I have been thinking of my late mother, Cicely Denz, this week and realised I have never paid tribute to the fact that I, as well as Mark, grew up in lovely gardens. The difference is the plural – Mark grew up in the one garden that is now our home at Tikorangi. I grew up in multiple gardens, mostly around Dunedin.
She was a fine garden maker, my mother, though the gardens were distinctly clonal. She worked from the same plant list of favourites and she never stuck around long enough to see them mature. I am sure it would have been different had my father lived longer and she had her lifelong love next to her in body and not just memory. She would have put down roots and may well have earned a place in the modern garden history of this country.
Instead for a woman of her generation, intelligent but under educated with no recognised career, lacking a man at her side when solo parents were almost unknown, leading a distinctly precarious financial existence and lacking the usual anchors in life, my mother turned her gardening into her public face and her claim to status.
She was always a gardener. Her first was an acre in size. When my father was demobbed post WW2, he went to work at Porton Down in Salisbury. As that place was a military scientific research facility, this may well have contributed to his premature demise (think nerve gas research, organophosphates and other agricultural chemicals). With the shortage of housing in bombed Britain, they relocated two military huts and my mother built her first garden around them. Despite extensive reading of the major English garden writers, she never deviated from the romantic English country cottage style of gardening of that era.
By the time I was born, my parents decided to return to New Zealand with the four children in search of the traditional NZ family life and employment opportunities meant Dunedin. That English style of gardening translated well to Dunedin which may never get as cold as most of the UK but has similarly low sunshine hours, never gets hot and is characterised by a soft light unknown to most of us north of there.
She was always renowned for her proper English primroses. They will grow here in more northerly climes but they hardly flower whereas my childhood was spent with vases of them in season. Along with violets, hellebores and London Pride. Roses were always of the old fashioned variety, not a vulgar hybrid tea in sight. And herbaceous paeonies, big clumps of these spring delights. We all grew up knowing the name of Paeonia mlokosewitschii – she was a demon for botanical names. Every garden had at least one Prunus Kanzan (in pink) and one Prunus Tai Haku (in white).
Lawnmowers were not her friend. She attempted to pressgang any passing young male into using the push mower on grass which tended to be overgrown. At one stage, she decided that a brand new motor mower might do the trick. This required site visits from the poor young salesman, whom she probably reduced to tears with her complete inability to start the engine and her tendency to blame the machine. The shop took the mower back.
In due course, Cicely gave up on all lawns. She figured that it cost money to maintain a lawn (it does) and she would rather have gravel paths and garden.
Not only did she not have lawns, there was a total lack of hard landscaping. Good gardener she may have been and certainly she had no fear of hard work, but she lacked any home handywoman skills and she rarely had sufficient money to pay for someone else to come and install anything like fencing or paving. Garden ornaments were completely absent. Mind you, this was in the days before it became fashionable to adorn your garden like an overstuffed display cabinet.
I quipped many years ago that all she needed to keep her happy were five plants, a spade and a wheelbarrow. She could then move the plants like chess, as she was wont to do. But she was a garden maker at heart. The joy for her lay in breaking in a piece of ground and planting it up, garnering much admiration from passersby and neighbours. She had little interest in maintaining the garden once established so soon became bored, finding some compelling reason to move. I kid you not. In my lifetime, I can recall about ten gardens she made. There may have been more.
Her mantra was ground cover. She firmly believed that if you plant ground cover densely, it suppresses the weeds. Well, no. She didn’t like weeding and ground cover plants mask the weed infestations, rather than suppressing them. It also makes weeding more difficult because the weeds and plants become deeply intertwined. Her style of gardening was hugely labour intensive and generally involved lifting all the ground cover perennials once a year and dividing them so the weeds did at least get dealt to annually. She spent pretty much every single day in her garden.
Cicely’s style of gardening was transient. These gardens lacked the bones to carry them through the decades. There was a lack of good long term trees and a lack of structure or form. I doubt that any survive now. She never went back to look. But for the few years of their glory, they were a delight and a fine example of that particular garden style.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.