We hosted the Camellia Society conference tour last Monday, the first big group we have allowed in to the garden since we closed five years ago. There is a long-standing connection between the Jurys and the Camellia Society, even though neither Mark nor I are active members, so we wanted to honour that history. It takes quite a lot of work to host a large group and we were somewhat out of practice but it all comes back again.
I baked cakes. Quite a few cakes but only of three different types. I calculated that each cake could be cut into twelve pieces so that each piece was large enough to appear generous without being overwhelming. Ninety people so I baked eleven cakes, to allow for anybody who might take two pieces. I tell you, it was a mathematical exercise. And I found we still own sixty coffee cups which seems an awful lot for a household of two.
On the day, we were praying that the weather forecast would be wrong and the rains would stay away for the morning at least. And they did, which was just as well. The rains that came in the afternoon were simply torrential and we were awash and flooded. We can fit maybe 60 people under cover but over 90? Probably not.
Conferences are smaller these days and in the end, we really enjoyed the experience and so did the attendees. It is very affirming to have so many people appreciate one’s gardening efforts and hospitality. Maybe we will open the garden again in the not too distant future. There were just two coaches and a few cars which was quite manageable in terms of parking logistics.
I remembered with some nostalgia a tour from the American Camellia Society. Mark’s mother was still alive so it must have been the early 1980s. The touring Americans were greater in number than they are these days and always charming, courteous and enthusiastic guests – somewhat different to our perception of Trump’s America today. But the image that stays in my mind is how we waved goodbye to them on the coach and walked back to the house for a cup of tea. And there, on the doorstep, was the cane washing basket with Mark’s mother’s pink, nylon bloomers draped over it to dry. She had forgotten to take them in and every visitor must have seen them displayed in all their glory. She was mortified, I recall, but had the grace to laugh at herself.
Back in the day, as we say, NZ conferences used to be much larger. That is the 1980s when the Camellia Society annual conference comprised five large coaches and a contingent of cars. Goodness knows where we parked them but I assume I can’t remember because we just didn’t worry about it. Times were simpler and we had flat(ish) road verges rather than the steep, inhospitable sides we now have. Nowadays, we have to get all vehicles off the road and we could never hope to park five full-sized coaches.
The Rhododendron Association conferences were a little smaller – more like four coaches and the accompanying cars. But it was a rhodo conference that sticks in my mind. I am pretty sure it must have been 1986 because it was the year we first released Rhododendron Floral Dance. It was our fifth year of mail-order sales and the ‘catalogue’ was just four sides of A4 paper. We had no retail sales and the nursery was entirely Mark’s domain so only he understood which plant was which. The first hint we had that we may be totally unprepared was when Mark’s sister-in-law arrived, announcing that she had come to help because we would need it. The group had visited her garden in the morning.
Mark’s father was stationed in the garden, Mark in the nursery and I stood at the ready to welcome people and head them round the garden first. Picture me, flapping my hands ineffectually, trying to split the group as they poured off the coaches and out of the cars, determined to get to the nursery first. We were inundated. For the next hour or so, Mark ran from side of the nursery to the other, frantically hand writing labels. Older NZ readers will know Bill Robinson from Tikitere Nursery who graciously circulated, recommending plants left, right and centre. At the same time a new gardener who shall remain nameless (he went on to establish a large garden that made up in scope what it lacked in detail), whose bank balance was considerably larger than his knowledge, strutted around in very large chequered trousers cut from the same cloth as the finish flag at a race track, big-noting in his determination to buy what everybody else was buying but in multiples. Mark’s sister-in-law and I took the money in a single plastic icecream container. It was the days before eftpos so it was all cash and cheques.
It was a feeding frenzy. At the end of 75 minutes, the icecream container was overflowing and the small nursery was stripped bare. Remember, this was 1986. We took $4500 in that time, when the rhododendrons were priced between $11 and $13 each (or a massive $20 for Floral Dance). We were like stunned mullets. As the coaches left, we waved goodbye and walked back to the house. The conference organisers were dismantling the trestle table laden with wine (cardboard casks of wine, it being the 1980s) which they had been serving on the back lawn. Mark told me that wine was a feature of the rhododendron conferences at that time. I have no idea how many went straight from plant sales to the wine without taking in the garden in-between. A few, I would guess. Whatever, it was an experience that we have never forgotten and neither was it ever repeated.
Conference tours in this day and age are a great deal more sedate and from the point of view of a garden owner, a great deal more enjoyable for that.