Flowers are out and vegetables now reign in Christchurch fabric artist Jenny Gillies’ uplifting new garden
Fabric artist Jenny Gillies has a fresh all-edibles concept for her Christchurch garden COVERSTORY
It may come as a surprise that Jenny Gillies, a fabric and costume artist internationally known for her flamboyant floral creations, has ripped out her flower garden in Christchurch and replaced it with vegetables. It will not come as a surprise that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill vege garden. “When I’m not eating vegetables, I’m sewing them,” she says. “My garden is my inspiration.” And with her show Naughty by Nature featuring at this year’s Ellerslie International Flower Show, little wonder that Jenny is inspired by overblown brassicas, desiccated pea pods and pulsating purple artichoke heads.
Jenny and husband John Gillies’ edibles have a wonderful life. Those that escape the pot anyway. They are allowed – encouraged even – to flower, seed and proliferate. Jenny calls it companion planting, but the inhabitants of this Merivale plot are far more intimate than that. They embrace, intertwine and sometimes smother each other.
When the earthquakes extensively damaged the house and garden, leaving sink-holes and truckloads of liquefaction, the Gillies thought it was time to try something new.
“We’d gone through the white rose routine,” says Jenny. “I had a concept. I wanted it all edibles.”
After architect Daryl Partridge did the initial reconstruction designs outside the kitchen/dining area, landscape designer Sandi MacRae stepped in, creating three raised rectangular beds and a couple of bits on the side, with dwarf fruit trees and pyramidal climbing frames giving vertical structure.
Like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, it is unbelievable just what comes out of this relatively small patch.
“We have nine varieties of apple trees,” says Jenny. Not to mention nectarines, pears, apricots, prune plums, mandarins, limes, feijoas and a fig. Then there are the berries: raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, boysenberries, orangeberries (“wouldn’t bother with them again”), blackcurrants, kiwiberries and gooseberries. The vegetables and herbs grow between, under, around and sometimes over.
“We eat everything except the robinias and the box,” says Jenny. Squadrons of bumble-bees, berry-thieving birds and small clouds of white butterflies (which do stretch her organic altruism to its limits) share the spoils.
If Monet found his inspiration in fields of French flowers, Jenny finds hers in her back garden. “I see something in the garden, draw it, then develop patterns and create them.”
Jenny has won multiple awards at the World of WearableArt and her work is held in collections around the world. This is her fourth Ellerslie show with dancers portraying flowers, weeds and fruit – this year, vegetables are added to the mix. >
Jenny started out as a scientist, which may explain her insistence on botanical accuracy in her fabric flora. She went to Otago University to do medicine (“thank God I failed”), instead completing a BSc and post-graduate diploma in microbiology. She worked as a medical receptionist while raising four children.
But all the while, in the background, was the hum of a sewing machine. “My mother was one of those amazing mothers and providers of that generation. She made all our clothes, probably out of next to nothing. She taught me and inspired me to sew.”
Jenny puts her foray into serious fabric art down to a midlife crisis. John, who shares her science/art dichotomy, was fully supportive. A retired physician and accomplished painter, he helps out with the artwork and is “part of the show”.
“John’s very motivated,” says Jenny. “And he’s always been very fit.” So it was a shock when heart surgery six years ago enforced retirement and a change of life… though not of pace.
“The most important thing to do in retirement is to make sure you don’t retire,” advises John. He paints, exhibits and teaches, rides a motorbike, runs a gallery, exercises daily at the gym and brushes up his Italian in the evenings.
The couple took up classical ballet in their 50s and even put a sprung floor and mirrored wall in their studio, which opens onto the garden. But they no longer dance. They box. Well, John does, says Jenny. She admits the pink boxing gloves he gave her are less worn, although she does try to get to the gym most mornings.
She believes the experiences they have had, including the quakes, have turned their lives around. “It makes you think about what you value in life, and it makes you realise that material things aren’t important.”
The garden, however, is. It feeds the mind, body and soul. “It’s visual, it’s edible, it’s inspirational and it’s therapeutic.” The Ellerslie Flower Show runs from 26 February-2 March 2014. See more of Jenny’s work at jennygillies.com.
THIS PAGE (from left) “I just wanted something bright red in the garden,” says Jenny of her obelisk from Terra Viva in Christchurch. She brought back the Rod Manning wire pear sculpture from one of her Adelaide shows. Spinach seems to thrive in an old wine barrel.
OPPOSITE (from top) Borage grows profusely below the elevated urns flanking a path through the garden, but the young blueberry has to be covered with netting (“those pesky birds again”). The edible garden opens onto the tennis court, which John is fastidious about mowing; he doesn’t garden because he “can’t differentiate between plants and weeds,” says Jenny.