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The Garden as Ecological Island

A tangle of washed out green presses up against the black timber cladding of the house. Fine arms of foliage lurch left and right, up and down, this way and that. There are no pathways or paving. Just plants and bugs and ideas, and more plants. This is the garden Michael Shepherd made a decade ago – a garden that provokes many more questions than it provides answers.

Michael Shepherd is a highly regarded New Zealand artist. He’s been ‘painting history’ since the early 1980s. His work is collected nationally and internationally and he’s received the New Zealand Order of Merit for contribution to the arts. ‘I’ve done OK for somebody who only went to school to eat his lunch’, he tells me.  

Michael Shepherd.

Who is a garden for? What can a garden be? Can a garden connect a site’s present and past stories, while contributing to creating its future? These questions roll around my head as Michael and I ramble around his former garden, located on a quiet street in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga.

The garden took Michael ‘many, many years of thinking and research’ to create. ‘I didn’t want just another shit garden consisting of hedges and roses – the stuff that bedevils New Zealand.’ He wanted to create a ‘resolutely New Zealand garden’ surrounding his home on a small suburban block.

We elbow our way through the front garden, weaving around a series of insect hotels and picking a pathway through tall shrubs and trees, being careful not to step on small understory plants. Michael tells me the names and stories of each plant in the space. His knowledge is vast – he knows each plant’s Latin name, where it originated from, its relationship to the animals and insects it evolved with, and its cultural connections.

I think the western mentality has pushed all life to the edge, so what I tried to do in this garden was give the life on the edge a space to be.

Michael SHepherd

He points out rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda) – ‘It’s also called bushman’s toilet paper’. Its leaves are like velvet. Then there’s Coprosma areolata – ‘Coprosma is endemic to New Zealand and was named by Joseph Banks. The root meaning of the word is ‘shit’, from the Greek word copros. Banks named another New Zealand species Coprosma foetida – ‘smelly shit’. It stinks!’ Other plants he points out are bird, moth or invertebrate attractors. He knows about the earth too. ‘I’ve always researched wherever I’ve lived. This site is of archaeological significance. The soils are Maori-made – they’re extremely rich.’

I ask about his approach to making the garden. ‘You start from the ground and what is in your ground. What does the ground tell me? What is the archaeology of it? What can I do to keep that history intact?’ After asking himself these questions, Michael decided on an ambitious project – an insect and conservation garden – as a way of listening to the site. And because, ‘I’ve always been a bit crazy about New Zealand insects’.

‘I wanted to see if I could create a garden that could have ecological significance,’ he says as we examine the leaf litter around the base of a tall insect hotel in the front yard. The hotel consists of a timber frame stacked with dried sticks. It provides plenty of space for small critters to create homes and stay safe from hungry mouths of predators. Pohuehue, or bindweed (Muehlenbeckia complexa), a fine, wiry climber with tiny round leaves and dark brown-red stems, weaves its way around the structure’s base. It’s considered by some to be a bit of weed, although it provides food for some of New Zealand’s coastal butterfly species.

‘I think the western mentality has pushed all life to the edge, so what I tried to do in this garden was give the life on the edge a space to be. I wasn’t going to knock anything out, I just don’t believe in it.’ Michael wanted the garden to ‘push up against the house’, to force visitors to interact with it.

‘I wanted to create a garden that almost frightened people. In many gardens, the plant becomes an accessory and it’s only there to decorate a human’s life. When this garden was mine, I made people push up against plants, I made them struggle. I think those are good experiences.’

It’s not just the physicality of Michael’s garden that is challenging, it’s the ideas behind it. ‘I think the world can largely do without garden designers. Many of the so-called modernist gardens are completely inert. They’re so huffed and puffed up and sprayed and looked after – all life is forced into straight lines. This is really problematic. We have huge amounts of these places in New Zealand. Mindless houses and mindless gardens. The garden should be an immersive experience; it should be ecological.’ 

Michael believes his experiment of creating an insect garden has failed. ‘I knew the chance of failure was high, and in fact I have failed. Part of the reason is that the humidity is too high here, and the garden is too small. Nevertheless, I did get big influxes of all sorts of things that were lovely – lots of moths and birds. I had as many thirty wax-eye birds (Zosterops lateralis) a day feeding here, until the cats moved in next door. I introduced the native cockroach (Maoriblatta novaeseelandiae). They lasted about three years until the rats cleaned them up. I couldn’t get them to come back. Then I began reading theories about New Zealand bugs and I realised that once you disturb them, they won’t return. You have to have viable forest for them to hide in and they’ll creep out slowly if you plant the right things.’

From the insect hotels of the front yard, we meander down the side pathway, a shady area also filled with plants that have been left to their own devices. Michael introduces each one, sharing its story and relationships. Kawakawa (Piper excelsum) is a plant with ‘about a million different uses. It was used for compresses, it was used to ease pain, it was used as kind of a chewing gum to keep the mouth fresh on long voyages.’

Many of the plants are rare or threatened and all are endemic to New Zealand. They’re all incredibly beautiful – their small leaves, varying forms and many shades of green foliage reward closer inspection. ‘It’s important to me to see the beauty in the ordinary. Many people suffer optical diabetes. They just want flowers.’

Michael’s garden has everything except flowers. It’s not a space to be viewed from afar, but up close, squatting down on the ground, seeing the light and shadows and bugs, touching the leaves and sticks and soil, and feeling the histories hidden beneath the earth. 

Creating a garden that celebrates the potential of the garden as a sanctuary for all life forms is no failure. Creating a garden that rails against the monotony and ecological sterility of cut-and-paste modernist landscapes is no failure. Creating a garden that celebrates the stories contained within the earth it grows from is no failure. From where I stand – under the shade of a manuka tree (Leptospermum scoparium), in the shadow of Michael’s deep passion for plants, place and bugs, and with a head full of questions – his garden can only be one thing: a great success.

This is an edited extract from The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants, by Georgina Reid with photography by Daniel Shipp.