Fabulous farm garden in Canterbury
Beyond the blossom
Sue rollinson’s all-time favourite thing to do in her Rakaia country garden is at once prosaic and poetic. She is never happier, she says, than when riding on her lawnmower beneath the cherry trees. “I look up through the blossom and see the blue sky behind. It’s gorgeous!”
That lawnmower gets a good workout. Sue’s garden covers a full 2ha of the Rollinsons’ Canterbury Plains dairy farm, with curving pathways linking the various garden “rooms”.
Each has a different feel and flavour. Some are whimsical – the “Contessa” garden, for instance, named for the trio of aristocratic busts secreted among the foliage. Some are classic, such as the “flash English garden” area, with patterns of buxus hedging that Sue worked out using string and paper.
And some are utterly surprising, most notably the pet cemetery, a fenced-off patch with little handmade crosses, built by husband Ted, so that the farmworkers’ kids would have a special place to bury their animals. Sue says a full funeral service is de rigueur. “It teaches the children about life and death – and they know they’re going to get a tea party afterwards.”
Readers may recall Sue and Ted’s second home at Clearwater Resort & Golf Course, near Christchurch airport; it was included in this year’s NZ House & Garden House Tours and appeared in the magazine in January 2012. That house, a contemporary affair beside the 14th fairway, is their glamour retreat, a place where they can switch off from the farming business and unwind. But, comfortable as life is at Clearwater, Sue always eventually feels the tug of home, and especially her garden.
From the very start, when she and Ted and their then young children moved from Murchison to Rakaia to take on one of the early Canterbury dairy conversions, Sue had a clear vision of how the garden would develop. Sure, there was some degree of making it up as she went along – and plenty of revisions and transplanting during the last 26 years, along with a fair few plantings lost to the snow – but for the most part she knew what she wanted.
As we walk through a wooded area she points to a violet patch. “This corner had to be like this because Ted proposed to me in a violet patch the day after we met – we’ve been married 41 years.”
One thing she didn’t bank on, however, was the speed at which things grow in this part of Canterbury. Soaring high above us, to rebuff the winds off the plains, are several impressive Lombardy poplars. It’s hard to believe that Sue planted these a mere quarter of a century ago. Indeed, she has been caught out herself by their rate of growth, once getting her lawnmower so badly stuck between two trunks that Ted had to chainsaw her out. “Sand, water, fertiliser and sunshine – just look at what it does,” she crows.
If you’ve got it, why not use it? At one time, Sue had 2500 roses, since culled to 100. Even more extravagantly, she once planted 20,000 annuals. “I realised that was a bit silly when the curator of the Ashburton Botanical Gardens told me he had planted 33,000, but that was for the whole of the Ashburton, Mayfield and Methven area. I thought, ‘I’m a tad over the top here.’
“Now, though, because we’re getting older and we spend only half our time here I have decided to make things easier. If we take out a rose we will put in a peony rose or a camellia or rhododendron; if we take out annuals we put in perennials and things like hostas and fuchsias.”
In one corner, beyond a massive pond that Ted fashioned while Sue was away (“I asked for a beach and a small pond two feet deep; I came back and he had the digger out and the water’s up to my neck”), is an area devoted almost entirely to natives.
Sue says she began planting this in the days when the government sent visiting overseas dignitaries down to the Rollinsons’ place for a taste of Kiwi farming life. “They’d come to Christchurch, have a farm stay and leave and never see any of our native plants or trees, so I started my own native forest.”
The path winds beneath silver, red and mountain beech; there are kowhai trees and a variety of cordyline with unusually broad leaves that Sue first spotted from a train crossing the grasslands near Waiouru. She later had her nurseryman track it down for her. Scattered throughout are bright-blooming rhododendrons, a nod to Ted’s love of all things red in a garden. “They just pop up among the natives and really make this area glow.”
After the natives, we loop back towards the house and the garden changes again. Now we’re under those cherry trees, which are unusually heavy with blossom for this time of year because, for once, the shredding nor’wester has failed to blow.
“Look up there at that blossom and now look at the blue sky beyond,” instructs Sue. “Now isn’t that magnificent?”
And she’s right, it really is.
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|Story: Matt Philp|
Photographer: Paul McCredie