The Dunedin two­some who are turn­ing a love of gar­den­ing into a re­tire­ment in­come

ANNA MOORE IS RE­MARK­ABLY calm for a woman just chased from Hoop­ers In­let by a sea lion. Mak­ing her way back to shore af­ter an af­ter­noon swim, she had to pick up her pace when she no­ticed it cruis­ing at her heels. Sea lions and pen­guins are com­mon in the wa­ters of Hoop­ers In­let on the Otago Penin­sula where Anna and her gen­eral prac­ti­tioner hus­band Peter Cooke have cre­ated the as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful Hereweka Garden. And stay­ing calm un­der any cir­cum­stances comes nat­u­rally to Anna. Her work as a psy­chother­a­pist de­mands it.

Some­how, Peter and Anna have man­aged to main­tain their ca­reers in the health sec­tor, raise four chil­dren and trans­form four and a half hectares of solid clay ridges and gul­lies into a lush and ver­dant des­ti­na­tion. “Even af­ter 35 years here we still wake up, look out the win­dow and are thrilled by what we see in the garden,” says Anna.

“Some­thing amaz­ing is on dis­play ev­ery day. It might be see­ing the change in the colour of a par­tic­u­lar plant or the ar­rival of cer­tain na­tive birds. We both work three days a week at our re­spec­tive ca­reers, but Peter might spend time in the plant nurs­ery be­fore driv­ing to his prac­tice in Por­to­bello and ev­ery week I’ll pick flow­ers to take to my work­place in Dunedin. We get out into the garden al­most ev­ery day.”

Gar­den­ing en­thu­si­asts have been visit­ing for two decades and more, but since Peter and Anna added an eco-cot­tage in 2012, it has be­come a des­ti­na­tion for hon­ey­moon­ers, cou­ples cel­e­brat­ing sig­nif­i­cant an­niver­saries, and in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers in search of some­thing dis­tinctly “New Zealand”.

The cot­tage will give Anna and Peter the means to em­ploy a gar­dener when, in their great old age, they are no longer able to main­tain the prop­erty them­selves. But at this stage it is still gar­den­ing – specif­i­cally or­ganic – and sus­tain­able liv­ing that are cen­tral to their lives.

They fell in love (in gum­boots and damp home­spun jer­seys) on a visit to a com­mu­nity veg­etable plot at the Univer­sity of Otago in the early 1970s, and mar­ried in 1976. Peter was a new­comer to the good life, while Anna had grown up with or­gan­ics. Her grand­fa­ther de­vel­oped the first whole­meal bread in Dunedin, and had it made by Frew’s Bak­ery and sold as Doc­tor Moore’s Bread.

“For the first few years of our mar­ried life we lived at Kakanui near Oa­maru and were en­thralled by the rich black soil there,” says Anna. But Dunedin was the cou­ple’s turf, and there was never any ques­tion that they would make their lives close to the south­ern city. In the early 1980s, they bought the land at Hoop­ers In­let, half an hour’s drive from Dunedin’s Oc­tagon, and started de­vel­op­ing an im­pres­sive veg­etable garden, or­chard and hen run on the ridge at the back of the site.

“Haul­ing bar­row-loads of or­ganic mat­ter to build the top soil was the hard­est part of the work we did, and we’re glad we don’t have to do that any­more,” says Peter. But it had to be done be­fore they could en­joy the thrill of cre­at­ing the drifts and forests, dells, bor­ders and veg­etable plots while run­ning a mod­est com­mer­cial plant nurs­ery and en­joy­ing their day jobs.

“In the early days, we were work­ing in broad brush strokes and cre­at­ing fab­u­lous can­vasses,” says Anna. “Nowa­days we’re main­tain­ing the garden, and it’s as if we are work­ing with a fine brush.” Their favourite tools for main­te­nance work are al­ways close to hand.

Says Anna: “One of my favourites is the Ja­panese hori-hori, a trowel that has a ser­rated edge and deals to tap roots like dan­de­lion and dock. We bought two back from Ja­pan. The other is the silky saw, also from Ja­pan. They range from pocket-size for prun­ing roses to large tree pruners and all sizes in be­tween.”

The garden beds are boarded in knee-high dry stone walls and con­nected by broad grassy paths, all of them built by Peter.

“The veg­etable and or­chard ar­eas take up about half an acre in the old par­lance,” he says. “We grow species you wouldn’t ex­pect to find in Dunedin – figs, mul­ber­ries, cit­rus, tamar­il­los and fei­joas as well as ap­ples, pears, plums and berries.”

Else­where in the garden, Anna has peren­nial bor­ders and roses, and beau­ti­ful trees such as cher­ries, mag­no­lias, maples and rhodo­den­drons with lav­ish un­der-plant­ings. They in­vite friends for a spring blos­som party ev­ery Septem­ber. She has a dell of hy­drangeas in mar­vel­lous shapes and colours. There’s one ridge where rem­nants of the orig­i­nal na­tive for­est stand. The 70 rimu trees are the only ones left on the penin­sula.

And then there’s the Gond­wana Val­ley. Look­ing down into it from the up­per ridge, it is breath­tak­ingly dense, silent and primeval. Enor­mous tree ferns stand like um­brel­las over cold hardy palms, cab­bage trees and mon­key puz­zles.

“Some 80 mil­lion years ago, New Zealand was joined up with Africa, South Amer­ica, Aus­tralia and Antarc­tica. The land­masses sep­a­rated but there were orig­i­nal plants in all of those coun­tries that now have de­scen­dants, and I’ve been plant­ing their seeds,” says Peter. “I be­gan to de­velop the Gond­wana theme about 12 years ago in a lit­tle side val­ley off the garden proper.”

As a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Den­drol­ogy So­ci­ety, ded­i­cated to the sci­en­tific study of trees and other woody plants, he sources Gond­wana seeds from den­drol­o­gists in New Zealand and abroad.

Says Anna: “When our boys – we gave them all tree names, Lin­den, Rowan and Jar­rah – were at univer­sity they earned money by putting tracks through the garden. Our el­dest, Rebecca, helped too but she missed out on a botan­i­cal name, so she called her first child Lily.”

The garden is alive with na­tive birds. Bell­birds have al­ways been here, but it took about 18 years of tree plant­ing be­fore the tuis and wood pi­geons were seen ev­ery day. If they are in luck, vis­i­tors may glimpse New Zealand’s small­est bird – the ri­fle­man – but there are also fan­tails, grey war­blers and shin­ing cuck­oos. And then there are the wad­ing birds down at the in­let.

Hoop­ers In­let is on the dark side of the Otago Penin­sula. The lack of light pol­lu­tion from Dunedin and the ab­sence of nearby houses al­low guests to stargaze and ob­serve the splen­dour of the Aurora Aus­tralis on an evening’s stroll to the in­let, just min­utes from Hereweka Garden.

TH­ESE PAGES, CLOCK­WISE: Peter, fol­lowed by his choco­late labrador Fern and his son Jar­rah’s dog Kalu, wheel­bar­rows a load of com­post to the bed where he’ll plant shrubs; a dou­ble- flow­er­ing helle­borus; Anna picks the Rhodo­den­dron ‘ Loderi Hor­sham’.

Peter fires up the Ital­ian Palazzetti bar­be­cue be­fore cook­ing a pizza lunch for all the fam­ily, in­clud­ing the cou­ple’s eight grand­chil­dren.

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