It’s so easy to take our own environment for granted, and so much easier to value and appreciate differences when we travel overseas. From the video promoting the Taranaki Garden Festival, the open gardens featured are stunning, but I was surprised that nearly all seem to have a distinctly English flavour. On the other hand, perhaps not so surprising for a country settled not only by the Maori people but also by the English, and which measures its annual rainfall in metres.
But one inner-city garden in New Plymouth, near Mt Taranaki on the west coast of New Zealand’s north isle, defies this English style. Te Kainga Marire is a native garden open to the public by appointment for a modest fee from September to April… and it wasn’t far from where we were staying that night. I persuaded my friends to visit.
A jungle of gorse and blackberry when Valda Poletti and David Clarkson bought the 0.2 hectare property in 1972, Te Kainga Marire (meaning “peaceful encampment”) is now a lush garden celebrating New Zealand’s native plants: an intimate microcosm of the country’s different mountain environments.
After opening the mossy entrance gates – more of those captivating epiphytes, softening wooden structures everywhere we looked – my friends and I passed a pond surrounded by native grasses, an alpine zone, and a tree fern glade whose fronds now tower nine metres overhead.
Through the glade we stepped into the fern house, cool and dim, then down into a glow worm tunnel (yes, we have half a dozen glow worms, Valda says), before emerging into bright sunshine – a symbolic journey of rebirth.
This all might sound kitsch, but it wasn’t, not one bit, not only because of Valda and David’s genuine love of plants, but because of the four decade’s worth of knowledge and experience underpinning their creation.
Paths are mossy and green – something very special for visitors like us hailing from the driest state on the driest continent! – or set with river pebbles. Nearly all the plants are completely unfamiliar to me – I couldn’t identify genera, let alone species! But I recognise the unmistakable yellow bells of a kōwhai tree (Sophora sp), as well as a native clematis.
The house is in keeping with the local theme too – Valda calls it a “posh mountain hut” – and the dark unpretentious timber nestles comfortably within the lush vegetation. And of course Valda has a (mostly) organic vegie patch that feeds the family.
You could easily spend hours in this intimate, serene garden – there are so many tiny plants tucked into every corner, but we simply didn’t have time. As my friends were heading up the driveway, Valda and I were still poring over a native plant book she’d brought out to the garden seat. In fact, I felt such a connection with this gardening sister that I wanted to give her a hug when I left!
Many of you reading this will recognise that impulse, springing from a recognition of a shared passion for plants, and the generosity of those who open their gardens to us. Thank you, Valda and David.
To Aussie gardeners visiting New Zealand: don’t miss the Taranaki region, and especially don’t miss Te Kainga Marire.