Bringing it back to basics

Being in the garden should be a pleasure, not a chore, says garden designer Tony Murrell.
Being in the garden should be a pleasure, not a chore, says garden designer Tony Murrell.
Tony Murrell has good news and bad news for gardeners.

There are no such things as low-maintenance gardens.

But there are ways to make them manageable.

The garden designer from TV One's Mucking In show will be in town this weekend to help launch the Dunedin Rhododendron Festival and talk about the ways in which gardening has changed.

Murrell says while some people have "wild" areas where they encourage seasonal change and all sorts of wildlife, most today want low-maintenance plots.

"There is no such thing as a low-maintenance garden because they are forever evolving and changing.

"And you have to be on to it.

"Otherwise it gets away on you and can become overwhelming."

"However, there are skills people can use to create gardens that will be "manageable, achievable and ultimately beautiful".

"And once you've got that repertoire down pat, you're off."

Those techniques include noticing when flowering plants need clipping and shaping so they do not become leggy, identifying invasive weeds and knowing how to remove them, and knowing that when winter comes, it is good to put a thermal layer of mulch over the soil, also including some green material to encourage worm activity.

These days, many people have a contractor cut their lawns and take the clippings away but the material is great for generating heat in the compost bin and eradicating weeds, he adds.

"If you use [lawn clippings] where you've got oxalis - piled up high - you'll find that the heat generated from the clippings will exhaust the oxalis bulb and knock the plant back."

Murrell talks of the "lost generation in the garden", saying that in the past 10 or 20 years people have not learned how to do old-fashioned weeding, prepare the ground and use soil additives.

Instead, they put plastic over the ground, use herbicides and spray-packs for weeding and buy plants that will last a season or that will look good now but not necessarily in the future.

Traditional gardening skills have been lost because people lead busier lives and have a greater choice of recreational activities.

When he was a boy, his entire family got out in the garden at weekends but for young people now there are "too many other things to be doing".

Parents are working harder to fund electronics, computers and trips away.

People want to spend their recreation time relaxing and doing something more exciting than chores - though he says gardening should not be seen as a burden but as something that is rewarding and good for our health.

More people are moving to the big centres to find work, resulting in them having smaller backyards and spending more time going out than staying home.

And even those who do garden want "instant gratification" or to manipulate and control their environments:"Everyone wants to clip and trim and keep everything in check, whereas in nature it doesn't happen that way."

Another issue is that people need to find ways to garden on not much money but haven't been taught how to take cuttings or to raise plants from seed.

The 42-year-old, who started a horticultural apprenticeship at 17, says there are ways to encourage New Zealanders to garden, however.

New Zealand Gardener editor Lynda Hallinan has done good work in promoting the benefits of growing our own food "but it's actually a hands-on skill so the next big thing is getting more into community gardening and garden clubs".

He also advocates showing people some of our "amazing" public gardens and thinks there should be more gardening competitions, online clubs and television shows - he hopes there will be a new series of Mucking In next year but that has not yet been decided.

Murrell, who has his own landscape design business in Auckland, is looking forward to his first visit to Dunedin and says he "absolutely loves" rhododendrons.

"It's the colour . . .

"They bring a garden to life, remind you of the seasons and they're quite bullet-proof.

"They can take such severe and adverse climatic conditions and yet they just do so very well.

"People think you've got to faff around with these plants but you don't.

"You basically put them in the ground and let them do their thing."

Hear him:

Tony Murrell will talk about "gardening in a modern world" at the rhododendron festival opening at Glenfalloch Woodland Garden on Sunday and will take a gardening workshop at The Dunedin Club on Monday.

For bookings, telephone 477-1092 or email


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