The music of seasons
To be a gardener, reckons Janet Blair, is to be an eternal optimist. Yet even this most sanguine of green thumbs sometimes feels her confidence ebb towards the end of a long, hard Central Otago winter.
“You do begin to wonder, ‘Can things ever be the same again? Quite as beautiful?’ And yet it happens. Each year this garden only becomes more beautiful.”
Hidden up a long driveway near Arrowtown, Janet’s garden is an oasis, a 5.56ha “soft green centre” in a landscape of strength and climatic extremes. The weekend before I visited, at the end of January, it had snowed, following a week in which the mercury topped 34 degrees and the talk was of potential drought.
You might think, then, that she’d have her favourite seasons. Not so. “I just love the natural evolution of a garden through the year. It’s like music: you have everything from the prelude – the first stirrings of new life in spring – to the adagio, or slowing down of growth in autumn, which I always think of as being Nature’s compensation for the harsh season to come, the coda.”
Janet and her husband, architect John Blair, bought the property in the early 1970s, attracted by its 1864 cottage and old stone barn. There was no garden to speak of, just bare paddocks spread across an open valley and a handful of trees planted by the farming family for whom the cottage was home over three generations. (No birds either – “It was like being in the Nevis [Valley] on a hot summer day; you could hear a fly buzzing”.)
Janet had no gardening experience back then and, with three young children in tow, not enough time to contemplate taking on such a massive challenge.
“It was only about five years after we’d been here that I found a beautiful old wheelbarrow and a second-hand fork and spade and just started digging up paddocks. There’s nothing like it to get a true feel for the land and it was great thinking time, digging up thistles and docks that seemed to have roots a metre long.”
She read too, starting with Russell Page’s The Education of a Gardener (1962). It wasn’t the easiest introduction, but it set the tone. “It was about excellence, about knowledge of how plants, trees and shrubs worked in certain situations. I was also getting my head and tongue around the Latin names. Apparently the use of Latin names is not to be compulsory any more, which I think is tragic – the Latin is so informative and it’s a connection back to those original plant finders who travelled the world to discover new plants and bring back seeds.”
Was there a plan? Not on paper, she says. “It was more a feeling I was after, of harmony and tranquillity, and it evolved over a long period. What has propelled me is a desire to live amid the beauty of nature and that could never be instant.”
From the start she tempered a love of formality with the need for something less structured to fit the scale and ambience of the small cottage. There’s box hedging close to the house, but it is serpentine and follows the contours of the land.
Her use of colour, too, feels naturalistic and seamless. Behind the old barn, the borders of what she calls the Long Walk are planted mostly in purple sage, with Iris ‘Lucy’s Blue Silk’ interspersed with the white of galtonias and a mass planting of ‘Alba Semi-plena’ – “a magnificent rose”.
In other areas she’s planted for colour in autumn, using lots of barberry and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’. And towards the park-like lower reaches of the property there’s an elliptical circle of honey-scented, white-blossomed Amelanchier canadensis enclosing a stand of dogwoods and dove trees that creates a fresh display of green and white in spring and rich tones in autumn.
Some of the colours reflect the surrounding landscape, as do the forms. Alongside the drive, Janet is sculpting lonicera into topiary shapes that she expects will eventually merge to create a valley and hill effect to mimic the distant view.
And she’s acknowledged history too, preserving the few trees that the first owners planted in the 19th century. In the case of five elderberry trees near the barn, that involved lifting their ground-hugging forms so that they could eventually also provide some shade. They’re hardly glamorous, she acknowledges, “but I was very keen to preserve that link to the past”.
It’s a big garden and Janet works in it most days for at least eight hours. “I have to be disciplined,” she says. “Some days I feel like the old woman in the shoe, with everything needing me at once, but I make sure I always do one area thoroughly before moving on. If I had more than one pair of hands I would have done a lot more!”
Still, she feels a sense of satisfaction with what she’s achieved. Starting as a complete novice, she’s got her garden to the stage where it seems to express all four seasons – from prelude to coda, with an autumnal adagio, as she puts it. It’s taken more than three decades, endless hours of planning, planting and constantly working to improve the soil – truckloads of horse manure are her secret – but her gardener’s optimism has proved well founded.
“Gardening is about a faraway look in your eyes, about imagination and holding onto the vision. What is happening now is the realisation of all that planning and those dreams and hard work. And it’s utterly riveting, because you think, ‘Did I really do this?’”For more images including web-exclusive images click on the "photo gallery" link above.