Gar­den war­rior

Nei­ther salt-laden winds nor bit­ing storms, nor rebel cats or re­cal­ci­trant cows have stopped this South Taranaki dairy farmer from cre­at­ing the gar­den of her dreams.


A quirky South Taranaki gar­den worth fight­ing the cows for!

Elaine San­der­son is a gar­den war­rior. For more than 30 years, she has faced down salt-laden winds, bit­ing storms, hun­gry cats and wan­der­ing cows. And she has not just fought back; she has won. With per­se­ver­ance, the South Taranaki dairy farmer has tamed a Manaia pad­dock and turned it into a pro­tected sanc­tu­ary filled with na­tive plant­ings, de­cid­u­ous trees, roses, rocks, sculp­tures and colour­ful peren­ni­als.

When Elaine first started gar­den­ing, there was nothing but a few es­tab­lished trees around the farm­house built just 1km from the wild Tas­man Sea. “The gar­den­ing started be­cause of the chil­dren,” re­calls hus­band John, sit­ting at the kitchen counter eat­ing toast for morn­ing tea. “She couldn’t leave the house but she could do an hour here and an hour there in the gar­den. It gave her some­thing to do.”

The gar­den is en­tirely Elaine’s do­main. “It’s not my thing at all,” says the man who is heav­ily into forestry.

“He will oc­ca­sion­ally take the lawn­mower to town,” she ex­plains.

Not only does Elaine milk cows most days, she cuts the lawns on a ride-on mower and cares for the gar­den, keeping it up to scratch for en­try into the an­nual Pow­erco Taranaki Gar­den Spec­tac­u­lar.

The fes­ti­val cel­e­brates its 30th an­niver­sary this year, and the San­der­son gar­den has been part of it for more than 10 years. This year, their coastal gar­den is one of 47 en­tries spread right around Mt Taranaki.

It was neigh­bour and fes­ti­val stal­wart Jenny Oak­ley who en­cour­aged Elaine to open her gates for the 10-day event, which runs from Oc­to­ber 27 to Novem­ber 5. Now the fes­ti­val is the im­pe­tus for Elaine to keep work­ing on the gar­den, im­prov­ing and adding new ar­eas of interest, and continuing the fight against pre­vail­ing west­er­lies and the salt-an­gry south­east­er­lies that do the most dam­age.

This mother of four adult chil­dren couldn’t plant any­thing pre­cious un­til the shel­ter went in, grew up and thick­ened. In the be­gin­ning her foot sol­diers were karo, banksia and po­plars, al­though the lat­ter have all gone now. “So, I put in the wind­breaks, then made a lot of mis­takes,” Elaine says. “I planted rhodo­den­drons and aza­leas and what a ridicu­lous idea that was. They’ve gone – too much salt. You only need one de­cent salt storm and that’s it for them.”

But many other plants have sur­vived and thrived in the ru­ral gar­den. “We have got beau­ti­ful vol­canic ash; it just goes on for­ever,” she says.

Camel­lias, trac­tor seat ligu­laria, eu­phor­bia, mis­cant­hus and na­tive grasses, cherry trees, Por­tuguese lau­rels and roses flour­ish in this gar­den that has an ex­pan­sive vista of Mt Taranaki.

Daisies are also foun­da­tion plants. “How I started off my gar­den was grow­ing daisies as shel­ter for a younger plant and then I’d get rid of the daisies. That was back in the early days.” Like a trib­ute to those sup­port­ive flow­ers, she has planted two urns with crim­son Fed­er­a­tion daisies on the front steps.

Nearby is a tow­er­ing wal­nut that was al­ready in the gar­den when they moved here in 1984, and a bor­der pro­tected by a corokia hedge. This bed stars the arum lily ‘Green God­dess’, eu­phor­bias, a deep pur­ple salvia loved by bees, a shaggy stand of Ele­gia capen­sis as well as a lux­u­ri­ous-look­ing ligu­laria, in­clud­ing the leop­ard plant. There are also two old-fashioned Chi­nese lanterns – one red and the other yel­low. “Abu­tilons grow like weeds. They are lovely for the birds and wax-eyes.” At ground level, orange-brown carex rip­ples in the breeze. “I used to have a lot of grasses, but the cats slept on them and it kills them.”

Not only does Elaine milk cows most days, she cuts the lawns on a ride-on mower and cares for the gar­den, keeping it up to scratch for en­try into the an­nual Pow­erco Taranaki Gar­den Spec­tac­u­lar.

Elaine is al­ways fo­cus­ing for­ward, look­ing to­wards the Pow­erco Taranaki Gar­den Spec­tac­u­lar. “It’s the chal­lenge of mak­ing your gar­den up to date.”

Elaine ad­mits she used to have nine cats, but now only has two; a gin­ger boy called Gor­geous Griff or GG for short (“be­cause he thinks he’s beau­ti­ful”) and a long-haired tabby called Frilly, who has a pen­chant for fish­ing. “He ate 27 gold­fish be­fore I noticed,” Elaine says.

Around the pond, she has planted wee tufts of buxus that will even­tu­ally be clipped into box balls. “I have lots of ideas but they don’t al­ways get car­ried out,” she says. “I just let na­ture do its own thing. That’s what’s so de­light­ful, when you see some­thing com­ing up.”

Some nat­u­ral by-prod­ucts are not so wel­come. “We grow rocks, un­for­tu­nately. It’s a back-break­ing job picking up rocks out of the pad­dock.”

Boul­ders from the Kaupokonui River had been “plonked” on the lawn for the San­der­son kids when they were younger. “The hours they spent play­ing on the rocks…”

These days the nat­u­ral sculp­tures serve as home to a weep­ing crabap­ple. And the chil­dren’s old play­house, re­dec­o­rated in­side by Elaine a few years back, has an en­trance­way en­twined with a ‘Cé­cile Brün­ner’ rose that has a stem as thick as a tree trunk.

This gar­den has other hard land­scap­ing, in­clud­ing bor­ders cre­ated with bricks, rail­way sleep­ers and river stones, most edged by con­crete mow­ing strips to make Elaine’s job eas­ier.

The front hedge, formed by karo, pseu­dopanax, co­prosma, abu­tilons and orig­i­nal camel­lias, pro­tects the home from west­erly winds and traf­fic noise. Along the hedge are five of­fer­ing urns backed by huge head­stones. “Peo­ple joked ‘which pet cow is going there and there,’” Elaine laughs.

Two other beau­ties she adores are her “lady sphinxes” from Burma. These bronze-hued fi­bre­glass pieces wel­come peo­ple to the gar­den. She first saw beau­ti­ful ver­sions

of these in San­ti­ago, Chile. “My hus­band said, ‘Don’t get any ideas, they are too heavy to carry home.’”

Us­ing her clip­pers, Elaine has cre­ated other sculp­tures. In a bed near the rocks, there are three box balls backed by pink and orange abu­tilons. A grace­ful gum tree with curl­ing bark spreads its limbs over a leggy stand of Ele­gia

capen­sis, yel­low and green striped flax, a short­ened karo hedge and three clipped col­umns of lonicera. “That,” she points to the karo, “is essential, otherwise there would be nothing here. We had a huge storm here for three days at the end of May and the salt dam­age is still ev­i­dent now.”

Be­cause the soil is so good, she con­stantly cuts back, cuts down and culls. She had seven Chilean fire trees, but they got too big so six had to go. The re­main­ing tree, which she de­scribes as “the scruffy one”, is lux­u­ri­ant and loved by the bell­birds.

At the edge of the gar­den is a steep drop to a river which winds its way to the sea. As the seag­ull flies, it’s just 1km from the house to the crash­ing waves, but the river is so wind­ing, it cov­ers 7km. The San­der­sons know this be­cause they have done ri­par­ian plant­ing along ev­ery bend and turn. Elaine points out a tin fence put in place to stop the wind whip­ping up from the river: “You never win with shel­ter – it’s an on­go­ing thing.”

Maples, clivias, nikau palms and more abu­tilon cre­ate a lush pic­ture by a weep­ing elm, which are the best trees to han­dle the salt as­sault. “They are the last to get their leaves and the first to lose them,” Elaine says.

The gar­den also fea­tures weep­ing pears planted in a pair, and the ru­gosa roses ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’ and ‘Blanc Dou­ble de Cou­bert’ add colour and per­fume to a rose walk.

A wood­land area is a gar­den room filled with small­grow­ing peren­ni­als, par­tic­u­larly pur­ple gera­ni­ums. You crunch through shin­gle paths edged with river stones and in this space, there are more large rocks, these ones put in place to fill a hole left by an orig­i­nal cam­phor tree de­mol­ished by Cy­clone Bola in March 1988.

Other gar­den de­stroy­ers come on four legs. “When we were away in March this year, we had all the cows in the gar­den, 300 of them. It’s all re­cov­er­ing nicely now. If it had been in May I would have been a wreck, but March gave it plenty of time to re­cover for the fes­ti­val.”

Luck­ily, it was only the lawn that got dam­aged this time. “I have had cows in the gar­den quite of­ten.”

This is a dairy farm, after all. Elaine uses calf bed­ding as mulch ev­ery­where, feeds with Bio­boost and barely sprays for pests and in­sects. “If I see aphids, I just use fly spray,” she says.

In her gar­den (which is rated four stars by NZ Gar­dens Trust), Elaine is al­ways fo­cus­ing for­ward, look­ing to­wards the gar­den fes­ti­val. “It’s the chal­lenge of mak­ing your gar­den up to date. It’s ob­vi­ously meet­ing all the peo­ple be­cause you learn so much from talk­ing to oth­ers. You get loads of tips.”

Gar­den­ing is al­ways on Elaine’s mind. Ev­ery night she goes to bed and lays there think­ing about what she’s done and what more she can do. “It’s a healthy thing to have in your head,” she says. “Don’t worry about the woop­sies. Let na­ture take over, be­cause it’s just a gar­den all said and done.”

1 Drive­way 2 House 3 Front hedge 4 Lawn 5 River 6 Wood­land 7 Pond 8 The bach 9 Gar­den walk­ways Plan drawn by Renée Davies

A friend gave her the chair from north­ern China, on the con­di­tion that Elaine painted it bright red.

Of­fer­ing urns and head­stones cre­ate a for­mal look.

One of two “lady sphinxes” wel­comes vis­i­tors .

In front of “the bach”, Elaine has cre­ated a white and green theme us­ing a to­bacco plant, lib­er­tia, fox­gloves and clipped box balls in ter­ra­cotta pots.

Chi­nese war­riors flank a gar­den path, backed by a tea rose on the right and a pas­sion­fruit vine on the left.

The flow­er­ing crabap­ple matches the white table and chairs.

A Ja­panese maple stands in­side a stone koru, flow­er­ing crabap­ple behind .

Ac­ers are the stars in this area of the gar­den.

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