Garden wall a labour of love

ROSEMARIE SMITH
Last updated 14:51 21/02/2013
Bruce and Miranda Smith
ROSEMARIE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
Wedderburn farmers Bruce and Miranda Smith and family, from left, Stephanie, Mark and Andrea, with their gently curved drystone garden wall, an entirely independent Kiwi expression of the English crinkle-crankle.

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Blessed are the gardeners who generously open their gates to all comers for a community garden tour - in particular, the Maniototo Garden Club, which organised a generous programme over the Christmas break, with nine gardens on view.

These cool and colourful oases provided impressive relief from the baking Maniototo heat, and elegant venues to relax over strawberries and cream or Devonshire tea, view local art and buy garden goodies.

For this visitor the most exciting feature was at a homestead with little more than a large new lawn and some young trees out the front, and a massive vege garden at the back.

But it also has a sinuous stone wall of massive but impeccable proportions, built from the beautiful local schist.

For here, on Old Sow Rd, is a genuine Kiwi crinkle-crankle, or serpentine wall.

This Victorian English garden oddity featured in this column about 18 months ago, when the received wisdom from professional bricklayer Trevor Woodrow was that snakey masonry walls are not feasible in quaky New Zealand.

But he agrees this is one that will withstand the minor disruptions that have us repeatedly straightening pictures on our walls.

It's likely to flex, and stand up to a good shake, better than the brick cladding of the homestead behind it, he says. "It's a nice neat job." And a massive amount of work.

Ask farmer Bruce Smith why he has devoted so much precious leisure time over seven years to constructing the wall, and the answer is a laconic comment along the lines of: "Because it wasn't there." He had given the homestead grounds a serious makeover, including removing all traces of former gardens and an overgrown shelter belt.

Demolition is the term used, apparently a process fraught with its own adventures when the wire rope holding one tree broke and it fell within a whisker of where it definitely wasn't wanted.

Laying bare the homestead this way revealed no outstanding feature, and with materials for a nice stone wall lying all around, it was just a matter of getting on and doing it, he says. "Now the house isn't just sitting out in the middle of nowhere."

Bruce claims no training or previous experience of dry-wall building, though he had been in Britain and seen such walls in Yorkshire. Nor had he heard the term crinkle-crankle - his wall was designed by eye to match the curves of the driveway.

Although it is only just completed, Bruce is skilled at fielding the frequently asked questions. Starting with how long did it take?

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Like the answer to much else, it's hard to be specific, as he worked in fits and starts.

"Months would go by when nothing got done, then suddenly I'd have spare time and it was back into it."

The stone came from the hills forming the backdrop to the farm, although all the easily accessible areas had been picked over by farm builders 100 years ago, Bruce says. "I had to go further than a horse and cart." Fortunately a new road put in for a cellphone tower gave access to new areas.

The rock was all surface collected so came already lichen-encrusted for character. So how much rock did it take?

Best estimate is one tonne per cubic metre, a fact leaving the visitor eying the wall's bulk with even more admiration.

Was it hard to build?

"It's very simple, just one rock stacked on top of another." Just like stacking hay bales apparently.

The only hard part Bruce admits to was getting the wall square faced, as in its natural state a lot of the rock was angled, or rounded.

"But it's just a matter of inserting a chisel and hoping it splits in a nice neat line." Patience is obviously a virtue, especially when breaking the chip to fill the gap between the two faces, a task men were once condemned to rather than taken by choice.

But there was no turning back.

"Once I'd started I had to finish, or I'd look bloody stupid. No-one else could finish it - the plans were in my head." Nor was it a task where a youthful labour force was pressed into action, with the family generally leaving him to get on with it.

As daughter Stephanie observes, "Dad didn't want us to muck it up." But the wall is now proving a great Easter egg hiding ground, and the birds love the insect life it hosts.

So how does he feel now it's done?

"Relieved." Especially on a day when a garden tour delivers a constant flow of admiration.

So what's next? "It's a work in progress," is the only comment.

Story suggestions or feedback on this page are welcome at timesgardening@gmail.com

- The Southland Times

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