Common Ground: Garden histories of Aotearoa by Matt Morris (Otago University Press, 2020), 284 pp., $45
In Common Ground: Garden histories of Aotearoa, Matt Morris writes affectionately of our love affair with gardens through time. In it, expect to find stories of your uncle and aunty digging spuds or planting kūmara in the back garden, rather than details of the wealthy real estate developer and her husband quaffing cocktails on their mansion’s manicured lawn. Morris draws from wide-ranging archival and published sources, as well as interviews. The result is a fine-grained and touching history of our relationship with gardens.
But it is also much more than that. As the doyen of garden history, John Dixon Hunt, writes:
It is not enough to look at gardens for their style…, nor even enough to assess their visual appearance. We need to ask why they came into being, what advantages and pleasures (including the visual, to be sure) accrue from them, and how and why they have survived, changed or vanished.1
Morris’s book uses our relationship with gardens as a lens through which to examine issues fundamental both to our global existence as a species and particular to our own society in Aotearoa. Food production, extinction, ecological collapse, overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilisers jostle in this book with issues of the revival of mātauranga Māori and maramataka (lunar calendar planting), gardening as a ‘civilising’ enterprise, composting, gender, race and class. In Common Ground, Morris has indeed produced a particularly rich and loamy soil in which to grow a productive set of understandings around gardens, their use and meaning.
The author interweaves three themes into the book’s eight, largely chronological chapters. In the first, Morris adopts a series of detailed, localised case studies to produce personal stories of people’s relationships with the plants they grow, the soil they till, and the approaches they bring to gardening. Take the touching story of Hēnare Tomoana (a Ngāti Kahungunu rangitira and politician, born in the early decades of the 1800s) and whānau, related in chapter 1. Like his father, a skilled and knowledgeable gardener, Tomoana’s son Paraire believed that ‘gardeners were part of the wholeness of creation’. Paraire later published his knowledge of maramataka. Unlike many others, his whānau appear to have retained their traditional knowledge.
The second theme is on gardening as a practice that can ‘signify resistance to a dominant culture’. Here, Morris looks at movements that buck prevailing trends, whether the seemingly mundane, in which ordinary gardeners largely ignore plant fashions promoted in gardening journals, to female gardeners breaking down gender boundaries, or composting as a reaction to perceived over-use of pesticides and herbicides.
The third theme considers gardens as parts of broader eco-systems and situates them within the broader field of environmental history, itself a well-established, if now somewhat threatened discipline in Aotearoa’s academy. As Morris notes, gardening can use practices just as ‘water-intensive, fossil-fuel hungry and poison-based’ as the very worst of industrial agriculture.
Chapter 1, considering the period from 1800 to 1850, examines changes in Māori gardening. Māori, Morris illustrates, took up with gusto the opportunities presented to them to access a suite of global edible plants, by introducing, growing and developing new species, as well as using them to set up a thriving export economy. Morris’s chapter also presents a potted overview of changes to Māori gardening practices prior to European contact, and outlines the remarkable success of Māori gardening. Notwithstanding the ongoing success of this activity, as Morris shows, some European attitudes towards Māori gardening—that it was inefficient and that its labourers were lazy—became added justifications for the removal of Māori from their whenua.
Chapter 2, from colonisation to World War I, details the introduction of new plants, gardening practices and attitudes coincident with large-scale European colonisation. It tells the painful story of Māori dispossession through a focus on their gardens, and includes a welcome discussion on Chinese market gardening. If Māori provided Europeans with most of their vegetables in the initial phase of colonisation, then it was Chinese market gardeners who took on the role from the 1870s as the primary suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables to urban New Zealanders.
Chapter 3 moves briskly along to consider the City Beautiful and Garden City movements from the dawn of the twentieth century to 1940. Here, Morris showcases the impacts of rising wages, urbanisation and suburban expansion on the development of largely white civic gardening cultures and those who attempted to resist them. In general, he notes, a shift in emphasis took place to encourage ornamental species. He provides expert analysis of the ways in which horticultural competitions, gardening societies and organisations were cross-cut by prevailing ideas of class, gender and race and health. Notably, he shows, the middle-classes sought to encourage particular kinds of gardening practices among the working classes and also emphasised the need to produce food healthy to the nation.
Chapter 4 pauses to examine the growing interest in native plants that developed among Pākehā in the early twentieth century, with a concentration on 1914 to 1935. An interest in native plants responded at once to growing white nationalism and conservation and an increasing identification with native plants. This situation developed in a context of wholesale loss of ecosystems (notably deforestation and wetlands drainage, and associated extinctions). Such a trend for natives, notes Morris, often found expression in the localisation of broader international gardening trends, such as rock gardening using both native and introduced plants. In this chapter, Morris points to the contradictions inherent in such movements, notably the loss of plants in the wild occasioned by an enthusiasm for collecting native plants.
Chapter 5 considers some of the countervailing gardening trends to emerge in the period from 1930 to 1950. Morris demonstrates the renewed importance played by productive gardens during the 1930s Depression, and discerns a gradual shift in attitudes towards composting: from views regarding it as a threat to hygiene and health to one recognising its importance in gardening practices from the 1940s. For some, like members of the NZ Humic Compost Society, a critique of capitalism and industrial modes of production and its environmental costs began at the garden gate. A healthy soil produced healthy vegetables, healthy people and a healthy society. Morris notes that, despite landlessness and low home ownership rates, some Māori continued with traditional gardening practices.
In Chapter 6, Morris details the kinds of thinking the likes of the Humic Society—and others in the organic movement—were reacting against: High Modernism, with its attendant faith in science and progress. Morris discerns growing societal pressure and expectations, from 1920 to 1980, for gardeners to use toxins in their gardens—to keep lawns immaculate, to rid vegetables and fruit of pests, and to remove weeds from newly concreted paths. ‘Looking back, it was as if weeds had become a kind of social disease that threatened to overwhelm the veneer of suburbia,’ writes Morris. For modern-day gardeners, he lists an alarming set of chemicals—all touted as safe and healthy at the time—recommended in nursery catalogues and gardening columns throughout the country. On one end of the spectrum were those who advocated no chemicals in gardens; on the other, those who trumpeted the use of every new chemical to come on the market. In reality, notes Morris, most gardeners were pragmatic, seeing both chemical and compost as complimentary means to the same end.
Chapter 6, concentrating on the period from 1960 to 2020, charts the decline (and possible recent renaissance) of the productive garden. With longer working hours and smaller sections (thanks to subdivision), and with access to supermarkets and greater leisure opportunities, home owners replaced productive gardens with ornamental, low-maintenance ones—or ripped them out entirely. In real estate advertisements of houses from the 1960s, notes Morris, car garages replaced descriptions of carrots and carnations, a symbol of the changing times. Modernity may have ushered in the rise of the garden centre, the end of the large family garden and marked a break in the transmission of gardening knowledge from one generation to another, yet, notes Morris, it also saw the rise of communal gardens, a general uptake of composting and the growth, in the 1980s, of organic gardening. There was also a rise in marae gardens and a rekindling of interest in traditional varieties and gardening techniques. All is not lost.
The concluding chapter—appropriately titled ‘Dreams’—reflects on the book’s main themes and looks ahead to garden futures. ‘Home gardens will brim again with fruit and vegetables,’ Morris believes, ‘and many of these will be grown from heirloom seeds … now rediscovered for their nutritive properties, disease resistance and vibrant colours.’ Urban spaces, community gardens and possibly also urban orchards will gain in popularity; climate change will bring changes to plant composition; lawns will diminish in popularity; the discrete flower garden may well make way for mixed vegetable, herbs and flower patches, set amidst bush.
In some respects, recent events have borne out much of what Morris divined: the importance of locally sourced, healthy and home-produced food when supply chains are disrupted; the necessity of public and private garden places for recreation and one’s mental health.
As an academic who taught garden histories at the University of Waikato’s History Programme for almost ten years, I can safely say that this is the best general work on the topic to have come out in the last two decades or more.2 It ranks up there with Matthew Bradbury’s A History of the Garden in New Zealand (1995).3 One of Common Ground’s particular strengths is its consideration of the garden in its broader political, social, racialised, gendered and (especially) ecological context. This is a case to make, that the garden must be considered in broader environmental histories.4 Another strength is its consideration of vernacular gardens—the gardens of non-élite. My hope is that this book will convince other scholars (and university administrators) of the importance of the topic of gardens as a lens through which to view a whole range of issues facing modern and recent society.
As someone involved in post-earthquake community gardening initiatives, as a passionate advocate for composting and organics, and as Sustainability Officer, University of Canterbury Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha, Morris clearly holds this project close to his heart. It comes across in his lively and impassioned prose and, equally, in the choice of topic. But it also reflects the careful historian’s training, in the attentiveness to detail and context, and in the avoidance of clichéd pastiches of the past that rely on simplistic constructions of good and bad. The past, no less than the present, is a complex beast. Morris’s inclusion of Māori in discussions of post-contact gardens is particularly welcome, and contrasts with their exclusion in other earlier works such as Bee Dawson’s.5
Morris’s discussion of urban gardening and beautification is fascinating and nuanced, but debates over the form and nature of public urban gardens date much earlier: class tensions broke out over management of Dunedin’s Town Belt in the 1850s and simmered away uneasily over later decades, a situation mirrored in Auckland and, I hazard, across many other colonial towns.6 Discussion of the early twentieth-century rock garden could have benefitted from examining the influence of David Tannock whose work, through the book Rock Gardening in New Zealand and the example of the garden he had built in Dunedin Botanic Garden, did much to popularise this design and New Zealand alpines. These are but minor quibbles in an outstanding work.
This is a handsome, well-designed book that does justice to this fine study. Amply illustrated—and with many photographs in colour—the book is one that should have wide appeal. And rightly so.
- John Dixon Hunt, A World of Gardens (London: Reaktion, 2012), p. 6.
- James Beattie and Katie Holmes, ‘Reflections on the History of Australasian Gardens and Landscapes’, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 31, 2 (2011): 75–82.
- A History of the Garden in New Zealand, ed. Matthew Bradbury (Auckland: Viking, 1995).
- Beattie, ‘Environmental History and Garden History in China and the West: Problems, methods and responses’, Environment and History, 24, 1 (2018): 5–22.
- Bee Dawson, A History of Gardening in New Zealand (Auckland: Random House, 2010).
- Beattie, ‘Battle for the Belt’, Forest & Bird Magazine, no. 378 (2020), pp. 60–61.
A historian, JAMES BEATTIE is an associate professor in the Centre for Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington, and Honorary Curator, Lan Yuan: Dunedin Chinese Garden. He chairs the Garden History Research Foundation and is founding co-editor of the Routledge book series Routledge Research on Gardens in History. His latest garden history book is Gardens at the Frontier: New methodological perspectives on garden history and designed landscapes (Routledge, 2018). He lives in Dunedin with his two daughters, amidst a productive but messy garden.