Wilting Convictions

Just back again from the deliciously juicy, turgid gardens of Marlborough, NZ, and while I’ve been ranting about the joys and the unrealized potential of dry gardening for years, I still find that I can have the wind punched from my guts by gardens so hydrated – so pumped with H2O – that I feel like some desiccated, no-longer-functional part of my physiology or psychology is being revivified by osmosis alone.

To enter a garden like Hortensia House (above), that is run through with a deep stream of spring-sourced water, is like being spontaneously connected to an intravenous drip. You can hear every cell sighing in relief.


The mental image I have is of me crawling on my hands and knees through desert sands, and finding myself, semi-dazed, in a dripping green oasis. Lying on my back after a long drink, I gingerly scan my convictions about dry gardening and detect a sneaking suspicion that my enthusiasm has been little more than a mental survival strategy.

But it’s a suspicion I can’t entertain. I live in a location with an average rainfall of 800ish mm, which is yet to break 500mm this year. While the average total isn’t too bad, I’m on tank water only, and five adult-sized users of these tanks will run them near-dry by the end of summer.  So I don’t water the garden at all. I don’t even attempt to grow veggies in summer.  A few pots in important positions survive on the cold water we collect while we wait for the hot water to reach our bathroom (about 6l each time).

So I’ve got to fill my head with highly desirable dry gardens. In my super-hydrated stupor, I could only think of one. I had to keep chanting to myself – ‘Remember Nicole de Vesian. Remember Nicole de Vesian. Think only on Nicole de Vesian’. Her undeniably desirable La Louve alone kept me on track. I couldn’t, in the moment, think of any others.

Please – for the sake of my rapidly dehydrating sanity – remind me of more!


  1. im rolling on the floor with mirth, hilarious and oh so true!

    1. Yeah, well I’m just coming to understand that my vulnerability to this sort of rattling is linked to my receptivity. In that sense it’s a strength. I think.

  2. The odd thing is a quick look at the Marlborough weather record suggests they are having a similar bout of crazy climate dry weather to us recording 11mm in October against an average of 72mm with no relief in site. http://www.metservice.com/rural/marlborough

    1. A good reminder that rainfall isn’t a fair measure of water availability…
      My problem isn’t my rainfall, which is really quite reasonable. It’s my lack of storage.
      And in the absence of storage, a lack of 1,000,000 litres/minute of crystalline spring-fed water flowing past my doorstep.
      The closest thing I’ve got is a neighbour with an old quarry that’s permanently filled with water. In my head I’m constantly rehearsing my verbal request for access, but can’t decide on the perfect tone – pleading and needy? dignified? casual?

  3. ‘Dry Garden’, when read as no watering at all to my mind tests the very meaning of the concept of gardening and is about something else altogether, something perhaps political.

    On this note I liked the reply from William Martin when someone challenged him on the dry and desiccated state of his Wigandia on one occasion. To paraphrase William’s response he stated: “Anyway, I like brown”.

    1. Yes, I see your point. The earliest gardens were all oasis gardens, and I’m firmly attached to that oasis feel, myself. Even if I don’t have water to spare, I don’t want a garden that feels dry, or even one that is a simple extension of the surrounding vegetation.

      As for William Martin’s reply, I guess it depends on whether it’s spoken out of genuine delight or defence. For him, maybe it’s the former. For me? probably the latter.

    2. Knowing William it was probably purely intended to provoke!

      I liked this from him too where he spoke of: “gardens as places for the mind instead of places for shovel and spade.”


    3. Yes, as well as being a genius gardener, he’s very quotable

  4. I live not so far from you in Central Victoria and being a Kiwi originally suffer similar anxieties and dilemmas about what I can do at my palce. As a novice gardener I continue to be inspired by the copy of Olivier Filippi’s The Dry Garden Handbook I bought a couple of years ago … even as the annual rainfall continues to drop. Some nice photos of the Filippi garden here: http://www.waterwisegardens.com/inspiration/olivier-filippi.

    1. Wow. Thanks for that. I recall seeing an article about him in one of the OS glossy mags, and loved what I saw. But I’d forgotten. I needed a reminder. Ta

  5. It’s psychological.
    You don’t smoke cigarettes right? You don’t buy lots of shoes?
    O.K water is cheap – you buy it. You have 2 different liquids – one sustains human life (ie house water) and one sustains plants which are your other babies, your love, your work (ie garden water). Besides, for us horts it’s a tax deduction.
    You can buy a lot of water for $300 (or one pair of semi flash shoes, or 10 packs of cigarettes). In our rural area I live on town water but I use the same logic for tank purchasing and my roof water is then my garden water. Dedicated garden water tanks – the whole family gets the benefits anyway. Thanks for the blog – I enjoy it.

    1. Really? A lot of water?
      I always think of the $300 tank top up to be about the equivalent of one decent watering of the garden. I’m clearly wrong, and am very glad to be

    2. More expensive water? larger garden? Was just looking at my photos of La Louve and came across one of the dipping pool Nicole de Vesian built (not the later swimming pool). It looks like it is set in an old quarry. How about you offer to landscape the neighbors quarry in exchange for the ongoing use of the water?

    3. Possibly. How much water do you really get for $300?
      And you’re right about neighbours – must think up a deal. A deal too good to refuse.

  6. Love this article. Water means life, and no matter how we dress it up, a dry garden is slightly anxiety-inducing.
    Glad you love the Marlborough gardens. Come back over for the Taranaki ones next year!

    1. Would love to Sarah. Must see if we could include them in a tour…

  7. Boat’s End in SA, Cranbourne in VIC and King’s Park in WA. Put a hydrated garden next to a dehydrated one and the hydrated will almost always win at first glance. But put a (good) dehydrated one into a dehydrated landscape and it beats the hydrated combination hands down, for sheer wonder and miraculousness. It is contrast and rarity that attracts us and dry climates offer more scope on these fronts.

    1. That third sentence is truly inspired. Wish I’d written it.
      But I’m baffled by your suggestion that dry allows for more scope in rarity and contrast. If I think rare when it comes to plants, I’m immediately in cool, damp woodland in North America of Japan.
      Must now visit Boat’s End and Kings Park.

    2. You must visit Boat’s End, especially. The lovely owner, Sarah Budarick, has created a great ‘BoatsEnd Garden’ Facebook page, as a starting point.
      The rarity thing is partly that there are so few good, dry gardens. So few that truly contrast with the landscape. As opposed to English/Japanese of which we have seen most versions a million times. I think we have such an opportunity in Australia to do something really new. Something that fits with the landscape and yet surprises. Something with harmonious but definite contrasts to the natural bush form, like tightly pruned Westringia, or the Echium of Boat’s End; forms that really stand out against our relatively uniform landscape. I was thinking of rarity on a macro, design basis, rather than, necessary, a plant level; rarity on the basis of wonder and miraculousness that only dry climates can offer.

  8. Remember Gianni d’Ortenzio in Castlemaine, and for that matter there are a few in Castlemaine that would rate a mention. Barbara Maudes garden for one.

    However Castlemaine is consistently dry and consistently warmer . In our wooded microclimate our dilemma is the weathers inconsistency . Yesterday was freezing, cloudy and inclement but no rain. Any truly arid tolerant plant would curl up and die, turn to slimy mush( now that is an irony). So we cant comfortably garden within the parameters of either climatic dictate.

    A cool climate garden suffering an extended dry period is no less appealing than an arid garden in a cold climate . For me I like a garden to envelope me, soft and luxuriating, comforting. I may feel excited in a dry garden but never at ease. It is deeply engrained I think

    1. I do remember Gianni d’Ortenzio’s, and I was totally taken aback by how effective a garden virtually entirely of shrubs could be.

      And I agree (and in doing so resign myself with some frustration to the fact) that we can’t head comfortably in either climatic direction. Then again, everyone thinks their challenges are peculiar.

      That ‘never at ease’ comment haunts me, as I don’t want to accept that that is perhaps how I feel also. But I wonder if that is because we take on the stress on the plants, and if we were in a dry garden in which all the plants were perfectly at ease, we could feel at ease as well.

      I reckon I could linger long over an evening drink in Nicole de V’s garden without feeling the faintest urge to pep anything up with a watering can. That garden looks like it would simply laugh at the dry, and I reckon as long as the garden’s laughing, I could laugh along.

    2. I think both of you saw the garden before the long drought or in its early days. It underwent a substantial evolution through the very dry years and the variety of plantings has decreased somewhat. Lawn is long lost, replaced by veggies, however it has overall retained a strong “oasis” effect, especially as the trees have matured. Visitors regularly comment on the green and the significant drop in temperature as they enter. Google earth views show a true oasis in the otherwise brown landscape. Bird life is abundant in numbers and sound so they seem to have enjoyed the changes. The garden remains for us a welcome relief from the dry gulch feeling of much of our general surrounds! We revel in it everyday and consider it a tribute to the designer (Michael Wright) as it has survived, evolved and remained delightful through the rigours of the climate and periods of benign neglect! Gianni.

  9. I remember working at Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara, and flying from there to Sydney, flying over the ocean just before we landed, I felt the same. After the rust colours of the outback, to see all that green and sparkling blue was like giving my eyeballs a drink of water ( odd image I know, but my best description of what it felt like).

    1. I totally know what you mean. We’re clearly so, so deeply attracted to water – to repeat something from an earlier post, it’s like water (in our very cells) calls to water

  10. David Glen’s display gardens at Lambley are inspiring for me. Here in Southern Tas away from the rain shadow of the mountain we get surprisingly little rain – similar annual rainfall to yours – we luckily don’t get the extreme high temperatures of the mainland.

    1. Really? I imagine that part of Tas to be permanently waterlogged…

  11. I live in the middle of the US in farming country…..wheat, corn etc….water hogs and completely unsustainable….I’ve gardened since age ten and I’m in my fifties…the drought we’ve been in for the last several years has scarred me psychologically for life I’m sure….the lack of water for the garden, the trees, my soul….has made me feel real actual pain…I’m not crazy, it’s just that we need water to feel whole…great blog btw!!

    1. I’m feeling your pain Laurie. Hydration seems to be as psycholgical as it is physiological

  12. Fiona Brockhoff’s ‘dry’ Mornington Peninsula gardens don’t leave me wanting for more. Interestingly like Nicole de V she contructs her gardens uses a restricted palette of mostly endemic plants, frequently tightly clipped, often on a canvass of gravel.

    1. I wonder why this is, Moira? It’s strange that we can really admire something, but kind of know that we don’t crave for it ourselves. I love every image I’ve seen of FB’s remarkable work, but I’ve never yet seen one of her gardens in the flesh, to observe how the flesh responds…

  13. I’m so sorry you went through such a traumatic experience! But rest assured there is a way back. From an experienced fool who is gardening part time on an exposed (but lovely) acre in Clunes my mantra works well. When one has accidently set foot in gippsland or the Yarra Valley, chanting “Pomegranates, pencil pine, cercis and pistachios” 10 times will calm the nerves and bring you back to reality mostly unscathed.

    1. I’m going to learn that, by heart.

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