Mark is an under-stated man who never gets carried away by the drama of a situation. As we sat down for our early evening conversation before dinner yesterday (a glass of wine may have been involved), he let me tell him about something that had distracted me during the afternoon before starting to tell his news. “I was wondering,” he said, “when I planted rimu trees to take over from the old pines, why I placed one so close to one of the younger pines which had good foliage.”
I didn’t even realise he had done this long-term sequential planning for replacement trees under the old pines. Some of these trees are now coming up to 150 years old. When he referred to a ‘newer’ one, he was referring to those planted by his very late Uncle Les when he still lived with his parents here, rather than those planted by his great grandfather – so ‘newer, younger’ in this context means maybe 100 years old.
Then came the kicker comment: “It seems I didn’t have to worry about that.” I have lived with Mark long enough to know what he meant – the pine tree had come down. This would not have been anything more than inconvenience and a big clean-up job were it not for the timing. When we had a tearing gale during the garden festival ten days ago, we closed off the Avenue Gardens as a safety measure and changed the route for visitors to walk up the very path the tree has fallen across and blocked entirely.
The mystery to us is when it fell because neither of us heard it. I walked up that path mid afternoon on Friday. Mark found the fallen tree late afternoon on Saturday. So there is a 25 hour time frame and in that period, there was rain but no wind. There would have been a loud crack, the sound of breaking branches and then a loud whoomp when it hit the ground. But we heard and felt nothing. Mark thinks it must have happened at night when we were both in deep sleep but I am sure we would have woken because it is not that far from the house. I think it must have happened when I was out shopping on Saturday morning and Mark was working in the shed with the radio on. He is adamant he would have heard it and felt the vibration. Maybe it thought nobody was here to hear it so it did not make a sound? (*Philosophy joke.)
Ah well. A whole lot of firewood has arrived, more than enough for us so we will be sharing it. And we have learned yet another lesson about the unpredictability of when and which way trees may fall when they come down.
Occasionally, Mark and I torture ourselves remembering our years retailing plants. Do not get me wrong. The nursery served us well and enabled us to put our children through university and to retire early. We met many lovely people and to this day, former customers will tell us what they bought from us. Sadly, it is the obnoxious ones that stick most clearly in our memories. There can’t have been that many of them because, between us, we can come up with individual details and sometimes even names. I doubt that any read my posts.
Mark built the nursery on rhododendrons in the first years and indeed, the garden here was primarily seen as a rhododendron garden. They were a hot ticket item and well over 100 000 were produced in Taranaki alone every year. Quite early on, Mark analysed the fact that many of our mailorder customers came from the upper half of the North Island and decided that if he was going to sell them rhododendrons, he would pick the varieties most likely to perform well in warmer climes. Most of the big, showy American hybrids that were flooding into NZ at the time – the likes of ‘Puget Sound’, ‘Lems Cameo’, ‘Anna Rose Whitney’ and so many more – needed colder winters and less humid summers than we can provide. We have lost many of those American and European hybrids in the garden here now and I am sure they never did well in Auckland.
He targeted a range within the maddenii group which were usually characterised by looser trusses of bell-shaped flowers, fragrance, mostly paler colours and, most importantly, healthy foliage in warmer climates. Many were from his father, Felix’s breeding efforts and Mark added to them.
This week when the R. sino nuttalliis are looking so glorious they can take my breath away and many of the maddeni hybrids are flowering, I thought back to those retailing days. It was a constant uphill battle to convince customers that these were splendid plants much better suited to their conditions when their mental image was entirely focused on the classic rhododendron look of big ball trusses sitting atop the foliage. In the 1990s, if they were male customers, they not only had to be big ball trusses, they had to be RED. It became a joke here that every time a nursery plant opened a big truss of red flowers, a man would buy it on the spot. If women bought a red rhododendron, it was almost always for their husband. Maybe times have changed in the decades since.
A rhododendron friend who went around the garden last week commented on how lovely it was to see mature rhododendrons in a garden setting. I had forgotten that huge gulf between tidy, little nursery plants standing maybe 50cm high in their pot and the large specimens we have in the garden. I don’t miss those days of nursery production and sales one bit.
Ironically, as rhododendrons fell from favour in the market, Mark started to get the breakthrough of big, ball trusses on plants that kept good foliage (not turning silver from thrips and getting crispy brown edges to the leaves). We have a long row of them quietly growing in full sun and open conditions in the trial grounds. They are not my favourite; big ball trusses are less appealing to me and they have no scent. Mark is a bit underwhelmed by the flower colours – he doesn’t see any colour breakthroughs in them. But what sets them apart is that growing over the years with no care, no spraying, no fertiliser, no pruning and in full sun, many of them have kept excellent, clean foliage and they cover themselves in blooms every year. That is the breeding step that he managed.
They were bred specifically for our conditions but the commercial market for rhododendrons in NZ is so small now that there is no incentive at all to release them. He just reached that breeding goal too late for our nursery days and for when rhododendrons were an elite and fashionable line. Such is the life of a plant breeder. They can just sit over in the trial grounds. We have the space and they are not doing any harm there.
I have long said that if I could only grow one rhododendron, it would be a R. sino nuttallii. I doubt that they are available commercially here these days when specialist growers have all but gone, although some of the nuttallii or madennii hybrids are still around. Most of you will just have to enjoy them vicariously and take my word for their bold beauty and delightful fragrance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.