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Let it grow

15 September 2023

It wasn’t until Julia Atkinson-Dunn purchased a house in Christchurch that the former interior design pro nervously turned her hand to gardening. Fast-forward a few years and Julia has just released her third tome celebrating the joys of gardening, which “aims to fill in the practical basics needed by beginners while providing inspiration and support for gardeners as they continue to grow in confidence”.
Words & photos Julia Atkinson-Dunn

Recently, during a meandering chat with a friend, we strayed onto gardening, a topic new to our relationship of a decade or so. We talked about the lacklustre performance of some of her potted plants and I offered some advice based on my own trial and error.

We would never have had this conversation early in our friendship, a time when neither of us harboured much interest in growing beyond the odd indoor plant in our respective apartments. We wouldn’t have made it past the confused, ‘What do you think I should do?’ stage either, as this was knowledge we didn’t harbour.

Yet, here we were now, with gardens and plant-based ideas that whirl around our heads at night and send us hunting for answers.

This conversation got me thinking about my own adventure from non-gardener to gardener. My path into a full-blown obsession for growing was entirely wound up in just two things: my stage in life, and property.

Up until the age of 34, my adult years had seen me renting and moving every three years. Not just house, but town and even island!

My interest in spaces and design was fully focused on interiors, art and the precious possessions I could take with me. I did love being in other people’s gardens, but domestic outdoor spaces were what I affectionately thought of as ‘life background’.

In hindsight, my interests easily transferred to my current passion and pursuit of creating an ornamental, seasonal garden. But up until we purchased our Christchurch home, which had a garden (albeit spiky and evergreen), I had never had the urge to grow much of anything.

Now, what I previously considered ‘life background’ is one of my life’s primary focuses! The garden is central to my creativity, wellbeing, connections and even work. From the comfortable, base level of experience I have now, it is easy for me to forget the blank-faced intimidation I felt at where and how to start.

Back then, for the first time in my life, I had found myself ready to go with the space, the time and the existing inclination to research, but still felt that gardening was a foreign language that might just be too hard to learn.

Through doing, listening and reading I have built a bank of knowledge I couldn’t have imagined would ever fit in my head!

Perhaps the biggest lesson, however, is that I didn’t need to know everything I do now to begin growing. And I will never be finished learning, as the constant discovery of gardening is what keeps me engaged. The understanding that I am only scratching the surface of the knowledge I can utilise both humbles and excites me.

After canvassing my garden friends and followers on Instagram about their perceived barriers to beginning to garden and the breakthrough discoveries that have kept them moving forward with their growing adventure, I realised how much in common we all had!

Their responses, combined with my own experiences, have helped me form what I hope is a reassuring list to give others the confidence to start their own garden.

Lack of knowledge.

Consider this: If gardening is so hard, then how is it that so many people do it?
The best way to learn is simply by doing. Through trial and error, you will rapidly gather relevant information as you grow. It’s true, too, that with gardening comes new connections and resources that may not have been obvious before. You don’t have to learn how to garden in isolation – ask family, friends and neighbours for advice. Staff at garden centres trip over themselves to assist new gardeners!

Type in the most basic of your questions online and be rewarded with free resources provided by gardeners the world over. YouTube, social media, websites and the library allow you to dip your toe into gardening as a beginner without investing too much time or money.

And remember that you have a partner in growing – Mother Nature. She takes care of most of it – you just need to learn the bare basics to get her started.

Lack of time.

Gardening absolutely takes time. From preparing beds to starting seeds, transplanting and weeding, your garden also needs time to grow. While there is no instant gratification here, the enforced patience seems to have a magnetic appeal once you experience a successful result.

On reflection, the time spent in your garden is actually the point of it all. Ten minutes spent weeding or deadheading is ten minutes of self-care. Stolen moments of fresh air and your hands in the earth will change your life for the better. By all accounts, spending time working in the garden with children can also be a calming family activity.

Most importantly, your garden doesn’t need you to tend to it daily! Plants want to grow and don’t need supervision. If life leads you away for a while, you’ll find that your garden is much more forgiving than you realise and getting it back on track isn’t always the mammoth, painful job you imagine.


Growing a garden can be as expensive as you want it to be. You have choices regarding the level of investment you want to make at every turn, with cost-saving options to take in nearly every aspect of growing. I find that money can sometimes save me time, but if I am patient, exactly the same results can be achieved by taking a cheaper, albeit slower, route.

If creating your first garden, start small. Garden in containers if renting or carve up a little piece of lawn to have your first go.

Learning the difference between annual and perennial plants can provide options for when you might choose to purchase or grow from seed. It can be vastly cheaper to grow from seed but this takes more effort than plugging in purchased seedlings or mature plants. Scanning the perennial table during autumn garden centre sales can reveal money and time-saving deals! Many plants can also be harvested for cuttings, which you can propagate to increase your stock. And after a couple of years, many perennial plants can be dug up, divided and replanted to instantly bolster that plant’s presence in your bed. The only expense here is time!

When buying tools, buy once by buying well. A good hand trowel will last you years – the cheapest one will bend at the first dig of a potato.

All in all, the biggest barrier I see in people choosing to start gardening, is they do not yet know the immense satisfaction and reward that awaits them. From their first homegrown salad greens to their first vase of flowers, surely gardening is the most beautiful and simple of life’s pleasures.

Extracted from A Guided Discovery of Gardening by Julia Atkinson-Dunn, Koa Press, RRP$50.

To read this story in our digital issue click here.

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