Can Music Represent Gardens?

by John Powell, Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Adelaide



Let me introduce myself. My name is John Powell and I come to the blog with a primary interest in the fine arts within the Western tradition. My background is in music, landscape architecture and philosophy and, in my research, I enjoy looking for (dis)connections between those disciplines.1

In this post I will explain a little about my present area of research. To begin, I invite you have a look/listen to some of the video below. It shows the fountains playing in the gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, near Rome, and also contains a performance of Franz Liszt’s piano piece The Fountains of the Villa d’Este.

Some questions

The video and music raise several interesting questions. Let’s start with two philosophical ones about representation: Can gardens represent anything other than themselves? And, can music represent anything other than itself?2 And, if the answers to these questions are even a tentative “perhaps”, then we can go one step further and ask: can music represent gardens? And can gardens represent music?3 In this post, I will develop some ideas around answering the first part of this last question.

Experiencing gardens and music

We experience gardens primarily through the sense of sight but also through the senses of smell, touch, and kinaesthesia, with taste and hearing playing subsidiary roles. By contrast, we experience music almost exclusively through hearing, although kinaesthesia and sight do play subsidiary roles. To put it plainly, a blind person is typically unable to grasp the essence of a garden and a deaf person (pace Evelyn Glennie) typically cannot experience music in a conventional way.

Experiencing gardens through music

So, trying to communicate in the language of music what a garden is, what emotions and thoughts it provokes, what physical layout it has, and what an experience of it amounts to seems an extremely challenging task. Yet composers as diverse as Liszt, Falla, Delius, Cage, Ives, and Takemitsu have attempted to do so, and some would argue they have succeeded. These and other composers in the Western “classical” tradition have sometimes even set out to describe in their music particular gardens, and the experiences associated with them, and they have found inspiration in gardens in Europe, UK, USA. and Japan, but not, as far as I am aware, in Australasia.

Experiencing gardens and music through time

Gardens and music are both temporal arts.4 Gardens change over time and it takes time for us to experience them; and music is, of course, the temporal art par excellence. So, if music is successful in representing gardens, how does a composer manage to represent these temporal dimensions of gardens? Is music able to represent time(s) external to its own progress and, in particular, times related to the existence of physical places and our experiences of those places? Or, failing that, does a composer simply represent a static “picture” of a garden, thereby missing out on one of gardens’ most important characteristics.


All the questions above hinge on questions of ekphrasis; that is, the understanding or re-presentation of one art form in the framework, constraints, and opportunities of a different (art) medium. We are so used to photographic, filmic, and written accounts of gardens that we seldom question their existence, “accuracy”, or relevance. What I want to do now in my research is to thoroughly question the success or otherwise of musical ekphrastic accounts of gardens. Can a composer successfully represent a garden? Or is she deluded in trying to do so? Or are we listeners deluded when we appear to hear the scents, hear the colours, hear the sun, hear the flowers, and hear time passing in a garden?

Stay posted!

[1] For some earlier research on music and gardens see:  Ismay Barwell and John Powell. “Gardens, Music, and Time.” In Gardening: Cultivating Wisdom, 136-47. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[2] Liszt’s inscription on the score made it clear his intention was not simply to compose a sound picture of these fountains, but these gardens and the music are a well-known pairing and a useful place to start.

[3] The Toronto Music Garden, inspired by Bach’s Suite in G major for cello, as performed by Yo Yo Ma, is one well known example of a garden representing music. Many years ago, I read of another such garden, based, if my memory serves me correctly, on a passacaglia by Britten. I have lost track of this garden. If anyone knows of it can they please let me know.

[4] For investigations into gardens’ temporality see: John Powell. “What Is Temporal Art? A Persistent Question Revisited.”  Contemporary Aesthetics 13(2015); Dancing with Time: The Garden as Art. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019.

Gardening in the Anthropocene: A Q&A with MScSoc student Zoë Heine

James Beattie speaks with the inaugural recipient of our ‘Graduate Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Garden History’, Zoë Heine. A Masters of Science in Society student at Victoria University of Wellington, Zoë provides us with details about her research project, the work that has influenced it, and more!

Zoe Heine photo for application
Zoë Heine.

Tell us about your current project?

My thesis seeks to tell stories located in gardens about the “Anthropocene”. I have selected community gardens to study because they are sites of multi-species interactions, cultivated ecologies and distinct communities. I know that the “Anthropocene” is a contested term but here I’m using it as a convenient word for the way human activity has caused significant disruption to Earth’s systems. My thesis considers how these disruptions require humankind to reconsider what practices still serve us and our companions on this planet.

When I began this project, I was interested in just how one aspect of the Anthropocene was present in gardens; climate change. I wanted to know how gardeners thought about the seasons of gardening and about weather, and how they tied this to climate change.  What I found was that this narrowing on one aspect of the Anthropocene was unnecessarily limiting.  To quote Donna Harraway, “It’s more than climate change; it’s also extraordinary burdens of toxic chemistry, mining, depletion of lakes and rivers under and above ground, ecosystem simplification, vast genocides of people and other critters…”. As a result, different sections of this thesis consider how a patch of garden might interact with different aspects of these issues.

Pierette Hondagneu-Sotelo (a sociologist) has undertaken various studies in gardens, both private and public, and has proven valuable in framing my study in gardens. In her words – “I love gardens, and I cannot imagine having the self-discipline to research and write on a topic that I do not care about deeply… But I also think gardens reflect prevailing social relations of power, culture, race, class, and gender, and there are significant social and environmental consequences connected to the way we garden”.

I chose community gardens as my specific garden site and used the public info on community gardens to contact all the Wellington gardens. I found eight gardeners at four gardens willing to talk to me. I have interviewed them all once and I am in the process on interviewing them for a second time (for Spring thoughts). The double interview/visit to the garden ties into ideas about seasonal changes and by extension larger cycles of change.

I have used a mixed methodology approach, including oral and environmental history techniques for the interviews. In combination with the interviews I have participated in gardening and made field notes at each site.

I am now trying to write the stories – these are currently loosely grouped into:

  • Locating the gardens spatially, temporally and theoretically as patches where the Anthropocene can be explored;
  • How the gardeners locate themselves within the gardens and spatially;
  • What and how things grow in the gardens – ideas of companions, cultivation, and community.


Whose work has influenced your thinking?

Anna Lowenpaut Tsing and her work with matsuke mushrooms has been foundational in developing my thinking. Tsing has done a lot of work looking at the drivers and impacts behind the Anthropocene. Her work considers how the Anthropocene is often presented as a global phenomenon but in reality it can only be experienced locally. Tsing, unlike other environmental humanities scholars, continues to use the term Anthropocene but adds an extra clarification, calling it the “patchy Anthropocene”. Her work on the matsuke mushroom and its global networks also tie into ideas around what species we ally with, and how we do so.


What do you hope to achieve with the project? 

Complete my Masters in Science. I’ve already built some lovely relationships with the community gardens and improved my gardening skills so that is a nice plus.

Write some interesting and engaging stories based in my community garden sites and, with permission of my participants (if relevant), submit them for publication in non-academic settings.


What do you plan to do with the award?

I have spent a portion of it already on purchasing Te Mahi Māra Hua Parakore – a Māori Food Sovereignty Handbook by Jessica Hutchings. I will likely purchase further gardening related texts. The rest will contribute to the printing costs and admin related to completing the thesis project.

Zoe in the garden
Zoë in the garden.

Following the Flowers – call for Māori participants for oral histories

By Anna Lawrence, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
Manuka bush flowers
Manuka bush flowers: By Tomas Sobek – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In December 1874, the secretary of the Wellington Horticultural Society published an invitation in the Waka Maori newspaper (written in both Māori and English) for his ‘Maori friends’ to compete in the Society’s next show at the Odd Fellows’ Hall. In this invitation, he wrote:

As it is not likely that any of my Maori friends would compete for cut blooms or flowers grown in pots, I simply append a list of the prizes for fruit and vegetables.

This assumption that Māori horticulture was restricted to edible produce – with emphasis often on kūmara and other root vegetable crops – was common from the advent of settler colonialism throughout the nineteenth century. This narrative tied neatly into damaging characterisations of Māori as ‘uncivilised’ and lacking the (white) European sensibility so necessary for appreciating the beauty of ornamental flowers and plants.

Whilst there are archival traces of Māori floriculture from the nineteenth century, especially in the context of early Pākehā/Māori encounter, documentary evidence is scarce and almost always revolves around accounts produced by Pākehā. Māori voices are marginal at best, and often nowhere to be found. It was, of course, not the case that Māori were not growing flowers at this time. There is clear evidence from horticultural society show reports in late-nineteenth-century newspapers that Māori were participating in flower shows, with reporters commenting on the skill and accomplishment demonstrated by Māori in their exhibitions of fuchsias, geraniums, petunias and other flowers introduced by European settlers. There are also records of groves of manuka and kakabeak planted around whare, for practical as well as ornamental purposes.

Kakabeak flowers: By Avenue – Own work, GFDL,

My own PhD research follows these accounts of nineteenth-century Māori floriculture in order to interrogate the role of flowers and flower-growing in Pākehā/Māori relations and the colonial project. As noted by Christine Dann (1992), it is clear that a history of gardening in New Zealand has to rely heavily on oral history methods, especially in the case of Māori gardeners who were unlikely to be recorded in print.

To this end, I am seeking out potential Māori participants for my research who may be willing to talk with me about their ancestors’ flower gardening habits and routines, ideally from the period between 1840-1900 (especially with reference to dahlias!). I would also be very happy to hear from those with Pākehā ancestors who may have recollections about nineteenth-century flower and horticultural society shows, particularly those with Māori participation. If you know of anyone who might be interested in this project, please forward this piece to them and encourage them to contact me.

If you are interested yourself in speaking to me about this project, or want to ask me more questions about my research, please contact me via email at:

Accent Dahlias: By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Dann, C. (1992) ‘Sweet William and Stick Nellie: Sex Difference in New Zealand Gardening and garden Writing’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 15(2), pp. 233-249

‘To the Editor of the Waka Māori’ (1874) Waka Maori, Dec. 29, 10(26), p. 7

A Garden on a Plate: Willow Pattern Design and World History

image004In this podcast, James Beattie from the Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington, examines the connection between Muslim merchants, Kublai Khan’s Mongol dynasty, opium running, blue and white porcelain, and New Zealand.

The talk and recording was made as part of the History and Historical Research Unit Public Seminar, 4 June 2015, University of Waikato.

For a downloadable version, click HERE

For more information, see: Beattie, J. (2016). China on a plate: A willow pattern garden realizedStudies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes36(1), 17-31. doi:10.1080/14601176.2015.1076664


How common are ‘exotic’ invertebrates in public and botanical garden ponds?

by Ian Duggan, School of Science, The University of Waikato

Botanical and other public gardens have been responsible for an extensive movement of plants globally. Less appreciated, gardens have also been responsible for the movement of small animals, hitchhiking with the plants. The 1906 publication “The wild fauna and flora of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew”, for example, compiled a list of animal life recorded in Kew Gardens that was not native to the UK, and included a variety of insects, spiders, worms, and even frogs.

copepod england
Copepods, collected in England (I Duggan photo)

There have been similar introductions of aquatic invertebrates. A freshwater jellyfish, native to the Yangtze river valley, was not just first recorded — but actually described — from the ‘Victoria regia’ tank at the Royal Botanic Society’s Gardens in Regent’s Park, London (this species has since invaded New Zealand). New Zealand has similar examples. A small Japanese copepod species, Sinodiaptomus valkanovi, first described from the botanical gardens in Bulgaria in 1938, was found in the wintergardens in Auckland Domain in the early 2000s. At a similar time, the North American copepod Skistodiaptomus pallidus was recorded in ponds at Auckland Botanic Gardens. Further, Hamilton Gardens has an Australian copepod, Boeckella minuta, present in Turtle Lake. Overall, these findings suggested that garden ponds might be hot spots for invasions globally.

Sampling a pond at Longwood Gardens, USA (K Duggan photo)

To test this hypothesis, my wife in tow, I visited ten public gardens in 2010, three in the UK and seven in the USA, to determine whether there was a widespread presence of non-native zooplankton in garden ponds; Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh; Oxford University Gardens; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK); New York Botanical Gardens; Longwood Gardens, PA; Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Durham, NC; United States Botanical Gardens, Washington DC; Missouri Botanic Gardens, St. Louis, MO; Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago, IL; and Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago, IL (USA).

Craspedacusta sowerbii, a global invader originating from China (Barry O’Brien photo)

Over 100 zooplankton species were found, but interestingly, not a single non-native species was recorded. This indicated that the threat of zooplankton invasions from botanical garden ponds does not appear to be as high as expected. This finding was surprising, given the rich history of gardens in spreading non-indigenous species, but may be indicative of two factors. Firstly, many zooplankton populations that have established in gardens are likely to have died out or had their habitats destroyed in the intervening period. For example, the ponds where the Japanese copepod Sinodiaptomus valkanovi was first recorded in Bulgaria has subsequently been destroyed, making New Zealand the only known place outside of Japan where this species is currently known. Secondly, the probability of new non-native species being introduced to gardens from their native ranges is now smaller than it was in the past; new aquatic plants are likely not entering botanical gardens from the wild.

As such, the prevalence of such invaders in New Zealand garden ponds is seemingly an anomaly. But why? This is a question I hope can be answered by surveying New Zealand garden ponds more widely in the future.


For more information, see: Duggan, I.C. & Duggan, K.S. (2011), Are botanical gardens a risk for zooplankton invasions? Biological Invasions 13: 2997-3003.

‘Expanding Horizons’ – Australian Garden History Conference, Wellington, 25-27th October


Readers might wish to register to join in a tempting gathering this spring at Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, focussed on New Zealand’s rich garden history. A first ‘offshore’ conference of the Australian Garden History Society, this seeks to take advantage of 2019 being the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Cook and Banks expedition to New Zealand’s shores (followed by Australia’s the following year). It also seeks to lure both Kiwis and Aussies along.

Two days of lectures (and Q & A opportunities) include a line-up of speakers combining kiwi and Australian voices. More historical talks include Professor Tim Entwisle on Banks’ botanical expedition, Dr Duncan Campbell on the history of New Zealand’s landforms, Dr Louise Furey on evolving perceptions of Māori gardening, Bee Dawson on Missionary gardens, Associate Professor James Beattie on Chinese market gardening and plants, Lady Gillian Deane on two women artists’ perspectives on the New Zealand flora, and John P. Adam and Louise Beaumont on early New Zealand landscape architect Mary Watt (Lysaght).

More practical subjects are covered: Clare Shearman will speak from experience on working in (and evolving) historic gardens, Fiona Eadie will speak on the amazing array of New Zealand plants in our gardens and Stuart Read on keeping botanic gardens relevant in today’s world.

A conference dinner will be held at Te Papa on Saturday 26th October.

62049415_10156152585987751_7117959801132285952_oTwo days of garden visits will showcase Wellington garden icons one day: Otari-Wilton’s Bush native botanic garden and the Wellington Botanic Garden. And cross the Remutanga Ranges to two large historic country gardens in the Wairarapa. An optional extra day on Monday 28 October explores three gardens on wider Wellington’s outskirts in Upper Hutt and the Ohariu Valley: a mix of old and young, all of high standard with enthusiastic and knowledgeable owners.

For the dead-keen, there is a multi-day South Island garden post-conference tour on offer, which has a rich array of gardens between Canterbury and Otago, from sea level to subalpine.

And further temptation: prior to this conference, Botanic Gardens of Australia and New Zealand hold their conference in Wellington – between the two conferences, on Wednesday 23rd October BGANZ and RNZIH and AGHS co-host a seminar which may be of direct interest: come earlier, stay longer, enjoy more!

For more info and to book, check out:

Direct conference and South Island Tour booking link:

Conference Brochure:

Printable Conference Registration Form:

Printable accommodation information:

Lynne Walker’s South Island post-conference tour Itinerary:


Wellington’s Garden of Beneficence (Huiyuan 惠園)

by Duncan Campbell, New Zealand Contemporary China Centre, Victoria University of Wellington
Heaven’s Well

Gardens are quiet and beneficent places. They provide a sheltering space set apart from the world but not entirely removed from it, offering respite rather than escape from the impatient and pressing demands of our day-to-day lives. In our urban circumstances, particularly and if only briefly, they allow us to reengage with the rhythms of nature, to experience afresh the sounds, smells, touch, and sight of flower and tree, insect and bird, of water both flowing and stilled.

More than twenty years ago, a group of engaged and energetic Wellington-based Chinese New Zealanders decided that the city needed a Chinese garden and established the Wellington Chinese Garden Society (惠靈頓園林協會) to promote the idea. Now, finally, the garden that was designed by Wraight + Associates in conjunction with Athfield Architects and myself, intended as one part of the revitalization of the harbour-front Frank Kitts Park, has overcome all the various legal challenges that it faced and has been granted resource consent. Much delayed fund-raising has recommenced, with a view to work on the garden starting sometime next year.

The Tea Pavillion

In China, historically, the private gardens of the late imperial period were where scholarship was engaged in, where poems and essays were both written and read, where calligraphers and painters discussed their art and viewed, in keeping with the turn of the seasons in the garden outside the windows of their studies, the great examples of the art of the past. The garden was where one listened to the music of the Chinese lute or qin 琴 or watched the latest Kunqu opera, a cup of tea or wine in hand. For those of a somewhat more scientific bent of mind, the garden was the great schoolroom wherein, through careful, year-long observation, one learned of the principles or, in Chinese philosophical terms, the li 理 that, from the Song dynasty onwards, were understood to weave the basic pattern of the world around us. “People say that ‘Heaven and Earth are the Mother of All Things,’ but if things are not observed carefully, their origins not scrutinized thoroughly, they are to us like the mushroom that arises at dawn only to die by nightfall,” writes Chen Jingyi 陳景沂 in around 1256 in the “Preface” to his splendidly entitled Complete Genealogy of All the Plants (Quan fang beizu 全芳備祖), a book that is often described as the world’s first botanical dictionary. He continues: “Why is it that bamboos are hollow and trees solid? Why do some plants sprout in spring and die away in autumn whilst others live throughout all four seasons without any change? It is the principles that underlie these changes that is the most difficult thing to understand.” For others, the lifecycle of the plant life of a garden offered more general and historical lessons for as “the flowers bloomed and then faded away, the trajectories of their lives are surely no different from the ruts along which travel the birth and death, the waxing and the waning of kingdoms,” claimed the late Ming essayist and calligrapher Chen Jiru 陳繼儒 (1558-1639).

The Pai Lau

As a public garden that seeks to be of our time and this place, by way of contrast with these traditions, the design brief for Beneficence (one meaning of the first Chinese character in the transliterated Chinese name for Wellington, hui 惠) called for “a unique, contemporary Chinese garden that [will] symbolise the history of the Chinese people in Wellington, the Chinese migrant experience, and the contribution of the Chinese community [to] the enrichment of the cultural experience and fabric of the city.” In response to this brief, the design of garden did not seek to replicate the form and meaning of the gardens of China’s past, but rather to engage creatively with design features such as symmetry, axiality, hierarchy, suspension, and disclosure that were quintessential to the gardens of the past in China. What is it, then, that Beneficence, once built, might offer the inhabitants of Wellington and other occasional visitors to the city’s fine harbour front? It will enhance the existing relationship between city and sea, add interest and an element of drama to the journey between the two; it will afford a designed and pleasant place to sit and converse, take lunch or read a book; it will be a living commemoration of the history of the Chinese New Zealand  communities, of their connections with this place and their memories of the ancestral lands from where they came. As the embodiment of a contemporary understanding of the quintessential traditional Chinese expression of the ideal of the interrelatedness of humankind and nature, the garden will offer to all who enter into it with all their senses attuned to its particular rhythms the momentary respite that serves to reinvigorate.

War and Peas: Women, gardens and World War Two

By Zoë Heine (MScSoc student at Victoria University of Wellington)

I come from a long line of women who have gardened, both bouquets of flowers and baskets of vegetables. When I turned to garden history last year I was drawn to stories about women in the garden. One aspect that has received little attention is the role women played in vegetable growing during World War Two. The stories I found were tangled with ideas of gender, race, and politics.

My first impression was that for some the war brought no change from the norm. Alice W, a Māori woman interviewed in Lauris Edmond’s Women in Wartime1, talks about how her whānau did all their own gardening and grew kumara, watermelon and corn. “We always grew our own food, war or not.”2

Alice W lived rurally, and other sources reinforce that vegetable growing was still an essential part of New Zealand rural life for women. Jenny Gibson, a land girl, worked on a farm owned and managed by Anna Aubrey. Gibson remembers a “very large flower and vegetable garden surrounding the lovely homestead, all maintained by women”.3

Closer to town, Māori women had been working in the Chinese Market gardens for years. A primary source relating to this are racist letters to the paper outraged at the potential for Māori and Chinese inter-marriage. “The beginning of a hybrid race, Chinese and Maori, is an unhappy fact. Does anyone in authority care a dump [sic] about it?”4

Workers gathering Auckland Weekly News, October 08, 1941 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19411008-29-4′

The war led to more Pākēhā women taking up work on both private and government run market gardens. This provided more opportunity for dubious viewpoints about race to be expressed in the newspapers. Signed off as “Astounded”, a letter to the New Zealand Herald questioned why Pākehā would be recruited for this work. “Shop and office girls cannot stand the sun and wind,” claimed the writer. “Why not direct the Māori girls, who are more suited for the work?”5 ‘Astounded’s viewpoint, however, did not go unchallenged. Lydia McPhee also responded after being both astounded and shocked. “If this job is not suitable for our girls, it is not suitable for the Māori girl.”6 This debate shows the contrasting ideas about race and female physicality that existed in New Zealand at the time.

Workers gathering Auckland Weekly News, October 08, 1941 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19411008-29-4′

The war undoubtedly led to a change in other’s home gardening patterns. In a first-person account recorded by Edmond and titled “Teenager”, a daughter reflects on her mother’s work during the war.7 With five children and a husband overseas, her mother “dug up the back lawn and planted it in vegetables, read books about vegetable gardens, and established compost bins. She provided sparkling fresh vegetables for us out of that garden during the whole of the war”.

Across the country, women led garden groups were set up to contribute to the war effort. Christchurch Councillor Mary McLean kick-started the first women’s land army in Christchurch. These women were recruited from the Christchurch Business and Professional Women’s Club (CWLA) and thus fully occupied during the week. They were willing, however, to “give their spare time at week-ends [sic] to the cultivation of land and the growing of such vegetables as will be of nutritional value for those in need.”

Alongside the land army, McLean promoted the idea of a civic vegetable campaign and the associated committee. This resulted in a debate with another councillor. Councillor Lyons is quoted as saying, “Don’t go for the fanatics and the ultra-feminists of the community,” and throwing further shade over the proposed group’s experience in gardening he guessed that “mighty few possessed a shiny spade at home.”8 McLean at the least knew her way around a spade. In 1942 CWLA already had 9000 cauliflower seedlings and 5000 leeks growing in their vegetable plots.9 With over 100 women involved the CWLA provided vegetable parcels to orphanages, soldiers’ families and pensioners throughout the war before fading away with the end of the war in 1945.

These stories just scratch the surface of the different roles women had during World War Two. The period is particularly relevant as climate change gives us pause to reflect on gardening habits evolve in times of crisis. I, for one, would love to see more research into this topic.

[1] Edmond, Women in Wartime, 142 – 146

[2] Ibid. 144

[3] Bardsley, The Land Girls, 71 Dianne Bardsley’s The Land Girls.

[4] “In a Chinese Shack,” Auckland Star, August 8, 1935, 6

[5] Astounded, “Workers for Vegetable Gardens,” New Zealand Herald, November 23, 1943,

[6] Lydia McPhee, “Workers for Vegetable Gardens,” New Zealand Hereld, November 27, 1943, 6,

[7] Edmond, Women in Wartime , 172

[8] “Heated Council Debate: Civic Vegetable Campaign,” Press, October 20, 1942.

[9] “Good news,” Press, January 30, 1942