Garden Interview #4
Julia Atkinson-Dunn of Studio Home.
It is Saturday afternoon and I have come indoors after some time pottering in the garden in the winter sun. Tea in hand, I hunt out a corner of the house which is warm and comfortable so that I can spend some time reading Unearthed, the stunning new subscription garden resource created by Julia Atkinson-Dunn of Studio Home. Unearthed is a space which is built on Julia’s vast knowledge and connections. I must say it is refreshing and exciting to see a space devoted to our kind of gardens. I’m also inspired to see someone of Julia’s talent, she writes, creates art and gardens, all things I aspire to do well, embracing all aspects of creative voice and sharing it with others. So I was very humbled when Julia agreed to an interview. It is a wonderful and I love hearing more details about what gets Julia excited about gardening. Enjoy and please subscribe to Unearthed - it is fabulous.
Thanks also to Julia for sharing some beautiful photos of your garden.
Tell us about your garden?
I live in Linwood, Christchurch in a 1910 villa that sits on a 660 M2 section. Over the last 6.5 years, as I have learned to truly love gardening, I have chipped away at its largely static planting to try and create a flower filled, seasonal refuge. We are lucky that the section runs on an east/west axis to the back garden gets a good amount of all day sun, affected a little by fence shade and the remaining deciduous trees.
After a big redesign of half the garden in March 2022, I have attempted a mixed planting of hardy, beautiful perennials and grasses, inspired by the naturalistic style of the New Perennial Movement. I’m currently attacking the front of the house and drive area which was formal with hedging and iceberg roses, looking to plant lots of grasses for a soft modern vibe against the very traditional exterior of the villa.
In its current early winter, untended state my garden has moved from artfully wild to a bit of a tangled mess! But I hope to get in there soon and have a tidy up, weed and mulch.
Do you have a garden style?
Whether I really knew it or not, my garden reflects my interior style in that I move toward casual, personalised spaces that are a little ‘full’ and have a sense of whimsy. Overplanting is potentially a problem for me as is reflected in my issues with collecting ‘stuff’ indoors!
In gardening terms, my style leans strongly toward creating a diverse seasonal show. I’ve tried my best with the knowledge I have to give the beds a different essence and colourway between seasons – it’s an ongoing experiment and learning curve! But spring vs summer vs autumn all feature full beds with an entirely different appearance. Late winter is quite bare due to my preference for perennials and the eventual cutting back of the grasses – but then the bulbs come and it starts again.
Did you start your garden with a set vision as to what it would look like?
I didn’t at all as I arrived at this house in 2017 with no experience or previous desire to create outdoor spaces. My background in interior design and art pushed me forward and I saw the potential to learn and create spaces outdoors for the first time. Likely due to always renting before this property!
A strong vision arrived in late 2021 after a few years of writing my Stuff column (involving a lot of research and visiting/interviewing other gardeners) and publishing Petal Power and Flowers for Friends. It was late in that year I realized that I needed to pull the beds out into the light of the lawn and away from the fence shade if I wanted to use the plants I was attracted to. I did a lot of planning and sketching before we began and it is still being tweaked after a year in the ground. As is the nature of gardening! A never-ending and evolving vision!
Tell us a bit about your new venture Unearthed
After 90 articles for my Stuff column and three books (the third A Guided Discovery of Gardening with Koa Press comes out this spring!) I felt a real drive for a change. My experience with publishing online rests in the launch of Studio Home in 2018, which was NZ’s first design blog. My bread and butter skills (and passion)lie in sharing and introducing people to others that reflect their interests. So it was a natural progression to design a new platform (really a design blog) but focused on gardening where I could continue my own writing and pull in stories from beyond just New Zealand.
Unearthed – Gardening knowledge, creativity and inspiration found in the ground, offers members all the great things we love about magazines with the huge advantages of publishing online. Anytime access, triple the imagery and link heavy features that send readers on an adventure of discovery. After 15 years of writing online, I was excited about the opportunities we now have to offer membership-based content. At just $6.50 per month (or $85 for year) I feel I can overdeliver with a minimum of 7 large introduction and inspiration-based gardening features that don’t gather dust in the corner once read. It is and will continue to be a great resource for ornamental gardeners in any temperate climate around the world. By asking for a small fee for my work, I will be able to grow the quantity and quality of what I offer.
I’m most excited about the inclusion of not just a NZ garden each month, but also an Australian and global garden. There is so much to be learned from looking beyond our own little region and in return I hope to shine a light on the gardens we create down the bottom of the world.
How do you manage to keep your business out of your time in the garden or is it a happy blend of your business inspiring your garden and vice versa.
I’d say my long-running self-employment rarely has a nice balance which is reflected in the state of the garden outside right now! But I simply love working from home, knowing what I need to achieve while being able to have lunch in the garden and hang out my washing. Luckily the garden is very patient!
Since learning to grow, I can say all my work now is very much garden-centric. Sharing my garden learnings for fellow beginners has resulted in books, a column, speaking opportunities and Instagram sharing which didn’t exist before! My art practice found its feet thanks to gardening and a realization that anyone can learn anything with some practice! Essentially this adventure has given me confidence in all areas of my life! My mixed media work and landscape painting is deeply connected to the rich inspiration I find in all outdoor spaces now. An awareness of the seasons that I probably didn’t have before started a garden.
What is your favourite time of the gardening year?
It used to be summer as my early focus was on summer flowering perennials. With this new planting, every day feels like it offers something new. My friend Jenny recently told me there are 72 micro seasons a year, and I think I now relish each one!
What is your favourite gardening read?
I buy every gardening book I see!
Some standouts would be Wild – The Naturalistic Garden by Noel Kingsbury and Claire Takacs and The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World by Sue Stuart-Smith. Very different to each other but I relish the design-led AND emotion-led aspects of what we get from our gardens.
What is the best gardening tool that you have?
My Japanese hand hoe. Without a doubt!
What is your favourite go-to plant which you would love to see more people growing?
So many plants tumbled into my brain but I’ve recently written about the range of choice and toughness of penstemons and persicaria. Echinacea, Knautia macedonica and Sanguisorba officinalis are also stalwarts in my own planting. I’d love to see more people experiment with native and exotic grasses mixed in with their perennials too. It is such a soft, beautiful result with many rewards in autumn!
What is the best gardening advice that someone has given you?
For people moving to a new property – wait a full year before making any drastic changes so that you understand the effects of your trees (shelter/shade/display) and get to see what might come up each season!
Fabulously creative gardener Robyn Kilty always reminds me that we can be inspired to do things a certain way, but should always only do it our own way. Meaning design styles that exist can act as a framework but there is no rule book! This unlocks creativity people don’t realise they have.
Name a garden that you would like to visit and why?
Again – I have an outrageous list! All of these gardens inspire me with the seasonal movement, hardy plants and slightly wild vibe!
In New Zealand I am excited to visit Jo Wakelin’s dry gravel garden in summer (have been in autumn) and really just attend more garden festivals as a whole to aid in my discovery!
In Australia I’d love to get to Jo Ferguson’s garden and Rhonda’s garden designed by Tim Pilgrim.
Globally I’d love to see the Delos garden within Sissinghurst redesigned by Dan Pearson…but I’d also like him to then invite me to see his own garden!
The plant library created by design Tom Stuart-Smith is up there too. As are the RHS greats!
Name a gardener that inspires you?
I’m biased as I have adopted friends who I have transformed into mentors but Penny Zino of Flaxmere garden, Jill Simpson of Fishermans Bay, Robyn Kilty and Jenny Cooper of the Blue House offer me weekly if not daily inspiration and advice. All are curious, forward-thinking gardeners who have created spaces that probably aren’t reflected in the gardens of their same peer group.
I have in-depth films and features of all of their gardens in the archive of Unearthed.
What are your garden goals for the coming garden year?
To get my front garden looking less like a building site and more like something cool!
Name a dream plant that you love that you would love to have in your garden?
Foxtail lilies! Can’t find !!
I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. Julia also has a fabulous instagram (I love her stories) account.