North Canterbury sculpture garden
Onward and upward
Gardening in a harsh climate is like a crash course in Buddhism: you learn to let go. But it's not always easy. Penny Zino, who has lived through 46 years at her property on the road to Lake Sumner, North Canterbury, knows she needs to be philosophical about the havoc wrought on her planting by snow and nor'westers and summers that regularly top 30 degrees. But this recent winter has been particularly brutal, with heavy snow and for once no wind to shift it.
We walk around her 3ha country garden, through the woodlands, circumnavigating a couple of the larger ponds, down a long greensward towards a view of Mt Tekoa, and it’s a casualty ward - flaxes flattened, silver birches and oaks and hoheria flayed about their tops. "It's heartbreaking, but it's part of living in this place," says Penny, who has removed several trailer-loads of plant debris with plenty more to go before spring.
Set on terraced riverbed country 300m above sea level and with line of sight to the Southern Alps, Flaxmere Garden has been named a Garden of National Significance on the back of Penny's dedication and keen sense of how to frame a view.
"Everything in the garden has been directed towards Mt Tekoa. I love vistas and creating things that look as if they have always been there. And I also love the fact that this garden merges into the countryside. I don't like too many fences, so I've planted extensively outside the fence line."
She has also cleared as ruthlessly as any winter storm. When Penny and her late husband John moved onto the property, the 1890s homestead was hemmed in by a long, high laurel hedge. "You couldn't see out that way at all. There was prunus to within nine feet of the house, willows, poplars, ivy and periwinkle - every bad thing you could dream up. There were big pines and macrocarpas and more poplars. We had to get rid of all of those to let in the sun. Having done that though, there was nothing between us and the Southern Alps, which in this part of the world with its winds can be difficult."
From the start, Penny always had a clear vision of the garden she wanted. She drew pictures of how it would look in 50 years’ time, then left them lying around for John to find. Her husband was a great one for constructing seats and bridges and all the other infrastructure of a big garden, but he’d disappear to the end of the farm at the mention of the word "spade". "I’d leave these pictures around the house and, sooner or later, he’d decide it was his idea and I’d get some help."
Their biggest project was to exploit the property’s spring-fed creek to create five ponds - cool blue gems scattered through the garden: "Having water in a garden is one of my great pleasures.
I love the bird life it brings and the peace it generates. When it’s hot, the look of water can be cooling and soothing."
The ponds also make a terrific backdrop to the annual Art in a Garden show that Penny stages. Run at the end of October for the past nine years, the event includes sculpture, painting and pottery by 70 invited New Zealand artists.
It’s the latest of a string of ventures aimed at helping Flaxmere pay its way. After farming subsidies were removed in 1986, Penny and John grew gypsophila - at one stage a carload of gypsophila was worth more than a truckload of lambs, she says. Later, they converted the barn for drying flowers and worked with two other local couples to establish New Zealand’s first country garden cluster, hosting garden tours and lunches. "All our men loved it because it meant people in our lives - farming can be a lonely game." Then they launched a heritage rose mail order business, selling 20,000 rose bushes a year. But when John died, "It just became too difficult. Life changes and you move on".
Art in a Garden has proved a successful follow-up, with 2000 people visiting Flaxmere over the four days. For Penny, one of the chief pleasures is selecting the sculpture display sites.
For each piece, she considers how it sits with a particular view, plant or water feature. There are no rules, although rustic sculpture tends to work best among natives, she thinks. "It’s an instinct.
I ask the artists for photographs before they arrive with their piece and I will usually know where to put it. Sometimes there’s a discussion if there are two or three choices. It’s great fun."
And getting the garden shipshape for the show is certainly no hardship, even after the ravages of this last winter. "I feel a real joy at being outside and I love the changes of season. In fact the changes are the thing about gardening that interests me most.
"We are so lucky to have that in Canterbury, with very definite climatic shifts. I love the other things that a change of season means too - a change of clothes, of food. It’s a huge part of the joy of living for me."
For details of Art in a Garden, see artinagarden.co.nzFor more images click on the "photo gallery" link above.
Story: Matt Philp
Photographs: Juliet Nicholas