The idea that a garden is a place of healing is now well established in the scientific literature. Central Coast-based garden designer Michael Cooke was forced into a very personal understanding of exactly how a garden is a place you nurture and which nurtures you back when, in 2012, he was seriously injured. Cooke, a keen and experienced horse rider had a serious fall and was in a coma for nine days. The prognosis looked grim, but after months of physiotherapy, exercise physiology, speech and occupational therapy, Cooke was allowed home. Little by little he ventured back into the garden, where he found solace, inspiration and the revelation that this – family, friends and gardens – was all he wanted. He has attempted to capture this sense of the richness offered by life in the garden in his new book, co-authored with photographer Brigid Arnott, called Disobedient Gardens, and he reckons the project was a big part of his recovery.
“I believe the time I spent writing this book,” he says, “reflecting and thinking about the gardens I created, together with being outside working, and just walking about looking at the garden with my dogs by my side, is what really healed me.”
The evocative title suggests gardens that are badly behaved, but by disobedient Cooke means a garden that balances manicured and wild elements and that reveals its own character rather than being dominated by a gardener, or worse by a designer. He favours textures that are weathered and organic, messy and time-affected over the shiny, neat and new. He likes a garden that has grown in a relationship with its owners, each impacting on the other to create a place of character, memory and beauty.
Cooke has been working in the five gardens presented in the book for years, helping develop and shape their character. Included are Valleyfield, the garden of Buon Ricordo chef Armando Percuoco and Gemma Cunningham in the Hunter Valley; a Georgian cottage with bucolic views at Foxground on the South Coast; an historic garden at Mount Wilson; a long-time friend’s large garden in the Central Coast and Cooke’s own home, Hawthorne.
It’s Hawthorne that is at the heart of the book, and Cooke wonders whether readers will find it too wild and unrestrained. Certainly gardeners on one end of the chaos-control spectrum will find the garden a cause of anxiety rather than healing. It looks loved and lived in, an aesthetic romantically captured by Arnott. Early winter light catches a dewy lawn and box balls clipped into irregular teardrops; Cooke’s studio is shot at sunset, golden light just visible through the trees, and echoed in the windows of the low-slung building, whose red roof seems perfectly matched by a froth of crabapple blossom; slanting sun catches the sheets drying on the old Hills Hoist above a carpet of fallen autumn leaves; even the mossy stone flagging on the terrace looks appealingly lived-in rather than merely grubby.
The seesaw between control and chaos is explored in each garden in the book, and the images, along with Cooke’s evocative story-telling, will have you considering the balance of restraint and wildness in your own garden and how noting how getting it right creates a place that feels like home.
It’s time to
When Ellerslie Garden Show was sold to Christchurch council, and then failed to make as much money as the council expected it was mothballed. Slipping into the garden show gap – Auckland. See the New Zealand Flower and Garden Show in Auckland, November 23-27.
Fill the house with plants
One of the most annoyingly anachronistic bits of last year’s A Little Chaos movie about Versailles, was Kate Winslett’s character’s achingly hipster courtyard garden. It could have been designed by Rose Ray and Caro Langton, two London-based plant sellers and stylists who perfectly grasp modern interior plant-scaping. Their new book, House of Plants: Living with succulents, air plants and cacti, Quarto, $40, shows how it’s done.
Look for bugs
Bronze orange bugs are big bugs, often with brightly coloured backs that suck on citrus. Their very size is intimidating, especially en masse. Knock occasional visitors off the tree, and then step on them. For larger gangs, spray with something like Yates Nature’s Way Citrus and Ornamental Spray.
Feed the hydrangeas
Use a flower-boosting foliar feed as hydrangeas prepare to launch the show.