“It’s something that’s bred in you, gardening,” Mary Dickson tells me as we sit at her kitchen counter sipping frothy lattes and looking out on her beautiful magnolias. “My grandmother was a keen gardener and I was always asking her the names of plants. Most young girls wouldn’t have given much notice!”
I visited Mary on an overcast day in September, as she was getting her garden ready for the thousands of visitors who would be strolling through in just 6 weeks’ time. This year will be Mary’s twenty-fifth year in the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular (formerly the Taranaki Rhododendron Festival) which has been running for 26 years.
Mary moved from the farm to her Hawera home 16 years ago after her first husband passed away, and she wasted no time getting stuck into the bare patch of land. Just one year later she was back in the Festival having created a whole new garden from scratch. “It was a good thing to keep busy at the time, although I think I drove the neighbours a bit nutty breaking concrete at all hours of the day and night!” she laughs.
Concrete that was once the cow shed on the old family farm lives on in Mary’s garden as a picturesque water feature, a retaining wall, stepping stones and a paved corner at the rear of her garden. She had the concrete trucked into town and then single handedly smashed it up before creating her garden features.
Other remnants of the family farm can be spotted around Mary’s garden, providing a pleasant contrast to the vibrant colours of her plants. An old wheel frame turned on its side supports a rose bush and a great wooden wheel is featured at the entrance, half camouflaged behind a rhododendron. A rustic old cream can is now home to a flowering Clematis spilling over its lid.
The main focus of the garden is an archway and an old seat, veiwed from the kitchen window. She reminisces about the day she overheard her husband telling her daughter, “you know what she wants now - she wants an archway!” “I still remember them out there giggling, but I kept out of the way and sure enough they made the archway for me together.”
Mary’s garden features three archways. Two are covered in Clematis, while a long archway at the back of her garden is swathed in roses. Bright blue Aubretia are in full spring bloom, nicely offset by edges of pastel coloured Rhodohypoxis. The overall effect is as if you’ve stumbled into a secret wonderland of colour.
Many confides that her biggest gardening fear is to become boring. “You’re always striving to keep it interesting. You know, everyone likes to know what’s in vogue. If I don’t like something, it comes out, I’m always critical about an area getting boring.”
She spends every day she can in her garden but next year her plan is to try to make it a little more manageable and less time consuming. “No one realises how much time you’ve got to put into your garden to get it ready for public viewing.” She admits she makes work for herself by trying to grow plants that are sensitive to the cold and frosts. “I’m always out checking on things and covering them at night.”
On commending Mary for her gardening achievements and stamina she brushes me off with a laugh. “It’s all about winning and losing though isn’t it? Life is winning and losing and so is gardening. If we didn’t have challenges it’d be boring.”
What’s your advice to new gardeners?
“You’ve got to get out there and try. You’ll do something wrong, but you’ll do something right. Start with the basics, a vege garden.”
Where do you get inspiration from, any particular garden or gardener?
“Oh everywhere. Every garden I go to, you’re always learning from someone else. I always come away from someone’s garden with a new idea and you mightn’t do exactly what they did, but you always get inspiration from seeing other people’s gardens. It always makes me come home and re-look and re-think.”
What area of your garden takes the most work?
It differs. The lawns and the edges are a huge thing to do though, it makes a real difference if someone does them for you.
Orange heucheras make a cheerful pairing with viola flowers
Colourful Heucheras feature throughout Mary's garden and are displayed in a cluster of interesting vessels
Mary is fond of blue flowers including Abutilon vitifolium, a rare shrub