We are marvelling at the thought that this weekend marks the twentieth anniversary of the Taranaki Rhododendron and Garden Festival. It is a remarkable achievement to have survived so long and to have gained such a foothold in the garden culture of this country. Even more remarkable is the accreditation of so many of our gardens as being rated as nationally or regionally significant – many more than any other province in the country.
We do not subscribe to the view that this external recognition is due to the innate superiority of our gardens here. No, we think it is a downstream effect of the Festival and ever rising standards. Twenty years ago, Taranaki was a major force in plant production (mostly due to Duncan and Davies) but not necessarily head and shoulders above the rest of the country in the quality of its private gardens. Sure we had some notable gardens, but only half a dozen and most other areas of the country can muster half a dozen. Now we have close to 20 which are recognised as top quality gardens nationally and probably close to the same number again on the path to similar recognition. It is an astounding achievement. Even more astounding when you consider that the majority of the gardens are privately owned and managed without great resources of wealth.
What we have here, however, is a wealth of experience in presenting gardens well and an open garden ethos. And while no garden pays its own way, the system which allows garden owners to charge is an incentive to pour more money into making the gardens better for next season.
Look back and remember what went twenty years ago. In those heady early years, pretty well everybody and anybody could and did open. Most were free back then and there was certainly little of the intensive grooming and presentation that marks out the open gardens today. It was more akin to real estate open homes and the majority of visitors were local. Owners were not expected to be present and many times garden visitors walked around the property with nobody at home. Mark would round up the sheep and get them out of our park a few days before opening.
I can’t recall how far down the track it began to seep into garden openers’ consciousness that maybe it wasn’t a good look to peg your washing on the line. That while we all do washing, when strangers are visiting your place, flapping sheets and (horrors) underwear displayed for all and sundry to see is a bit naff. It may have been around the time when there was a campaign to divest the Festival of the practice affected by some of greeting garden visitors while wearing a white lab coat and rattling an icecream container of coins. Elder Daughter, who gets to wear a white coat most days of her life now because she inhabits a laboratory, has always marvelled at how some people think that a white lab coat confers an air of authority. We never went in for the lab coat look here, nor the rattling of coins as people walked in the gate, but I will admit that I used to peg washing on the line. By this stage, I think Mark had taken to mowing tracks in the grass around our park with the old reel mower and there were increasing numbers of visitors from outside Taranaki.
The early nineties were the peak time for visitors. Back then, large coachloads would turn up at the weekend. The Wellington Evening Post ran an excursion train up to the Festival, transferring hundreds of passengers onto coaches which crisscrossed the province. I recall one Friday evening chasing around on the phone for some visitors from Auckland who had arrived without any accommodation booked. Elaine Gill, who in those days was Tourism Taranaki, found them the very last bed in New Plymouth. The city was booked out.
They were heady days of garden opening. Garden visiting was an enormously popular activity and Maggie’s Garden Show on TV (except it was probably Palmers Garden Show back then) was mandatory viewing for everyone.
Many other areas jumped on to the garden festival bandwagon. Our festival lost its novelty value and numbers fell back somewhat. But dedicated gardeners just worked harder to lift the standards so that visitors would not be disappointed in what they saw. Around this time, we banished the sheep once and for all from our park and bought a super fancy lawnmower which cost more than our car but was the only machine capable of mowing the area which has some steep banks and tight manoeuvres.
There have been ups and downs and some quite major shakedowns since. But after 20 years our Festival is still here. Only now it caters for as many out of towners as locals and is an established part of the tourist scene here. Some may mourn the loss of the early days when garden standards were loose at best and where most gardens were free. Nostalgia is fine thing, but had we resolutely stuck to that early formula, I think our festival would have quietly died a natural death some years ago. Locals stop visiting when the excitement and novelty wears off and outsiders demand more when they have very limited time and when they are spending quite a bit of money to visit.
Taranaki gardeners can stand tall. The Festival is still here and in the end it is the individual home gardeners who are lifting the bar higher every year, presenting their gardens better and hosting visitors with friendliness.
Those of us who open know that it is a wonderful incentive to make you get your garden looking right. I love it when we are all tightly groomed and presented at our best here. And even if visitor numbers these days are more likely to be measured in the late hundreds for most, rather than the earlier days when they were knocking on the door of thousands, the bottom line is that it is really lovely to have many hundreds of people turn up, ready to enjoy themselves and admiring all your efforts. It sure has the feel good factor.
Long may the Festival continue. It is pretty special for our province and has made us a senior player on the garden scene in this country.