Phormium, dear Phormium. Never shall I say a bad word about you again. I’ve seen you beachside, mountainside, roadside and bang in the middle of highly exposed plains. I’ve seen ancient plantations of you; self seeded, solitary examples of you; and even farmers’ hedges formed of you. I’ve seen deep red ones of you, bright orange ones of you and cheery yellow ones of you. In fact, I’ve quite fallen for you. In your native New Zealand homeland, you look absolutely spectacular. I didn’t tire of you once.
And so I will now view Phormium with more sympathetic eyes, when seen lost amongst acres of rough stone mulch in the landscaping of new production homes. I will lovingly remove any tatty leaves to restore them to their beauty and I will be more creative and persistent in finding spots where they blend perfectly with other plant forms. I am a Phormium convert.
Observing plants in their natural environment allows you to see them in a new light. Quite literally, in some cases. Who couldn’t love the orange-flowering species above, with its shimmering greeny yellow leaves and strong, sculptural flower stems? Aside from copying other people’s ideas (which most of us do, directly or indirectly, most of the time), taking a walk into nature is the most effective way of finding garden design inspiration.
Just before Christmas, I headed out with Sally and Sarah, two horticulturist friends, and Sally’s younger daughter, Carma, to do by far the longest walk in nature I had ever done. Eighty kilometres, in fact. Eighty kilometres with no hotels, no restaurants, no shops; just plants, plants and more plants and a remarkably heavy pack on my back. This was all quite scary new territory for me.
I loved it. I loved it so much, that within 24 hours of returning, I had convinced Paul that we needed to do another four day walk. Immediately. (And I’ve got some wonderful photos to show you of that walk, too.) But for now, we’ll stick to the Heaphy track, in the north west of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s nearest main town is Nelson, although 156 kms by road on the way and 463 kms on the way back from the walk is a bit of a stretch to be called ‘near’. This is proper, remote wilderness and the walk is known for its diversity of vegetation. I was up for the challenge!
On Day 1, we hiked (or ‘tramped’ as the Kiwis refer to it) some 17.5kms through beech (Nothofagus) forests to the highest point on the walk, some 950m above sea level. Having not started the walk until 1.30pm, due to our transport forgetting to pick us up, and with pouring rain for much of the afternoon, this was a fairly heavy start to the walk. We had five days worth of food in our packs and my shoulders were sore: it was the first time I had ever carried a big backpack.
The sun greeted us the following morning and we had a beautiful tramp across the Gouland Downs. The vegetation was amazing, changing almost by the minute, but it seemed to always fill every available space.
The movement of the tussock grasses was spectacular as the wind blew, and the light in the limestone ‘Enchanted Forest’ certainly enchanted us. It felt like some kind of fairyland.
We stumbled across native Hebe and complex ecosystems with each and every step. How wonderful untouched nature is.
On Day 3 Carma finally spotted a real, live, carnivorous snail; the only one of its kind in the world and an endangered species.
A rare peak through the trees, exposing the location of tomorrow’s overnight base was a little daunting – it really didn’t look very close at all – but some fun rope bridges and amazing epiphytes took my mind off the fact that I was a very long way from civilisation at this point.
That night was my favourite evening of all. We were staying in a small hut and had the most fantastic company. Two Department of Conservation workers, who had been helicoptered in to look at Fuchsia trees; a very engaging father and son; and Derry, the hero of the Heaphy Track; were staying there with us. Derry, in his seventies, drives people’s cars to the end of the walk and then runs their keys back to them along the track. He completes the 80km walk in just a day and a half. The most modest, interesting man you will ever meet; a pure delight to spend the evening with.
Day 4 brought us incredible examples of rata trees, growing over 30m high, starting as a vine growing up an existing, unsuspecting (and later to be strangled to death) host tree. A water break was enough time for Carma to whip up an incredible watercolour of the area; how I wish I was as talented an artist.
I quite wanted to eat her school sketch book by the end of the trip; it was so gorgeous, with close ups of flowers and leaves and stunning colours throughout.
Again, the vegetation was incredibly diverse, from almost meadow-like clearings to grassy sand dunes and Nikau palm forests.
We spread out at times today, and as I walked by myself, I felt as though I was the first person to discover these forests.
I had a broad grin firmly etched on my face; quite overwhelmed by the beauty in front of me.
Now in a rainforest setting, everything was lusher than ever and we had the added spectacle of rushing streams and sandy beaches.
Despite the fact that the rain had returned, I didn’t want the walk to end. It was almost tempting to turn around and do the whole thing in reverse, but the weight of my pack told me I’d get a little hungry if I tried. I had been quite hypnotised by the magic of the forests and of the delicate (non-Australian!) tweets of the birds, at times sounding like a full orchestra playing. I still couldn’t remember most of the plant names; you have three to remember for each: the Maori name, common name and Latin name was all a bit much for me. But the feeling of walking through, over, under and around those plants for five days will stay with me forever.
It’s tricky to articulate how this inspires garden design for me. But I instinctively know that I’m a better designer for experiencing it. Subconsciously, you see how nature arranges itself; how the light produces magical effects; how beautiful, happy, healthy, thriving plants look, perfectly selected for their habitat; and how full plantings, jostling for each and every tiny space, give a wonderfully strong feeling of life.
These photos may not be enough to inspire you in your garden, but they might just be enough to inspire you to get out into nature and find some direct inspiration yourself. Not only did I come back with a clear mind, the pressures of day to day life a million miles away (and a similar number of unread emails to pick up!) but I came back refreshed in my approach to design somehow. Absorbing details of things around you can be just as powerful a learning method as reading a book; I’d thoroughly recommend taking some time out to absorb nature whenever you get the chance.