Gardening in the Pacifica style

Summer seems to have beaten too hasty a retreat this year. What happened to glorious hot February weather, drifting imperceptibly into March’s cooler evenings and so to the gradual slide into a late autumn? No, it seems that February turned its back on summer and boldly declared that autumn was here.

Which is to say that the belladonna lilies are in full bloom along our road verge, the dwarf species cyclamen hederafolium are in full flower (looking particularly pretty where they are nestled into black mondo grass) and the nerines are opening.

A pedantic acquaintance of mine (whom I trust and hope never reads the Wanganui Chronicle) emailed saying that she had counted 32 different plants in flower in her garden on March 1. We are not ones for counting and collecting trophies. We have absolutely no idea how many rhododendrons/camellias/magnolias et al there are in our garden and better things to do than to start counting them. I would be surprised if there were only 32 different plant varieties in flower here this week but this will remain forever one of life’s little mysteries as I have no intention of going out counting. I briefly contemplated suggesting to said acquaintance that she move to Palmerston North. I lived for several years in that city so found myself in total agreement with John Cleese’s description of it as the most boring place on earth. “If you have been thinking of suicide but lack the courage, then a trip to Palmerston North should do the trick” were his words, I believe. Be grateful, dear Whanganui readers, that you are just subject to sly jokes about gangs and being lawless (or is that Lawesfull?). Whanganui may give a passable imitation of being the Wild West to wild and wayward gangs, but numbingly boring? Never.

Make your dissident residents garden, is the solution proffered here. Aside from the cultivation of the illegal weed (cannabis sativa), we would go so far as to claim that people who personally tend lovely gardens or productive vegetable gardens are the second least likely sector of the population (after those in zimmer frames) to indulge in anti social and violent behaviour. Mind you, this hypothesis comes from a workplace where our morning tea conversation has been known to be about suitable film and television viewing for prison inmates. Limit it to the Living Channel and the History Channel from Sky, we thought. And endless screenings of videos of The Sound of Music, The Incredible Journey, The Parent Trap, Forest Gump, and maybe Old Yeller and Love Story. The mind numbing boredom could do wonders to prevent reoffending and to encourage more active pursuits.

From which you may deduce that there is not a lot going on in the garden to write about this week. For us it is a very busy time in the nursery. Mark is grabbing any suitable weather to get out budding the magnolias (this is inserting a bud of the chosen variety into the lower stem of rootstock) while I spend the better part of the day out gathering cuttings for our annual propagation blitz. It is not grippingly exciting work but undoubtedly a wholesome activity which keeps us out of mischief.

I have been preparing an illustrated talk promoting our open garden cluster for a New Zealand Tourism Board event in Auckland later this month, targeting English travel agents. It is wonderful how this sort of activity can focus the mind. In five short minutes, not only must I showcase our best but I also need to give crystal clear reasons why the Brits might want to travel across the world to see our gardens when they have splendid gardens at home. What is it that makes our gardens unique?

In trying to define our gardens, I coined the phrase Pacifica to describe our style. This landed me in hot water with a couple of local gardeners who immediately conjured up visions of waving palm trees and Samoa and Fiji – a far cry from their temperate gardens. There is still an open verdict on the use of the term Pacifica. Essentially our gardens derive from the English landscape traditions – the sweep of lawn, mixed borders, lots of informal to semi formal plantings of many different varieties of plants and a delight in woodland effects.

If you doubt this claim, think of the formality of French parterres and Italian terraces, the minimalism of the Japanese style, the clipped austerity of Chinese gardens – and you come back to the froth and mix of the English traditions.

What sets us apart from the English gardens is the sheer range of plants we can grow here from cool climate to temperate to subtropical and even tropical at times. We have gathered plants from all over the world in New Zealand and there is a delight in the lushness and fulsome growth we can enjoy all year round. In the soft climate we enjoy on the west coast of the North Island, (by which I mean we don’t have extremes of temperature and drought and consequently we don’t have sharp seasonal changes) most of us garden all year round. We don’t put the garden to sleep for winter and we can still potter around in high summer.

Add in our bright blue sky which we have all year round and the intense light that characterises most of our country, and we have very different conditions to the muted light and grey skies of the United Kingdom. To them, the cabbage tree and the ponga are highly prized, expensive and evocative of the tropics. I quite enjoy telling English visitors that the giant gunnera tinctoria (at times referred to as Chilean rhubarb) which is highly prized and nurtured through their cold winters, is on our noxious weed list and banned from production or sale.

I keep coming back to thinking that what sets our gardens apart from the traditional British gardens is a combination of our do it yourself ethic, a passion for plants, our maritime Pacific climate, blue skies, clear light and bright colour – Pacifica, in fact.