Maggie Barry on gardening

Green-fingered Barry loves gardening.
Photo: Fairfax
Green-fingered Barry loves gardening.

This is Maggie Barry's favourite time of year.

"I like autumn," the 50 year-old broadcaster says over lunch in Ponsonby. "I like the waning of the seasons.

"I like watching things die slowly and elegantly on the branch. I like seedheads, and I like the way the garden goes quietly to bed for the winter."

Maggie in 1995.
Maggie in 1995.

Barry's voice is a hot Milo on a cold night, warming and calming and utterly familiar. New Zealanders respond to this red-haired, green-fingered woman. She knows us. But many of us don't know her, it seems – at least not when they're asked to be interviewed on her 4-6pm RadioLive Drive show.

"A lot of people think, `Oh, there's that nice Maggie from the garden show, she wants me to come on her programme, this is going to be such fun'," she simpers, putting on a voice.

"I enjoy dispelling their notions that I'm a nice, easy-going person. I didn't start out being nice."

Actually, Barry got her start playing bad cop to Geoff Robinson's good cop, on iconic National Radio show Morning Report. She says she took a certain pleasure in being the difficult one.

"So I occasionally find it on Drive ... People are truly shocked when I do anything other than ask them how fabulous their life is.

"That smug note disappears from their voice and they actually do try and answer the question, as opposed to just parroting off their pre-prepared lines."

It's not difficult, Barry says, for her to find a reason to argue with someone. And although she is wary of passing judgement on her interview subjects – particularly in her written profiles for The Listener – she's not afraid to criticise her peers.

On Wendy Petrie's infamous fist-pump during the David Bain coverage: "What a disgrace! What a disgrace. Oooh, TV training 101: you're always on camera, duh. That was tragic. That was awful."

On Paul Henry: "He's not really an interviewer, he's a personality."

And on her former employers: "You know, it wasn't because of TVNZ – it was despite them that the programme [Maggie's Garden Show] got made, sometimes."

Barry's fearsome in print too, although she finds writing a grind, compared to "talking and prancing" on radio or TV. Last year Barry was named best senior feature writer at the Qantas journalism awards. She says the win was a thrill, but when asked to pinpoint something that makes her truly proud, Barry ponders the garden show – "we endured beyond silly programmers and a toxic television climate to survive for 12 long years" – and her love of radio, before picking a winner.

"Rearing a child would be by far the toughest, most demanding job... Also the best job ever."

Joe is 12, fantastic company, Barry says, and a great excuse for her to do the theme parks on the Gold Coast. Joe's father is Barry's former partner Paddy Marron. The pair remain good friends and Marron will happily look after Joe when Barry's away, or have him stay for Christmas.

Barry has never married, although her parents were strict Catholics – her mother owned a florist shop and her father was an accountant for the railways. She says the nuns at her Wellington school instilled tenacity in their students, and determination. Marriage was not seen as a goal. "We never bothered," Barry says. "Some friends, who went to the school down the road, they were very, you know, dowry, and tea towels put away. Mad things, unbelievable. We all thought it was a tremendous joke. It turned out they were serious."

Barry's sense of humour means she has no problem, her producer Mark Wilson says, holding her own in the testosterone-heavy RadioLive newsroom.

"See?" Wilson says, shrugging, as Barry goes off on a tangent about the strange sex-game death of BBC personality Kristian Digby.

Apparently Barry once interviewed someone who said mandarins could be used to cause erotic asphyxiation. She muses about which variety would be the perfect size. "Satsuma?" She laughs.

Barry met her partner, lawyer Grant Kerr, on an Outward Bound course. They go swimming in the sea most days and plan to spend three weeks trekking in Nepal this year. For now, they are racing through reading Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy . Barry nicks Kerr's copy every time he falls asleep.

Despite this cosiness, the couple have kept separate houses. Barry lives in Western Bays but she's wary of saying exactly where, because she's been burgled recently. But you could probably pick it out from the garden.

"I plant purple sage everywhere I go, and that goes in with the green, I like green and purple really, in a garden, and a blood red. So those are the only colours I generally allow."

She has a soft spot for orchids and the lime-green spears of euphorbia, because those plants have a lovely shape and stay the same for months on end. But, hallelujah, there is one plant that she just can't get to work.

"Gardenias I struggle with. I've started to treat them really as annuals ... Keep them for a year, they look really good, I enjoy them a lot, then I think `Oh-kay, your time is done, goodbye!"'

Sunday News