Portrait of a gardener: Violet Faigan’s naturalistic garden

a busy green and purple garden

With its whispers of vintage crêpe gowns, blurred margins, spellbinding pond and deft illusion of naturalism, Violet Faigan’s haunting Dunedin garden is a love letter to the art and craft of cultivation.

Artist, jewellery maker and lifelong gardener Violet Faigan, her partner Malcolm Deans and their daughters Clara, 14, and Emerald, 12, live in a Victorian villa with a naturalistic garden in the Dunedin suburb of Belleknowes.

When did you move here and what was the property like when you arrived?

We moved here in 2010. What had been a considered planting of specimen trees and shrubs had become leggy and overgrown. There was a neglected rose garden, no perennial planting and a pittosporum hedge along the street front that occupied the sunniest position on the property.

How has the garden evolved under your influence?

I removed the rose bed and this area is now the pond. The shrubbery has been radically thinned – a cotinus and a pollarded maple are among those retained. I pulled all but two of the pittosporum hedge plants out. These remain as a page from the garden’s previous chapter in what is now my sunny border. This area is planted in warm autumnals with indigo, violet and biscuity gold, a favourite colour palette deeply influenced by my love of 1930s gowns. There are richly saturated salvias, tall grasses and oxblood foliage as a foil to the jewel tones. My other main perennial bed has very different planting conditions, as it’s shaded. I use a different palette to play off the darkness. In spring, it comes up in dusty pastels with a judicious stipple of near-whites. Come summer, it strengthens to golds and violets.

a busy green and purple garden around a pond

You’ve also created a garden on your berm. How did that come about?

I see everything as potential garden! It started as a series of circular vignettes with overflow plants. Many passers-by love it and it has initiated many wonderful chats. However, someone reported me to the council, who then asked if I wanted to be legally in charge of it. So I measured up and gave them a plant list, and now it’s been legitimised, on the proviso that if I ever move I take it back to grass.

a busy garden with purple flowers in front of a house

How would you describe your aesthetic?

I try to maintain a rawness – soft, yet with plenty of spronky bits, blurring margins from beds to grass to pond, etc,
by weaving them together with repetition of texture, tone and movement. I’m certainly not trying to achieve a homogenous look, but one where details link cohesively rather than “here’s a bed and here’s a bed”. I’ve heard it said that the garden must relate to the building. I tend to think the opposite. In the absence of the house, would
this still make sense? Would it lead me from one moment to the next? I use certain plants widely and have whispers of them punctuated throughout. One I use is Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’. It’s a dark oxblood. I also like to use nearly white tones to achieve an eeriness, particularly in the “spooky” border – my dusky woodland area.

There is a common misconception that a naturalistic garden is more easily achieved and somehow more primitive but there’s no inch of soil in my garden that hasn’t been considered. I don’t want it to appear uptight, but it’s so uptight! And it’s ever evolving – I’m not seeking an end point in my garden. It’s not a finite thing.

a woman in a knitted sweater gardening in a forest

Are you influenced by any garden designers?

Though I admire many plants, people and designers, I don’t feel they influence me to any greater degree than, say, a watercolour by Vanessa Bell, a dress by Dries Van Noten, graphics from Wiener Werkstatte, a favourite Fair Isle sweater, childhood wallpaper, a bowl of stewed rhubarb… It’s endless! These are the things that stir me as much as any contemporary garden designers or movements. This applies equally to other things I do – the jewellery I make for my label Prince of Butchers or the way I put a room together. I feel gardens are self-portraits and shouldn’t be anyone else’s. If gardeners look only to other gardeners, might that be limiting? I tend to think so. When something becomes too fashionable it can be off-putting and I can’t see it out of that context, just as the converse of the unfashionable plant stuck in its context of institutional carpark planting. For me, gardening is instinctive and logical and it just happens. Gardening is one of the things in life that makes sense to me and is easy. Most interactions in the world feel a bit difficult. Gardening is like breathing.

an overgrown garden with white and purple flowers
Whispers of lacy Ammi majus appear throughout the garden. IMAGE: VIOLET FAIGAN

You make jewellery as well?

Yes, I make necklaces. They have a decayed flapper look – that same woven, messy aesthetic as my garden. It’s driven by a desire to maintain the excitement I get from the raw materials in the finished piece. I use vintage silks, beads, etc. In a past life I had an art practice – it was a residency with the Dunedin Public Art Gallery that brought me here.

Are there any particular techniques you employ in the garden?

I frequently elevate shrubs by removing the lower boughs so they’re not a blob on the ground. Also, to see the garden through fresh eyes, I view it upside down – kind of in an extended forward fold yoga pose. It helps take away the familiarity.

a bunch of large red flowers growing in a forest

You sell plants and work as a professional gardener too?

I have a handful of regular clients, do occasional design work, and have a home nursery and a small plant stall in my carport, which is a badly kept secret.

Have you always been interested in gardening?

When I was about seven, I secretly planted a bed of moss and primroses in my bedroom. As I remember, it lasted about a week and the carpet had begun to rot by the time my father decommissioned it. He did not delight in its unexpected charm! I was watering, and that’s how it was discovered. Water started leaking down from my bedroom floor through the kitchen ceiling.

Mum was amazingly encouraging and really let me experiment and play with my ideas. I gardened beside her often. As a teen, I made her a pond, laid brickwork and hardscaped with local river stone.

Violet Faigan wearing a knitted sweater standing in front of a large tree
Violet says her favourite garden tools are her ungloved hands. “I do everything with them, and it shows!” IMAGE: VIOLET FAIGAN

And now you have a pond in your own garden.

Water is a magical thing in a garden. Lockdown gave me a chance to do a sustained, uninterrupted project in my own garden. Now I can grow bog garden plants like astilbes, Darmera peltata and Boltonia asteroides. The pond is about the size of a small room.

Advice for other gardeners?

Trust your precognition – you already know! if a plant in your garden isn’t pleasing you in its appearance or positioning, get rid of it. Give it away! There are too many exciting plants in the world to continually be considering/evaluating the merits of one that’s bugging you.

purple flowers in a green forest

View more on Instagram @violet.faigan.gardener

Violet’s jewellery is available at @middenstudio

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