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Horticulture's 'first lady'

SARAH ARGYLE
Last updated 05:00 18/12/2013

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Gardening was Bev McConnell's first love.

"That and my family of course," says the 82-year-old owner of Ayrlies garden.

And it's that love and passion that has led to her peaceful haven being ranked in the Wall St Journal as one of the finest in the world.

An accolade that Mrs McConnell says is overwhelming but doesn't stop her from keeping her feet on the ground of her garden.

Lindsey Taylor reported in the journal: "The lush garden along the idyllic coast of New Zealand, Ayrlies, reflects a half-century of taming the landscape with an impeccable eye - and more than a touch of savage beauty."

It also cited renowned American plantsman Daniel Hinkley calling Mrs McConnell "The first lady of horticulture in New Zealand".

Next year will mark the 50th year in which Mrs McConnell has nurtured the garden that is open to the public.

In 1964, she moved to the then 3-acre farm in Whitford with her husband and family.

"When we arrived there was not a single tree in sight. It was a dairy farm and I quickly became the worst thing that had ever happened to the district.

"In a predominantly agricultural time I took 3 acres of production land to plant trees. Within the first couple of months I had planted 500."

Mrs McConnell says she was compelled to create a garden.

"I was very fortunate to have a husband who supported me in my dreams - that doesn't always happen in families. I never realised that other people would want to come and enjoy it. But suddenly there is this dimension of people who want to come and see it."

And people come in their droves. In the past month alone Mrs McConnell says more than 1000 have visited.

"The garden benefits from people who love it. I truly believe that plants benefit from being praised.

"When people come here I want the worries of the world to drop off them. And the colour green is known to do that because it is gentle on the eye and relaxes so the garden is filled with green."

But she never set out to grow a garden for other people.

"We all have gifts and you work away at your gift. You don't grow a garden for other people, you grow it because you want to.

"I notice that today people are more stressed out than ever. But when they leave the garden they're always smiling."

Mrs McConnell says her parents' love of their garden inspired her and like osmosis it was passed on to her.

"Your garden becomes part of you. I never take it for granted. I love the peace here and there's nowhere else I would want to be. I love the creativeness of putting plants together."

But most of all, Mrs McConnell says she is longing to teach other people about gardening and pass on her wisdom.

"I have the ability to pass on this knowledge and my dream is to one day have a scholarship that will allow others to learn."

Of all the hundreds of plants in her garden, Mrs McConnell knows them all by name.

"Some names I lose for a while and then I get them back at 2am in the morning but no-one wants to know about them then."

And does the "first lady of horticulture in New Zealand" have a favourite flower or plant?

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"No," she says. "It's not like marriage, you don't have to love just one. I love them all."

Ayrlies at 125 Potts Rd, Whitford, is open Monday to Friday. There is an admission fee and a nursery where you can purchase plants. Visit ayrlies.co.nz for more information.

- Eastern Courier

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