2021 Taranaki Garden Festival in Covid Times

White ixias and Iris sibirica ‘Blue Moon’ in the summer borders

As you read this, we will be on the last day of the 2021 Taranaki Garden Festival. Ten days may not sound long but it is very long when you are meeting and greeting visitors solidly, especially given our lives where we spend long periods of time alone with our own thoughts in the garden. So forgive me if I seem a little tired.

It has been an odd festival. Last year broke all visitor records when the country was Covid-free but nobody could travel overseas. This year was shaping up to be even larger until Delta took hold in Auckland and then Waikato. With internal borders closed to the north of us, we kept our fingers crossed that they would reopen in time for the festival but it became clear that would not be the case. When we had ten coaches cancel in the week before festival, it was a bit… deflating, shall I say? With those northern borders closed, we could see that 40% of the visitor base simply couldn’t travel. Added to that, a fair number of people to the south didn’t want to travel and who can blame them? Preparing the garden for a festival that seemed to be dwindling day by day felt very much like being all dressed up for a party but nobody was coming.

In the end, it has been fine. Yes, visitor numbers are way down on the early indications but overall, we have still been running above our long-term average. Not hugely above but better than expected.

Our friend and helper on the gate during a Covid festival

A Covid festival has been different to manage, especially in this country where we were late to adopt wearing masks. But I can report that the particularly loud – rabid, even – but small number of Covid deniers/anti maskers/anti vaxxers are not garden lovers. We have had 100% cooperation on scanning or signing in and keeping to our masking policy (mask at the entrance and then carry it around the garden to wear if near others). None of us likes masking but nobody wants to spread Covid in areas of this country that are still blessed to be free or largely free from it at this stage*.  The good-natured compliance has been a surprise to us but very welcome. It seems that when expectations are clear, people respect the protocols. I have found managing physical distancing challenging when taking workshops and leading tours around the garden but goodwill goes a long way.

Even we never work beneath these trees in windy times; we were not going to risk visitors’ safety.
Blocking off paths and redirecting visitors around danger areas

Wednesday – oh windy Wednesday. It is a long time since we have experienced a wind such as the one that blew relentlessly all night and day. It was not so much wind as a howling gale. At least we managed to remain open and areas of the garden are so sheltered that all that could be heard was the roaring in the treetops above. A few other gardens were forced to close entirely. For the first time, we closed one section of our garden. Walking the Avenue Gardens beneath our giant old-man pines was a significant safety risk so we redirected the routes to skirt around that area. But brave souls still turned up to visit.

Lloyd ‘vacuuming’ the lawns at 8am
Zach on the motor blower
Mark scooping the pond and sweeping the sunken garden. I don’t do selfies so there is no photo of me but I was equally busy.

On Thursday morning, the place was a mess. Nothing big came down but everything loose, small or dead certainly did. Never have I been so grateful to our small team. By 8am the next morning, we were all out doing a rapid clean-up. Zach was on the motor blower, Lloyd was vacuuming the lawns with the lawnmower, Mark was scooping all the debris out of the freshly cleaned goldfish pond and sweeping the sunken garden and I was reopening the Avenue Gardens. Soon after 9am, there was little evidence left of the storm damage and even I was impressed at the speed and efficiency with which we managed the restoration of order and garden decorum.

Zach and I have already scoped out patches of blue Iris sibirica we can raid to extend the patch in the park that is flowering so prettily

At 5pm today, we will bring in the flag and signs and close the gates. We have no intentions of opening for more than the ten days. Festival is most affirming for us. We are delighted that people come and respond to what we have here and clearly enjoy their visit. The praise is balm to our gardening souls. It will sustain us for the next 355 days. Tomorrow, we will be back out in our gardening clothes (looking more like old tramps, if I am honest), masks put aside for trips off the property only and moving more Sibirican irises down to the meadow by the stream. There is plenty to keep us busy.

Footnote: it appears our Covid-free honeymoon is over. It has been found in wastewater nearby so we now go into a holding pattern as we wait to find how much Covid we have in our area.


Do people think enough about gates? I am not entirely convinced many do. Gates can vary from this grand, modern entrance – electronically controlled from the distant house. Being in the UK, these are more likely to be constructed from oak rather than the utility tanalised pine favoured in this country. I regret to say that it did not occur to us at the time to inspect how much and what type of bracing went in behind to hold it true and flat.

At the other end of the spectrum, this unused little gate between us and the neighbours never fails to delight me when I walk past it, even though it has probably not been used in four or five decades. It often makes me think of the very famous Heaven’s Gate at Hidcote. I don’t seem to have a good photo of it from our one and only visit. In the photos we had seen, it looked like a *focal point* – a visual punctuation point which served no other purpose than to terminate the red borders. In fact, it was an entirely logical gate when we saw it in person – leading to another garden area but also framing a glorious borrowed view of countryside beyond. I will not deride a gate that frames a worthwhile borrowed view.

Modern urban gates – I have a few photos. This expensive, utility model makes me think of a prison gate and I have no interest in walling myself into a voluntary prison.

This one is a utility, modern take on older styles. I probably noticed it enough to photograph when we were discussing gate design because what we settled on was a combination of old and new.

The gates to our swimming pool were the first set we had made. Swimming pools in NZ must all meet stringent fencing and gate standards to avoid accidental drownings of small people.

I must acknowledge a debt to my sister for our gates. For historical reasons, there is so little antique iron lace in our nearest city, New Plymouth, that I have never even noticed any at all. But the old Dunedin cottages in the 1860s were routinely adorned with iron lace verandah decoration, even the simplest workers’ cottages.

We only ever close our driveway gates when we are controlling the flow of garden visitors but I do like the look when they are closed

I was told – and I have no idea whether this is true or not – that this cast iron lace came out as ballast in the ships that came to Dunedin in the goldrush days. From the docks, they found their way onto modest cottages. In the early 2000s, that same iron lace found its way from cottages being renovated for the new era to the wreckers’ yards. My sister went around all the demolition yards and bought all the iron lace for me. I can not recall now if it was $21 or $23 a piece but it was a bargain.

Marigolds in a window in the wall

It was not as cheap to get some of these iron lace pieces set into welded gates but I have never regretted the expenditure. I love our gates and window. None of them match. Sometimes even one side of the gate is not a perfect match to the other side but that quirkiness adds to the charm. These are all corner pieces from verandahs that we have turned upside down to make gates so the designs are sometimes inverted.

Thistles in the low gates in to the courtyard

For the technically minded, I think the old iron was first sand-blasted, then welded onto made to measure gate frames, galvanised and commercially spray painted to get a finish that would last down the years. I looked at modern iron gates and they are very simplistic compared to our mix of old and new.

I think I worked out that we have enough pieces to do another three sets of gates and a couple of single gates, should we feel the need of more

Should the need arise for further gates, we have a little stash of iron lace still waiting to be used. One of the children may end up inheriting it. As time passes, these are probably becoming ever more collectible, as is said.

I pass this one driving to town. No longer in use but genuinely old and honest in its modest ornamentation

Clip clip clipetty clip. The hedges have been done

Lloyd clipped the Camellia transnokoensis hedges to the left; Zach clipped the feature camellias to the right this year.

We don’t have a lot of clipped hedging here, I am prone to declaring. I may have to amend that. I paced them out and came to a rough estimate of somewhere over 150 metres which seems rather more than I thought. It is probably more accurate to say that we don’t have a lot of garden where the design is defined by clipped hedging. Just the Wave Garden, in fact.

Clipped Camellia minutiflora in the Wave Garden

I have been thinking about hedge trimming because it has taken up almost all of Lloyd’s work hours this week. At the same time, I saw a comment by an English gardener about currently trimming his clients’ hedges and that seemed odd to me because it is autumn there. I am guessing they trim in autumn so that they retain their sharp lines over winter. In colder climates, sharply defined shapes are often what gives winter interest in places where plants don’t flower all year round. Maybe they trim twice a year?

On the left is clipped Camellia Fairy Blush with a low buxus hedge in front. At the back is clipped totara (Podocarpus totara). You too can keep this forest giant to this size over 110 years if you keep it clipped hard!

We cut in spring for two reasons. One is that we want to look sharp for the spring garden festival starting this Friday. The other is that the majority of our clipped hedges are small-leafed camellias. Trimming those in autumn would take all the flower buds off so we trim in spring before the next season’s buds are set.

Hedges of Camellia Fairy Blush provide a demarcation line between the sunken Court Garden and the gardens either side of it.

We only trim once a year and we accept that come next autumn and winter, the hedges will be looking a bit woolly. I seem to remember that if you have hedges of teucrium or lonicera, you need to trim every four to six weeks in the growing season – and we have a growing season that lasts nine months of the year. That does not sound fun to me although maybe some people don’t mind forever trimming their garden hedges.

I can’t help but think that people who are obsessive about sharp hedges all year round might be better to make permanent walls instead – more expensive to erect but a lot lighter in maintenance down the years.

This wave hedge at La Plume was sensational.

The wave hedges we saw at Le Jardin Plume in France still rule supreme for me. I have never seen hedges like them. Alas, I may not see them again in this new world we are in.

Chupa chups to the right, umbrellas to the left

While Lloyd has been trimming hedges, Zach has been clipping feature plants. He pointed out to me that the taller michelias at our entranceway (Fairy Magnolia Blush) are more like chupa chups than lollipops, which is right because they are fully round, not like the two dimensional round lollipop. The small ones to the left we trim to an umbrella shape – so flatter on top than the rounded chupa chups.

No longer a path that terminated in an unattractive building, even if it currently terminates at the raspberry coop

Visitors who have seen our new summer gardens may recall the path that led to nowhere as we airily waved and said that we planned to move the two buildings in the way. Well, it is done. The large propagation house and Mark’s personal botanical treasure house have indeed been moved and we have opened up a new area. True, the path still doesn’t go straight through yet. It now terminates at the raspberry cage. I have served notice that can not be taken down until somebody has built me a new raspberry cage. I love the raspberry harvest more than I love the thought of a long, long vista there.

Zach gave the Podocarpus parlatorei pillars their annual trim and has started training the top over to form the arch Mark envisaged.

This year’s Taranaki Garden Festival was shaping up to be the busiest ever in over 30 years of its life span. Alas, now it is on track to be the quietest ever. The NZ Rhododendron Association were to have their annual conference at the same time and we were expecting four coach loads of rhododendron lovers on the very first morning of festival. It was cancelled this week. Northerners can’t get here, southerners no longer want to come and who can blame them? I am expecting pretty much all our tour bookings to be cancelled in the next few days.

But we will be here, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and all prepared next Friday. It will be down to locals to fly the flag for our gardens and the associated arts trail. It is disappointing but so much of life in this era of pandemic is disappointing. At least with gardens, they will still be here next year.

Out and about, in a very limited, local way

Ixias by the railway track near Lepperton

I flashed past these eye-catching ixias (corn lilies) at speed and promptly thought that I should have stopped and photographed them. I then thought I couldn’t be bothered until a couple of kilometres down the road when I turned and went back. Are they not pretty? They are growing on wasteland beside the railway in Lepperton and the sight of them stopped me being grumpy about something else that had happened.

There is nothing choice or rare about ixias. We have them in the twin borders in several colours and they show up each year on one of the mass bulb suppliers’ catalogues. But as a wildflower, their charm seems greater to me. I was glad I had dug some to put down in the Wild North Garden where they may recreate the simple charm of the railway siding.

The rare sight of a camellia hedge in full bloom, though now past its peak

I also stopped to photograph a camellia hedge because a mass flowering camellia hedge is a rare sight for us in these days of the cursed camellia petal blight. This one is down the road from us (in a rural sense – maybe 5km down a different road entirely to the one we live on but still ‘down the road’). We used to have mass displays of larger flowered camellias in informal hedges but they are a thing of the past here. The plants haven’t gone; it is the flowering that is a memory. This particular hedge is in an extremely open situation, exposed to both full sun and wind from every direction. It confirmed for me that the extremely sheltered microclimate we have in our own garden has exacerbated camellia petal blight to be some of the worst in the world. Fungi thrive in a protected situation. It is a trade-off. That microclimate enables us to grow many other plants that would not otherwise thrive but at the expense of the japonica and hybrid camellia flowers.

Camellia ‘Waterlily’
Camellia ‘Les Jury’ to the left and Felix’s ‘Waterlily to the right. Something that had finished flowering but appears to be white at right angles in the centre.

It was Mark who drew my attention to the fact that it is Camellia ‘Waterlily’, one of his father’s early cultivars. We have the original plant in the garden here. Next to it, to the left, is a clipped hedge – now at the end of its flowering season – of Camellia ‘Les Jury’. It is the best red his Uncle Les bred so they have the Jury camellia brothers right and left of the gateway.

Each spike is a cluster of a huge number of individual flowers with long stamens on the xeronema

We don’t have a whole lot of native plants that carry gardeners’ bragging rights with them but the Poor Knights’ lily – Xeronema callistemon – is one. It grows on the rocky cliff faces on the Poor Knights islands, often washed by sea water and never drying out but never getting waterlogged. According to Wikipedia, those offshore islands of New Zealand which few people ever get to visit but are a treasure trove of unique flora, were so-named because their shape reminded the early Europeans of a bread pudding popular at the time, the Poor Knights Pudding.  There is a random piece of information for you.

Xeronema callistemon in the central row on a bank in Waitara, thriving in a regime of benign neglect

Their natural habitat is not easy to re-create in a garden situation which is why they carry some bragging rights. I am pretty sure they are also frost-tender and it takes a long time for them to reach flowering size. Despite all that, there is fine display of huge plants on a shady bank in my local town of Waitara. Prostrate rosemary festoons down the bank below them and they are flanked by some pretty scruffy trachycarpus palms but eat your heart out, gardeners who have failed with the xeronema at home. Finding a suitable spot and then allowing benign neglect seems to work better.

Poor Knights lily and Marlborough rock daisy in our swimming pool garden. Maybe they feel at home because we have a salt water filter on the pool and they can smell the salt? Or maybe not.

Our best plants are just coming in to flower. I admit we groom the plants a bit – removing spent leaves. I like the combination with the Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) – another cliff dweller but this time from a location which must be close to 1000km south of the Poor Knights Islands.

Trimming the hedges here is largely done by Lloyd. If you look carefully, there is tape on the bamboo to mark the desired heights and he also checks with a string line.

Meantime, it is all go on preparing the garden for the Taranaki Garden Festival, opening on October 29. We have our fingers crossed that we stay at level two which enables it to go ahead. We will be awfully miffed if we get Covid Delta in Taranaki with a last-minute cancellation after all this work.

Kia kaha. Stay sane and stay safe in these trying times.  We are living through an event that will become a significant point of history for future generations to study. It is not a comfortable position for anyone.

In times of trouble, you will find me in the garden

That is an old stone mill wheel from the ninteenth century, repurposed these days as a bird bath

It has been a difficult week in New Zealand. I recall commenting here to an Irish reader (*waving to Paddy*) that if anybody can get rid of Delta, we will. This week brought us the distressing realisation that we almost certainly can’t. Gone is the dream of the return to level one this summer – level one being no restrictions on day-to-day living bar those pesky border controls. Like many others, we were plunged into a state of deep anxiety. All due to just one case entering the country and now spiralling ever larger, creating the whack-a-mole situation we are now in.

I have to grit my teeth with those who declare ‘we just have to learn to live with it’. I don’t think learning to live with Covid looks like they think it does. It does not mean a return to life as it was with some people getting a bit sick and a few dying – but, presumably, nobody known to those advocating this course of action. Learning to live with Covid means living with ongoing anxiety, wearing masks, using sanitiser, scanning, restrictions on movements and gatherings and playing whack-a-mole all the time. Learning to live with Covid means an indefinite extension of the current status quo.

Scadoxus puniceus

The only path out of this is very high vaccination rate. Please, if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, get it done now. Ignore that small group of very loud, insistent anti-vaxxers. Surveys show that there aren’t that many of them, statistically speaking (somewhere between 4 and 7%?) but too many of them seem pretty determined to keep their ‘freedom of choice’ by attempting to abuse and verbally bludgeon everybody else out of exercising their freedom of choice.

Crinum moorei at the front, which will flower white later in the season, dendrobium orchid, clivias, bromeliads, Scadoxus puniceus and the wedding palm – Lytocaryum weddellianum – in a tiered woodland planting beneath giant rimu trees

What does this mean for our garden festival, scheduled to start on October 29? Goodness only knows; we certainly don’t. We were headed for one of the largest attendances ever with coach tours and ticket sales setting new records. That seems unlikely now.

I see three possibilities. The first is the best-case scenario where travel restrictions are lifted to the north of us and we plough ahead but with masks, sanitiser and physical distancing. This is also the least likely scenario.

The second scenario is the border remains in place on our main northern access to Taranaki and numbers are hugely reduced as a result. In which case it will all be much quieter and lower key.

The third is that Covid reaches Taranaki in the next few weeks and all events are cancelled but I figure we cross that bridge if we come to it.

Seedling vireya, very scented, which seems to be predominantly R. konorii growing beneath pine trees
Pleione orchids have a shorter season in bloom but are so pretty

It all makes planning very difficult here. When we know we are opening the garden, there is a lot of extra garden grooming that gets done – titivating, one might call it. It takes a lot of time to titivate a garden the size of ours and we don’t do that final flourish if it is just for our own pleasure.

Colourful woodland on rainy morning this week to lift the spirits

But if it all turns to custard, there are many (many, many) worse places to be than here. The colourful woodland this week soothes my soul and relieves my own anxieties. Woodland gardening does not generally conjure up colourful visions bar maybe a sea of snowdrops beneath bare trees if you are British, or perhaps large drifts of bluebells or hellebores.

Finally getting Mark’s neglected orchids out of his Nova house and into the garden in lengths of tree trunk with the centre rotted out
We are big fans of the dainty dendrobium orchids from the Bardo-Rose group

We like highly detailed woodland and it certainly is looking very pretty this week. We achieve this by lifting the canopy of our tall trees to let filtered light in below. Over the years, low branches have been removed to keep the lower trunks clear for maybe the bottom four metres or so. These days we do more thinning at ground level than planting and we use various strategies to ensure that plants can grow despite the massive root systems on the trees. Zach has been planting out some of Mark’s neglected orchids – mostly dendrobiums in the Bardo-Rose group – in hollowed out tree rings this week. These stump lengths are from the silver birch we dropped a few weeks ago. The rotten heart of the tree tells us we were right to fell it.

We do not get florist-quality blooms outdoors but the cymbidiums last a long time in the garden and add glamour
Cymbidium with Helleborus sternii. I would like more cymbidiums but need plants with smaller flowers. Those bred for cut flowers tend to be larger and can look out of scale in the garden.

Our interest in orchids is basically on plants we can grow outdoors in the garden so mostly pleiones, cymbidiums, calanthes and dendrobiums in practice. I like the little dendrobiums the best but the cymbidiums add a touch of glamour.

Clivias in orange, red and yellow, we have in abundance
Mark’s peach hybrids add variety but this one seems reluctant to hold its flower spikes upwards

Quite a few years ago, Mark did some hybridising with clivias to try and get some peach coloured ones. He rather lost interest but I planted out the best and they are coming in to their own. I wish this one held its flower up better but it is a pretty, pastel variation on the many oranges, reds and yellows we have. Last time I looked, there were quite a few international breeders working on peach tones and then on white and green flowers but I have no idea if these are commercially available here yet.

Wherever you are, stay sane as well as staying safe. These are trying times we are living through. I will be hiding in the garden somewhere, maybe taking photos to share.