I was feeling a little discombobulated this week so I dropped in to the Te Henui cemetery to restore some energy and good humour. I have lauded this place before and it did not let me down. I was chatting to a couple of the volunteers who garden the place and mentioned that I saw it as the grown-up version of miniature gardens.
The thought of miniature gardens brings back memories from our children’s primary school years and Volunteer Mary mentioned sand saucers in the same nostalgic tone. I was an urban child and the sand saucer and miniature garden competition experiences passed me by. They are an integral part of the rural school experience, formerly known as Calf Day but more often Show Day now, albeit playing about third fiddle. First violin was played by the calves, for this is a dairy farming area. The best and biggest silver cups went to such things as best leading calf (walking amenably beside the child on a rope), best groomed and best of breed. Second fiddle was played by the lambs – harder to lead and over time it became a disqualifiable matter to launder your lamb in Persil to get it fluffy white. The Greedy Guzzler award went to the first lamb to drink its bottle at speed. When you think about it, that award was always going to be taken out by the biggest lamb.
Third fiddle: goats and activities for children without animals. While we flirted with the occasional lamb or baby goat, our children were particularly skilled at the sand saucer and miniature garden categories. I used to feel a bit guilty about them winning because they had an unfair advantage with access to a far superior range of plant material and appropriate flowers. But then I looked at the animal cups and clearly the kids who came from farming families with superior breeding lines were similarly advantaged.
I don’t have any photos of sand saucers but if you Google images, you will find a resurgence on Pinterest. Where else? For anyone with a deprived childhood, it involves filling a saucer with wet sand and sticking the flowers into that to anchor them. The scope for imagination is limited. One memorable year, a junior teacher at the school our children attended – a woman who was not one for expending unnecessary effort – decided sand saucers were ‘messy’ so they decreed Vaseline saucers instead. For this, the saucer is used face down and coated in Vaseline with flowers stuck to it. This was a travesty of an idea, I tell you. Not the same at all.
Miniature gardens were constructed in a tray with sides and most children used flowers and stems of foliage. Our children had access to suitable trays, potting mix and interesting small plants of a suitable scale, including miniature bulbs in flower. They often won.
When I describe the cemetery gardens as the grown-ups version of these childhood activities, I mean that it is managed as a vast canvas of small, stand-alone gardens as opposed to a landscaped whole. This is how they manage to keep flowers all year round. As one grave space passes its best, another nearby is starting to bloom. It is a large part of the charm of the area. And the volunteers make a real effort to get harmonious colour and plant combinations. I would guess that this is a large part of the fun for them.
Volunteer Susan took me over to see a space she had planted which she thought should work well when she held the flowers and foliage in her hand but has not translated on the ground. What did I think? It wasn’t the colour combination that was the problem, it was the arrangement of the plants on the site, I suggested. Too regimented and in equal quantities whereas one plant could be lifted and divided to fill the space and be a unifying factor. That is the charm of the grown-up miniature garden – dealing with a self-contained space in isolation without having to consider a multitude of other factors in the surrounding area.
Besides the goal of having flowers all year round, these little gardens have to be low maintenance. The area is large and the team of volunteers, though dedicated and skilled, is small in number. There is a gentle abandon feel of wildflower meadows in some small areas, vibrant, concentrated colour in others and a delightful seasonality to how the place is managed. Gardening visitors may like to look at some of the plant combinations – they are working with a very large range of different plant material – and colour combinations. They are all there in small pictures amongst the whole.
I was amused when I read the description in in the garden festival programme*. It uses words like “lost oved ones”, “peace and tranquillity”, “serenity”, “lovingly tended” and “respectful”. This is proof that you can find what you want in some places. I would use words like joyous, a celebration of life and flowers amongst the headstones, sometimes witty and full of vibrant energy. It makes me smile and that is no mean feat for a graveyard. Some may find solace in quiet contemplation amongst the graves while others, like me, may in fact recharge their batteries by delighting in the whole ambience and contrast.
I quite like watching English real estate programmes (Kirstie and Phil assisting escapes to the country come to mind). They have many more little country churches complete with old graveyards surplus to requirements than we have. It is too late for me – and the wrong country – but the idea of creating a home within a traditionally sombre setting and a garden with all the hard landscaping features already in situ sounds appealing. These places may be there to remember the dead, but it does not mean that they must be sombre, morbid and gloomy. Death and taxes may be two of life’s certainties, but there can be life and colour wrapping around death and softening its raw finality, even if the same can not be said for taxes.
The one remaining mystery for me is why some families prefer to adorn their graves with fake flowers. It is a timely reminder, however, that some of these graves are intensely personal memorials with living descendants who choose to maintain the connection and to personalise the grave in their own way. It is just as well the volunteers are there to tend to the vast majority which would otherwise be largely forgotten and uncared for.
* Powerco Taranaki Garden Festival, to give the annual event its full name, runs from 26 October to 4 November this year. The Te Henui cemetery is included as one of the gardens to visit this year.