconscious space, eventually. Perhaps from above it would look like a quilt, that would map out my life. Perhaps if I could zoom out even further in the dream, I would see my mind-garden connecting to everyone else’s mind-gardens, and going on forever. This is almost a literal truth, rather than a metaphorical one, and something that we use fences and hedges to help us conveniently forget. “Our” gardens are not separate. We garden together, even when we garden alone – tending the same earth, the same interlocking ecosystems.
Morris ends his book imagining an edible garden city where we will “re-imagine our cities and towns as garden systems, networks of home, part of community, school and marae gardens”. He well knows this isn’t just about spatial arrangements, but about stitching together hopes and dreams. This is why it isn’t just about the gardening, but also about the books and the photos and the apps and the language and the art. Not just about people who consider themselves gardeners, but about everyone who walks, breathes, eats, lives in this place, on this common ground.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.