How green is her valley

MAIKE VAN DER HEIDE
Last updated 14:30 16/11/2012

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In a river valley surrounded by bare-topped hills, peony buds wait for spring's permission to burst open and reveal their beauty. They are huddled against the lingering cold, for the warmth which arrived some weeks ago on the coast just a few kilometres away has not yet crept inland to this valley and its plentiful farm garden.

Sue Smith, the owner of the garden at Upton Downs in the Awatere Valley, 20km from Seddon, says the seasons there are two to three weeks behind Blenheim and other low-lying parts of Marlborough.

Her vegetable garden has yet to be fully planted, as the cold drives many plants to shoot straight to seed. Her grapevine and some early roses reveal the damage from last week's frost, which Sue says could be repeated before summer begins.

Then, when the frosts abate, the heat takes over. Memories of last winter's rain, which drowned lavender and rosemary, will fade as watering becomes almost a fulltime job.

The plants struggle under the blazing sunlight that pounds the valley until the hills finally provide the relief of shade at the end of the day. The prevailing northwest wind, hurtling over those same hills before descending straight into the garden, provides another challenge - not to mention Sue's 23-year-old horses, who are partial to a garden snack.

Gardening in the Awatere Valley can be a lot of hard work, but Sue's dedication to defy the elements, animals and, of course, weeds has clearly paid off. Carefully pruned roses, rosemary and lavender hedges thrive, both in the shelter of Sue's farmhouse and in the exposed garden. A row of Thuja Holmstrop conifers is gaining height and strength to shelter patches of perennials, roses, climbers on frames, the large vegetable garden and the peonies.

Behind the conifers, Sue has covered the wire fence with viburnum shrubs, the white blooms striking against the dark hills and the row of rickety pines beyond.

Balls of bridal veil broom balanced on what look like delicate stems also bloom white. Sue opted for mostly white flower varieties, as she finds white against green has a restful effect but some reds, blues and yellows have crept in along the way.

Sue began planting her garden 4 years ago, when she and husband Rodney moved to 890-hectare Upton Downs to farm beef and deer. Having always wanted a garden, but lacking the time, Sue grabbed her chance to finally indulge her longtime passion.

Rather than starting from scratch, she worked with what the garden already had, adding buxus and roses, including plenty of Icebergs and Sally Holmes, a Banksia and vivid red Dublin Bay to the camellias and rhododendrons.

The buxus and other shades of green provide colour even in the depths of winter. Sue loves topiary, and has clipped many of her plants such as brooms and roses into neat, usually round, shapes. Clipped borders of buxus, hebe and honeysuckle separate her gardens from the straight grassy paths in between.

Being a farm garden, not all the plants are there just for looks. Fruit trees pop up from between the perennials and the artichokes, from column apple trees to olives, a crabapple, and a weeping pear draped above a carpet of lamb's ear. Other fruit trees are espaliered along the fencelines.

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Sue used existing fences and trees as features and to plant against, arranging her newly bought plants in previously formed but empty beds, and even dragging a couple of old wagon wheels out of the shed to create a garden entranceway. Wine barrels joined the other planters on the porch, and the wisteria-framed scene is a perfect spot to relax with a cuppa. A shaded piece of garden became Sue's "hostas walkway", large flat stones paving the way between the plants.

Besides gardening, Sue's other passion is Christmas. A penchant for decorating her home, including hours spent on a Christmas tree that reaches the ceiling (and with some decorations staying up year-round), has morphed into a small business called Christmas Time, selling decorations at markets and other events. Sue stored all her yuletide treasures in a small room off the garage, and has now turned it into a festive showroom.

For the second year in a row, Sue will be opening this room, her decorated home and her cottage garden to members of the public for a gold coin donation which will go to Hospice Marlborough. Last year she was able to give about $200 to the cause.

This year's open day will be on Sunday, November 25, from 11am to 4pm. The address is 367 Upton Downs Rd, Awatere Valley - Sue will tie balloons to her letterbox.

Hospice Marlborough will also be benefiting from the annual Pre-Christmas Peek Tour on December 2, where eight Christmas-themed homes will open their doors to ticketholders.

- The Marlborough Express

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