Real Life

Xanthe White’s blooming family

The garden guru’s dirty challenge

With a mum like Xanthe White, it’s no surprise that kids Sophie and Jacob have little green fingers! Since they were born, they’ve spent much of their spare time amongst nature – working on landscaping projects with their design guru mum, tending their very own garden patches or exploring the mountain behind their Auckland house.

“It’s all they’ve ever known,” says garden expert Xanthe as she welcomes us into her home, which backs on to Big King Reserve in Mount Roskill. “We’ve never had to encourage or persuade them to get outside, it’s just what we do as a family. It’s so freeing being outside in the garden – it’s where we’re all happiest.”

As New Zealand’s most successful landscape designer, Xanthe, 40, has won countless international and local awards for her work. She’s famed for her creative approach, but at home, it’s a different story. She is purposefully relaxed when it comes to her own garden and is determined that the whole family, including her teacher husband Chris Dunn, feels it’s as much their zone as hers. Only a glorious citrus hedge, heaving with bright orange mandarins, at the entrance to their stylish abode hints at who lives inside.

“I’m quite careful to make sure it’s not just my garden,” she tells. “It’s about giving the family ownership and letting them do things I might not do. There was one day when the kids dug a huge hole in the lawn, though … I had to sit down and breathe a bit!”

Indeed, eight-year-old Jacob – who spends most of the Woman’s Day photo shoot quietly crafting a fishing spear out of bamboo, nylon and a bent fork – tells us he loves growing veges. Potatoes are his favourite, as well as beans – “apart from the fact they get bombarded with slugs”.

But it’s the creepy crawlies in the family’s verdant yard that really get the budding naturalist excited. He has a growing collection of lizards – who are eager recipients of the dreaded slugs! – and a cache of cockroaches, which he recently donated to his grandma. Upstairs in his bedroom is a tank of 17 fish, and lying in the sun are cats Pedro Sanchez and Napoleon Dynamite, aka Nappy.

“Jacob is really into growing veges while Sophie is more of a flower girl. She likes putting bursts of colour everywhere,” explains Xanthe as her sweet seven-year-old points to her favourite purple blooms.

It’s a busy time for the writer, broadcaster and landscape designer, whose third book, The Good Dirt, was released in September. All about the soil we find in our gardens, the book has been a labour of love for Xanthe. “It’s been a long time in the planning and I’m so proud of it,” she smiles.

“For me, the biggest thing I’ve learnt over my whole career is the importance of soil and how the earth works beneath us. The book is about teaching people how to grow their soil and look after it.”

As well as her landscape and writing projects, she’s also teamed up with New World supermarkets for their Little Garden promotion. In previous years, shoppers collected mini grocery items, but this time, the promotion is going green with 24 different seed and soil packs to collect.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to get involved, says Xanthe, who is a passionate believer in getting parents and kids gardening as a family. “I just had to think about how much good this would do and the potential is huge. There are lots of people out there who might think they’re not green-fingered or who’ve never tried growing anything at all, and hopefully this will change that. It will also bring families together – planting is such a cool thing to do with your kids.”

She adds, “There’s nothing like the joy of taking a little seed and watching it grow. And then for it to grow into something you can eat is wonderful! We all feel special when it happens – it’s magic.”

Indeed, Xanthe is a great believer in children learning where food comes from. She is heavily involved in Jacob and Sophie’s school Garden to Table scheme, where pupils learn to grow and prepare food.

“There’s a vege garden and a little orchard, and they have special teachers for gardening and cooking,” she tells. “It’s a wonderful thing because there’s so much learning going on in terms of science. The pleasure and pride these kids get from the whole process is awesome – they all serve each other and sit down for wonderful meals. It’s a joy.”

Growing up in Orakei, Xanthe’s parents were keen gardeners, but it wasn’t until university that she realised her future was in landscape design. Now there’s little doubt Xanthe is doing what she loves. “I was studying towards an arts degree but I had no idea what I wanted to do, until I ended up getting a Student Job Search role helping to tidy up someone’s garden and I loved it.

“I just knew then that’s what I needed to be doing – it’s the creativity and the connection with nature. It just makes you a healthier and happier person.”

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