Tag Archives: Te Henui cemetery

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.

Late summer inspirations from the graveyard

I returned to the main cemetery of New Plymouth yesterday. As the season advances inexorably into what is already showing signs of late summer, I wanted to see what was in bloom. “Was She who is the Phantom of the Graveyard there?” Mark asked. He had a personalised tour last month from the bright and bubbly person who wishes to remain anonymous and unacknowledged but who has beavered away there for many years now. These days more volunteers have come forward to join her and it is a lovely place to visit.

Why go there rather than our public gardens to see what is in flower? I am delighted by what is the grown ups’ version of the miniature gardens our children used to make for Show Day in their junior school years. Grave-sized gardens, in fact, which are styled individually, often from donated plants. It is an interesting place to look at plant combinations, plant performance under a light maintenance regime (the area is huge) and incidents of serendipity.

I am planning a meadow for our new Court Garden but, influenced by the Pictorial Meadows excellence in the UK, I want to select plants that will bloom in succession from spring to autumn. At this time of summer, we are not as flowery here as earlier in the season and I was wondering what we could consider. There weren’t many answers for me as far as the proposed meadow is concerned because I think I want to at least start that with mostly annuals and biennials rather than perennials and bulbs in order to achieve the meadow look as opposed to herbaceous plantings. But there was plenty of other interest amongst the graves.

Canna liles star in these small, grave-sized gardens

Cannas and dahlias were the stars yesterday morning. I am not a fan of cannas. They are too big, dominant and blobby for our tastes here and they don’t die down gracefully. But they are certainly showy and the colour range surprised me – from whites and pale lemons through paler pinks to bright, vibrant showstopper blooms. I can admire them without needing to grow them. In fact, I prefer to admire them elsewhere.

Gaura – they do indeed dance like butterfies in the breeze

The gaura looked terrific. Ethereal even, waving in the light breeze like clouds of butterflies. I must try again with these now we have more open areas of garden in full sun. And as I admired the combination of pink lavatera and tall cosmos, I realised again that it is the lightness and movement that I want in our newer meadow and perennial plantings. The romantic prairie look, Mark just called it. That is why I am not so keen on the ponderous cannas.

Hibiscus trionum

One grave was covered in Hibiscus trionum and it was the most eye-catching display of this pretty plant that I have seen.

Lilium formasanum reaching two metres tall

We had been talking about Lilium formasanum the previous day. While it is regarded as a weed in this country and banned from sale, we are quite happy to let it pop up around our place. It is one of those plants that I think in time we may come to accept as a permanent addition to our environment. I assume its weed status is on account of its seeding ways and its ability to pop up in all sorts of situations. We are increasingly of the view that we must learn to live with many of these interlopers and only wage chemical warfare on those that endanger our natural flora – the likes of Clematis vitalba (old man’s beard), Japanese knot weed and, in the area where we live, giant gunnera and pampas grass. The Formosan lily was looking right at home and picture perfect amongst the graves. It is a beautiful flower, though without the heady fragrance of many other lilies.

The belladonnas were also in bloom, as they are on our road verges and wilder margins of the garden here. They are so common we take them for granted, but if you look afresh at them each season, they are a lovely late summer bloom.

Alstomeria flower on and on, seen here with plumbago

In terms of bangs for the buck, alstromerias work hard. I need more of these. Not for the meadow but for my hot summer border. And definitely not the modern over-bred varieties that have been shrunk down to be bedding plants. I want more of the big, tall ones in clear reds, yellows and orange colour mixes. They seem to bloom from spring to autumn and that is not to be sniffed at, as long as you can contain their wandering ways.

Rudbeckias!

All I came up with for my meadow in the end were rudbeckias to go with the amaranthus that has already established itself as a naturalised wildflower here. I may use the Lilium formasanum, despite it being a bulb and I had already decided I wanted the white Japanese anemone in big swathes, despite it being perennial. I simply love the romance of the windflowers. They need to be managed. In a garden situation they can be thuggish and invasive but I think I can mange them in the meadow.

Butterflies, bees and no doubt a host of other insect and bird life inhabit these gardens

Graveyards can be austere, grim places and parts of the Te Henui are of this stark nature, maintained only by weed spray and lawn mowing. But the areas full of these small gardens, flowers and trees lift the spirits and it is clear the public love walking through. Each tap has a little watering receptacle for dogs which was an endearing sight. It is worth a visit and I hope our elected Council officers and paid staff appreciate the special character that the volunteers, led by the dedicated Phantom of the Graveyard, have bestowed upon this place of memories. Some of us even go there for inspiration. Life, growth, flowers and community engagement in amongst death.

Windflower romance – the white Japanese anemones

Witches’ broom in the graveyard

Witches' broom, sticking out like an unsightly sore thumb

Witches’ broom, sticking out like an unsightly sore thumb

I returned to the New Plymouth graveyard, Te Henui cemetery, that I first visited just over a month ago. After my earlier delight, I wanted to see how it was progressing into a new season. Progressing, it is and I have posted a fuller album of photos on our garden Facebook page. But I was shocked at the extent of the witches’ broom in the flowering cherry trees. I have written about this common mutation on the later flowering prunus before. Some varieties are far worse affected than others and I have been spotting it all around the district but it is disappointing to see it through many of the cemetery trees. A bit of timely intervention would save these pretty trees that bring pleasure to so many. Left to its own devices, the witches’ broom will take over and necessitate the removal of the entire tree.

This pretty scene will be at risk if the witches' broom is not dealt with

This pretty scene will be at risk if the witches’ broom is not dealt with

One hopes that New Plymouth District Council will tend to this during the coming summer (pruning of cherry trees should be done in mid-summer) and not just let it get so bad that the trees are doomed.

Grim austerity where maintenance happens with a lawn mower and weed spray

Grim austerity where maintenance happens with a lawn mower and weed spray

Since my earlier post, I have discovered that She Who Tends the Graveyard is in fact a friend of ours and we had not realised the effort and time she devotes to this task. These days she is joined by two other volunteers and I really hope that the district council appreciate their sterling efforts in making this place special. The contrast between the bare austerity of the returned servicemen’s section (which might even be described as grim) and the floriferous delight of the area where these women tend to the graveyard gardens could not be more stark. It has turned a place of death into a community asset enjoyed by many. Could it perhaps take the award for the prettiest graveyard in the country?

But it is scenes like this that make Te Henui Cemetery a special place

But it is scenes like this that make Te Henui Cemetery a special place

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