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Tony Visits Trott Garden

They're unusual, dramatic and hardly ever attempted in New Zealand.

This week Tony went on a mission to find out how to design a knot garden. So he travelled south to Ashburton to meet Alan Trott who has created arguably the best example of a knot garden in Aotearoa. 

Alan Trot has created a garden of national significance that attracts both local and international visitors. His garden is a labour of love that's taken 40 years to create and includes four distinctly different spaces - from a woodland area through to a damp garden and even a Red garden. 

But it's the Formal Garden, punctuated with large brick and iron gates and a grid of Betula 'Silver Shadow' that Tony went to see. 

Surrounded by the Betula borders are Alan't knot gardens, inspired by designs dating back to 14th century. First planted in Venice, knot gardens eventually became fashionable in France, Italy and the UK. They are sometimes confused with parterre garden - intricate patterns clipped to the same height all over. But a knot garden has an over and under effect with plants clipped to different heights. 

Alan's knot garden is where the formal rose garden once was. There were 256 roses planted in sixteen beds but Alan soon found that roses required such a huge amount of work - with regular pruning and spraying, not to mention prickled skin and ripped clothing! So Alan made the decision to remove the roses and do something no one else was doing in New Zealand.

Alan searched through many celtic images before selecting six designs (four for the large garden and two for the garden by the belvedere - small wooden housing structure). One is the fleur-de-lis, emulating the leadlight windows in the chapel, and the others are based on designs dating back to the 14th century. Each knot garden contains four repeated squares that make up the design. 

The knot gardens are about 25 years old and it took three-four from planting to maturity. Each knot garden took two days to plant up and lot of fiddling around with strings! Buxus sempivirens is the only plant used in the designs - tight foliage lends itself perfectly to the dense mass needed for knot gardens as well as being hard, and grows well anywhere in NZ.

There is a grid of 24 Betula utilis 'Silver Shadow' adjacent which are designed to draw the eye through to the knot gardens and the chapel. In winter the bark is ice-white - some have been known to ask 'Have you painted those trunks. The Betula provides the garden with light and dark, and with symmetry."

An important aspect with any knot garden is creating viewing platforms as they were originally created to be enjoyed from Elizabeth castle windows. Alan has built several raised platforms from which to view his knot gardens. 

The basic steps to creating a knot garden are as follows:

  1. Choose your design and enlarge onto A4 graph paper - a critical part of the layout - to ensure your dimensions are correct. Alan recommends a simple Celtic design. 
  2. Work out the mathematical conversion from your enlarged design to the actual space in your garden (in centimetres). This is where you want a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on your door (in fact, Alan says when you design your knot garden you have to do it on your own - no interference as precision is crucial). 
  3. Mark out your bed into squares with string markers. Use string attached to stakes and a tape measure to get the measurements accurate and the lines straight.  
  4. Mark out the design with white paint (no requirements for the area you choose for your knot garden other than it needs to be level). You could also use flour or lime trails to designate where the lines go.
  5. Plant the design up. Alan says not to worry about the unders and overs as it takes about four years before you can begin to shape it.
  6. Maintenance. Cutting the knot garden can be time consuming and Alan says picking up the clippings can take as long as the trimming itself. After many years Alan's figured out the secret is to use a grabber with two handles with a small leaf rake. The best time to cut knot gardens is as soon as the new growth has stopped or hardened a little in late spring. Then again in late summer to give them a sharp look. 
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