HERE’S A THING I DIDN’T KNOW BEFORE I READ MATT MORRIS’ COMMON GROUND: GARDENING IS MORE THAN AN EXPENSIVE PASTIME THAT MOSTLY CAUSES BACK PAIN AND A SEASONAL CYCLE OF FROST-DAMAGE- INDUCED DISAPPOINTMENT. GARDENS ARE, IN FACT, FRICKIN’ FASCINATING.
This isn’t a long version of one of those Home & Garden profiles featuring properties owned by smug people with landscaping staff. Morris focusses on the “humble gardens” of Aotearoa, those created and maintained by ordinary people, and how social and cultural truths have been written in the soil.
There’s so much to learn. Morris starts with pre-colonial gardening, examining how kumara overtook the less climatically appropriate taro as a primary crop, and how walls and terraces at Ōtuataua on Manukau Harbour created microclimates for growing food. Then there’s the nineteenth-century shift from food gardens to pretty ones, in part heralded by the advent of steamships and “Wardian cases”, sealed containers for live plants. Both developments facilitated the import of ‘Cottage garden’ flowers from Asia, like liliums, geraniums and hollyhocks. And in 1943, the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign encouraged homeowners to “plow up their lawns and plant vegetables’’ for the war effort.
It’s all researched with thoroughness, and obvious love. The presentation is as yummy as the content, the historic images presented with the corners clipped, vintage photo album style. I’m obsessed with one circa-1950 shot depicting a vegetable garden that covers the entire front yard of a house in Mount Eden. It evokes a lost moment when even city-dwellers had the time to grow enough to feed themselves, instead of working for money to pay to feed ourselves, then spending the weekend mowing our useless lawns.