Tag Archives: Taranaki garden festival

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.

Remembering Lara Bingle

Work is underway on taming the Wild North Garden in readiness for finally opening it

It is official. We have agreed to open the garden again but just for the ten days of the Taranaki Garden Festival – Friday 29 October to Sunday 7 November. I wasn’t at all sure we would during the months of preparation last year which took a high toll, but the addition of a new member to our team makes it all look more manageable. Besides, we want to show off our Wild North Garden, a 4 acre extension to the garden that has been in development for the last 30 years.

Last year was the biggest year ever for the Festival, exceeding all our expectations with New Zealanders on the move. It may not be very different this year as offshore travel remains extremely restricted. The full programme won’t be released until July but the initial information can be found on the Taranaki Garden Festival website.

At its best, the Wild North Garden can be very pretty but had grown steadily wilder until recently

The news of the trans-Tasman bubble opening this week is exciting for us personally. At last, we can plan on seeing our three children and only grandchild this year, after a long gap. All are currently living in Australia. For overseas readers, the trans-Tasman bubble is the first major quarantine-free travel bubble between two countries with no Covid in the community. If it works out and proves that we can keep NZ safe, I am assuming travel may open up again to other safe countries – many of our Pacific Island neighbours, Taiwan and Vietnam – later in the year. I do not think we will be opening to the rest of the world any time soon.

Mark and I are not rushing to book tickets to Australia just yet. We would like to be vaccinated first (I think our demographic is scheduled for next month) and we want to see what happens when there is a community outbreak either side of the bubble. This will happen and when it does, flights will be frozen and borders closed in a flash. Being stranded across the ditch (as the Tasman Sea is oft referred to here) for an extra 3 days would be fine but if it stretches into many weeks, that would be problematic. We have waited over a year already, we can wait another couple of months until the picture is clearer.

The bubble, however, will not just reunite families. It is also to kickstart tourism on both sides and it may be that some Australians would like to come over for our Taranaki Garden Festival.

So who is Lara Bingle, you might ask? For some reason, her name has stuck in my memory. She is the charming young woman in a bikini asking ‘So where the bloody hell are ya?’ at the end of the only Tourism Australia advertisement I remember. It came to mind as I was thinking about whether Australians may come over to our garden festival. The idea that it would be ripe for a spoof in the garden is one of those ideas that may have sounded better after a couple of glasses of wine.

Notwithstanding that, we would love to welcome any Australians as well as New Zealanders who wish to come and see us at the end of October. Going into public situations with no need for masks or physical distancing, no restrictions and no fear is a privileged position for those of down here in the South Pacific.

The Court Garden this week in autumn. It will look very different again in November when we reopen for ten days only

That was the week that was.

Actually ten days, but ‘those were the ten days that were’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

About day five, Mark commented that this may be both the wettest and the most successful Taranaki garden festival in the long history of the event. The numbers were huge – three times what we expected in our garden. Apparently over one million of us travel overseas every year and with that coming to an abrupt halt, there are huge numbers of people suffering from cabin fever so getting out and about in our own country. Added to that, we were opening for the first time in seven years.

I was delighted to meet so many people who follow this site and on social media. So often people recognised things I have written about and commented on seeing them in real life. Some had more retentive memories than I have.

Sodden overflow carparking

But it rained. Almost every day and many nights. Not constantly but enough to have us awash at times. The carparking was challenging in the extreme. I used to think we could park 27 cars in our parking area if we managed it carefully but Brian – Carpark Volunteer Extraordinaire – achieved heady new heights when he managed to stack in 54 vehicles at the same time, all with access to an exit. That was before the rain rendered parts of the overflow grassed area unusable.

An aggressive tree stump biding its time – as it was a few weeks ago
The same stump after it snared its prey

Yet another large tree stump leapt out to trap an unsuspecting vehicle. Lloyd had to get the chainsaw out to free the car this time (he jacked up the previous car that stranded itself on a different tree stump earlier) so it is now a shadow of its previous self.

Blocking off some paths because of mud baths and opening others

We were barrowing out wood chip to muddy tracks and redirecting the routes in the park meadow, to close off tracks that had become mud baths.

Look at the number plate!
Rarely has a specialised tradesman been such a welcome sight

I had thought that with friends volunteering in the carpark and at the entry, Mark and I might get to swan around like lord and lady of the manor. Ha! Wishful thinking. My life is all glamour – or not. On Monday the septic tank that services our visitor toilets cried ‘enough’ and backed up and overflowed. This is not what anybody needs on a day with hundreds of visitors in the garden including a large coachload. All credit to the company that sent a man with a truck, a pump and hose out within a few hours. I decided this event was best described as a poocalypse. The operator was a tad surprised at my enthusiastic response, commenting that it was a warmer welcome than he gets from his wife. I hasten to add that it was all smiles and words; I did not embrace this man, despite my relief at his appearance.

Dudley, settling into his new role at the garden entrance

Dudley came to us an adult dog – an SPCA rehome – five years ago after we had closed the garden, so this was his first festival. He took to it like a duck to water. He is very food-focused, our Duds. Despite being a well-upholstered dog, he suffers permanent anxiety about where his next meal might come from so he was delighted to find that most garden visitors who have food will share it with him. As he took to checking all car boots when they were opened, we couldn’t decide whether to confer the new title of Carpark Liaison Officer on him, or perhaps Biosecurity Manager.

Dudley in his element

Geriatric Spike is an old hand at such events but now past the role of greeting visitors. He would lurch out to make a guest appearance from time to time but being stone deaf, somewhat unsteady and with acute dementia, he caused us great anxiety each time he found himself in the busy carparking area. I lost count of how many times I carried him back to his beds in the house. We can’t shut him in because he needs the door open at all times to carry out frequent bodily functions. And because he came to us as a chained dog (another rescue dog), we have never tied him up again so that was not an option.

Come the final Sunday evening, we were people-d out and talked out. Monday passed in a zombie-like state. Only today are we coming back to life. Now we have almost dismantled the accoutrements that were needed for the festival and we can bask in the euphoria of all the positive comments we received. Clearly we have been doing something right in the last seven years.

Will we open again next year? Ask us in a few months’ time.

Dudley is wondering why the excitement has ended and where all the people who fed him have gone.

The sight on Monday morning when it was all over

Aaand… we are open again

Day one of the garden festival opened not with a whimper, but with a hiss and a roar. The cars started rolling in just before 9am and by 9.10am the main lines of our modest but usually adequate carpark were full. I had gaily told our volunteers that we wouldn’t need them before 9.45 or 10.00 but I was wrong. We were scrambling from the start and didn’t draw breath til the lunchtime lull.

The first line of carparking
Opening up to new lines of carparking. That was soon full to overflowing. It appears we can actually park 54 cars and campervans but that may be our full capacity.

Numbers are not a problem in the garden. We actively garden and open about seven acres and we can sink a lot of people into that area without it feeling crowded. It is the carparking that can be a problem because we have to get vehicles off the road so we manage it carefully. We were directing cars into our second and third parking lines which was fine until one visitor managed to get their vehicle marooned on a large tree stump. This is a feat that nobody else has achieved since Mark’s mother did the same thing on the same stump in the 1970s. It completely blocked the exit for half the vehicles.

A feat unmatched in close to fifty years…
The offending stump

Lloyd to the rescue, though even the normally unflappable Lloyd was a little stressed by this situation. He didn’t want to pull it off with the tractor because that would have pulled the whole front bumper off the car so, ever resourceful, he sent the owner around the garden while he carefully and laboriously jacked up the car using timber bracing until he had it sufficiently clear to enable him to back it off, with no visible damage to the car. I think the visitor was grateful.

My free garden tour at 11am attracted rather too many people for me to manage it as well as I can with smaller numbers. Mark has always been in awe of my ability to take a tour around the garden and to emerge an hour later with more or less the same numbers with which I started. The group this time was too large so I did lose some along the way but it is not compulsory to stay to the end.

Led by the pied piper of Tikorangi, yours truly

Gloria and Pat are mostly managing the gate and we are proud of the 100% cooperation rate with scanning or signing in. Dr Ashley would be proud of us, we feel. It seems that people will forget or neglect to scan unless reminded but everybody agrees that we want to keep NZ free from Covid so they are happy to scan the QA code when specifically requested. For overseas readers, this is the tracing app the government is encouraging so that in the event of a new case, everybody who may have been exposed can be contacted immediately.

Music from 1pm tomorrow (Sunday)

Day one saw numbers that were four times higher than our ten year average for the same day but that was eclipsed this morning. Since then, torrential rain set in so it remains to be seen how the day pans out but the hardy and determined are still out and about and the forecast is much improved for tomorrow. I am hoping that will be the case because we need at least fine-ish weather for the gentle and melodic guitar music by Dominique Blatti from 1pm onwards.

What is affirming is the overwhelmingly positive response from visitors. We were nervous about the meadow – would people relate to it or would New Zealanders see it as full of weeds? Fortunately the reactions have been the former and if anybody at all has thought the latter, they have been too polite to tell us. Ditto the new summer gardens – would people see them as part of the interconnected whole of the garden or would they see them as disconnected, too jarringly different in character? The former option triumphs. This is all music to our ears.

Eight more days until we close the gates again to visitors.

Generally unenthused by green flowers and other garden observations

Mark has never been a fan of green flowers. I asked him why and he replied with utter simplicity, “because I like colour”. As I have observed before, green is colour neutral in a garden situation. Maybe Hippeastrum papilio passes muster because it has quite a bit of red in it and has some hefty flower-wow-power but his preference lies with the glowing red of H. aulicum.

Hippeastrum papilio

I am pleased with H. papilio. We started with a single bulb and now have two good sized patches of it with a profusion of flower spikes this year – at least a dozen on the point of opening in one area alone. It is just patience, time and lifting and dividing that gets a single expensive bulb to a significant block – or an extravagant budget if you want a quicker response. We grow our hippeastrums in woodland conditions because the narcissi fly stay out in the sun so the bulbs don’t get burrowed out by narcissi fly larvae.

We have plenty of green hellebores – Helleborus ‘Sternii’, H. argutifolius and H. foetidus feature heavily in the woodland Avenue Garden – some green arisaemas and a single green orchid but generally I see Mark eyes glaze over with disinterest when green flowers are praised by others. He will go as far as white fading to green or white with streaks of green – but predominantly white, thank you.

Helleborus sternii
I think I was having difficulty getting a good photo in the garden of Helleborus foetidus and, to be honest, it looks more exciting staged
Just the one green orchid but it has a certain grace and style
Yellow clivias, we have a few. Quite a few really.

Some readers may remember when the first yellow clivias became available here, retailing for up to $50 a plant, as I recall. I think about this as I pull out the self-sown seedlings and discard them as surplus to requirements. If you want to raise plants from seed, if the seed is yellow, the plant will flower yellow. Red seed gives orange or red flowered plants. Now the fashion appears to be for the new green flowered varieties, but not here, for reasons already stated. I wouldn’t mind some richer yellow ones but I have only seen one in another garden. The pale yellows can be a bit insipid en masse but really sing when combined with orange and red clivias. Pretty peach clivias would also be a nice addition and are now available but haven’t come our way yet.

The trimming of the Podocarpus parlatorei in the summer gardens

Our focus is entirely on getting the garden ready for opening. Mark is trimming the Podocarpus parlatorei to pillar shapes and he is welcome to this job. It has to be done with secateurs and loppers more than clippers to get the main shape formed. Hopefully it can be done with electric clippers in the future once the shape is defined and the plants have bushed out so it is foliage that needs to be trimmed and not woody branches. The top knots are because he wants to stretch them over to form an archway in time. There are six of them and as the chief shaper is currently incapacitated by a bad shoulder and a cracked rib, it is taking him some time. Notice the old shade cloth spread beneath to capture the mess. Lloyd does the same when he is trimming hedges. It only takes a moment to spread a drop sheet (old sheets or curtains do the same job) yet it makes the clean-up so much faster.

My goal today is to finish down in the park. It is all about tidying in that area, but selective tidying because we like a looser, more natural look in that area. Then it is back up to the top gardens for the final round with fingers crossed that we get no major storms between now and October 30.

Down in the park tidying up so I get to enjoy the wisteria, bluebells and rhododendrons
Rhododendron ‘College Pink’ is both very large and very pink
Following the pink theme, ixias in the new borders
Finally, the bird bath – well used, particularly by tui. It is the outer mill wheel from a grain mill. I used to worry that it wasn’t level until Mark pointed out that is to that small birds can also use it without fear.