A perfect place to unwind

19:11, Nov 25 2012
Knot garden
M-PHASIS: Elizabethan knot gardens often incorporated designs taken from family tapestries or rugs. Lesley Soper and David Melmoth’s gardens make the personal connection through using their initials, in this case a very stylised M.

An Elizabethan knot garden wouldn't have been much chop for the common folk, from whom most of us of English descent are most likely descended.

Gardening for them would have been a matter of survival rather than an expression of one's wealth and good taste.

So it's a bit of a hoot to find such an aristocratic form of garden in south Invercargill.

But why not?

What a lovely example of the democratisation of gardening, and all the more apt that it's the creation of Labour Party activists Lesley Soper and David Melmoth.

Admittedly their Morton St property is in its own way a bit of a south Invercargill aristocrat, being the surviving part of the original, extensive subdivision.


By legend the original homestead was graced with large gardens, and even a swimming pool.

Then in 1914, the present distinctive home was commissioned from architect Arthur R Dawson, (also responsible for a number of Presbyterian church manses and the Waikiwi Hall).

Lesley reports records are sketchy, but it was probably built for the mayor of South Invercargill (then a separate borough) Samuel McMillan, and it was definitely later lived in by Invercargill mayor J D Campbell and his family.

After spotting the house some years ago, Lesley and David finally managed to buy it and are working to maintain and restore its distinctive charm.

As it still sits on a double section, this includes the potential to develop a garden setting suited to its English character, including the knot garden Lesley had never been able to have in smaller properties.

She tells of becoming fascinated with knot gardens as a history student, getting diverted from more weighty matters in Elizabethan studies.

Here at last she had a section with the scope and character to do justice to one.

In fact not just one, but two, both of them personalised designs of the owners' initials.

The garden visible from the street has strong straight lines, and incorporates a very stylised ‘M', for David's family name.

Further back is another, based on Lesley's initials, the L set in the border, the S represented by sinuous curves within.

While she reports it was a laborious exercise mapping out the designs with string and planting hundreds of little buxus at 30cm intervals, the gardens have proved surprisingly low maintenance, requiring only a clipping twice a year, and weedspraying to keep the white gravel paths.

In this their third season, the hedges are looking like perfect box hedging should: compact, uniform and a very healthy spring colour.

Traditionally knot gardens were infilled with aromatic herbs, but Lesley and David have chosen to use roses, and only as corner accents and side plantings.

The fountain in the M-garden was added after being spotted in a garden shop, and has proved a perfect touch, as have the two black iron garden seats placed overlooking each garden for contemplation.

For added interest the S-garden has two weathered pieces of timber as counterpoints, one supporting a naturally hollowed stone birdbath the other soon to sport a sundial.

Reference books and the internet offer examples of all kinds of fascinating contemporary knot-garden designs, including use of hedge plants of differing colours such as lavender, rosemary, santolina, germander, (red) barberry, as well as the traditional buxus.

Some feature a tapestry infill of colour, or keep a stark emphasis on the hedging.

There are a wide variety of focal counterpoints, from topiary bobbles or cones, to water features or statuary.

Some have hedges clipped with geometrically square flat tops, others are rounded, or alternatively, sculpted in contoured heights to give the illusion of unders and overs, which is especially effective when using plants in contrasting colours.

But whatever the details of the design, knot gardens have a very meditative quality.

Story suggestions or feedback on this page are welcome at timesgardening@gmail.com.

The Southland Times