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Much to learn from gardens past

Regular readers of this column will have noticed that I frequently refer to my grandparents’ garden. This is because it was the first extensive garden that I knew well.

My parents gardened on wet Lansdowne clay, always fighting to keep their precious plants alive. My father was an enthusiastic, if rather erratic, vegetable gardener. There were few straight rows among his vegetables, but there was a constant supply of fresh vegetables – sometimes a tremendous glut of broad beans or sweet corn, but all nutritious food.

My grandparents’ large section down a long drive in Worksop Road was a garden of delight. By the time I was intimate with it, their children had left home, and their garden was largely given over to the flowers that most interested them.

Their once large vegetable beds had been converted, piece by piece, into rows of bearded iris, which my grandfather collected passionately. There were raised beds for some of the more precious varieties, and larger beds where older types were left to grow semi-wild. I well remember an early spring spent weeding these beds in preparation for a visit from the members of the New Zealand Iris Society, who were holding a national convention here. I learned about gardening from the bottom up!

Just along from this, in an area outside the kitchen, an extensive plot of naturalised daffodils grew underneath the few remaining fruit trees in the remains of an orchard – I mainly remember plums and apples. In spring, the area looked like a natural alpine meadow, blazing away with gold.

Until you looked closely, that is. My grandfather was incapable of just throwing the bulbs and burying them where they landed – even more than 20 years after he had planted them, you could still make out the remnants of the rows.

A short walk past a medium-sized hedge would bring you to the large main lawn, with a variety of features around its perimeter. Starting near the hedge was a large Puya alpestris, the South American bromeliad with large [as in two meters tall] spikes of metallic, teal-coloured flowers. It was to be years before I saw another one.

Moving along the fence was a large sunny rock garden, complete with all sorts of small treasures, including dwarf tulips and daffodils, small dianthus species, and brightly coloured daisies, as well as some amazing Allium species. In a shallow bed in front of it grew an impressive century plant, Agave americana, with its fierce spikes on the outside of a very fleshy blue-grey rosette. I was to spend an afternoon trying to remove this plant for my grandmother, eventually succeeding after snapping the shaft of a shovel.

Alongside the rock garden was a summer house, in front of which grew an enormous feijoa tree. As a child, I would cycle down to my grandparents at the weekend, bringing home plastic bags filled with the fruit. To the side of that was a wishing well, with narrow beds of dwarf plants in the front of it. The well was covered with ivy and had a shingle-topped roof. Both the summer house and the well had been made by my grandfather, who was a carpenter.

Along the southern edge of the lawn was a long goldfish pond, fringed with various water-loving irises, mainly of the Japanese types. Pride of place in this garden went to an orange deciduous azalea, which my grandmother proudly told me had been given to her by her eldest son out of his first pay packet.

Around the rest of the edge of the lawn was an area that contained camellias and masses of alstroemeria when I knew the garden, although it had previously had more perennials in it. This garden terminated in what my grandfather called the “Marble Arch”. These were large pillars about five metres apart that had been rescued from a house he had altered in Lansdowne. Up these pillars grew clematis and roses.

Just past them was a small aviary, which I recall housing pheasants and budgies. This was covered in a tangle of purple wisteria and the rampant climbing rose ‘Cecile Brunner’. These were at the end of the drive which led up to the front door. The end of the driveway featured a classic border with an edging of garden pinks, assorted annuals and rows of standard roses. One the other side of the driveway, in the warmest and driest spot, my grandfather grew some special aril-bred irises, and the first mature Strelitzia [bird of paradise flower] that I ever saw.

To the west of the driveway, separating the house section from a workshop, was a shaded rockery, almost overrun with a host of pink and white miniature cyclamen, and yellow corydalis. Alongside the workshop was a garden devoted to the irises my grandfather bred, some red-hot pokers he raised from seed, and some South African shrubs.

Even though it is nearly 50 years since my grandfather died, and 30 since my grandmother joined him, I still dream about my time with them in their garden, and I often think of all I learned there.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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