Tag Archives: graveyard gardens

A graveyard and memories of miniature gardens and sand saucers

The yellow ixia flowers pick up the colour of the lichen

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 spires of echium

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.

I am not a great fan of tulips but the effect of this multi coloured display was very painterly

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.

Calendulas and bluebells – not an obvious combination but so irrepressibly cheerful

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.

Planning colours and textures for a small area

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.

The meadow look

And areas that are more landscaped in appearance than meadow

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.

Ajuga and bluebells softening the austerity of large blocks of unadorned concrete

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.

A morning in the graveyard


I do not make a practice of visiting graveyards and I have never been to New Plymouth’s cemetery before, despite living in the district for over 35 years. But a friend was insistent that I should go and look at the older sections. At this time in spring, it was simply charming. In my very limited experience, graveyards tend to be either of two types – very austere and plain, managed by tight local body regulation with the weedsprayer and lawn mower to hand. Or left to their own devices so that, over time, they progress from neglect with weeds and rank grass to that sense of nature reclaiming aged graves.

img_2164Somebody, or probably several living bodies, must have lavished a lot of love and care on this section of the graveyard over many years. It was so well done and individualised that it did not have the look of institutional management. Nor indeed of relying on family or descendant management of individual graves – though there were some examples of these.

img_2185It was the wide range of plants used, the attention to detail and the many delightful little pictures that were created as a result, the careful colour toning in some areas and the soft-edged maintenance that made me think it was not chance that created these scenes. Many are created as individual small gardens for a specific grave. I could not help but notice that the space of an individual grave back when the 1800s turned into the 1900s was considerably larger than a modern grave; family plots were larger again.


Mark tells me there are some Jurys buried in the graveyard (well, he mentioned his Uncle Les, the camellia breeder, but Jurys are so numerous that I am sure there must be many more). Having seen mature specimens of Jury magnolias felled to make way for the new road bridge at the entry to the cemetery area, it was a surprise to see more recent plantings of Felix’s magnolias scattered through the cemetery – several specimens each of Apollo, Milky Way, Athene and Iolanthe. As he looked at my photos, Mark commented that he felt the Jurys had a fair representation there.







There are small businesses working in the area of grave restoration. I know this because I have been contacted by one who had looked at the Jury family graves in our little, local Tikorangi cemetery. I ascertained that their services were limited to cleaning the headstones and decided that if it really worried us, I could pop along myself with a scrubbing brush and some water with bleach and detergent. In the end, it comes down to personal choice how one wishes the graves of one’s ancestors to look to the public eye, but there is a certain jarring element to the restoration of some graves in the gentle environment of the old cemetery.

img_2222For spring scenes, the cemetery was unsurpassed. I must go again in summer and see if the secret hands have wrought similar magic into the next season.

img_2175If you are on Facebook, I have posted an album of additional photos to our garden page. I took so many and that medium is better for multiple photos.

Looking left, the hanging gardens of New Plymouth

Looking left, the hanging gardens of New Plymouth

Interesting austerity to the right, topped by a kowhai tree

Interesting austerity to the right, under the sparse umbrella of a kowhai tree