Story of a farm garden

A garden for 21st century rural lifestyle has few straight lines, little bare soil, repeat plantings and draws in the wider landscape.
A garden for 21st century rural lifestyle has few straight lines, little bare soil, repeat plantings and draws in the wider landscape.

One hundred and forty years of farming in the same locality by descendants of two families makes an impressive story, rich in detail of hard working lives.

Keen gardener Margaret Pullar has written the story of her husband Gordon's Trapski-Pullar families, based in the Pukerau district.

The book launch took place in the garden of what is now their son's home, on land that will have witnessed many family gatherings over six generations.

But while the book does include an appendix with treasured family recipes, it doesn't have a lot to say about gardening.

This isn't surprising given how much there is to cover in such a book, but also because there might not be a lot to say until recent times.

There's little in the historical record, unless you count an 1881 report noting approvingly that fences had all been planted with gorse hedges.

Living memory now only reaches back to Gordon's generation - he was born in 1927 - but the circumstances he describes from his childhood would be common earlier too.

There was just too much work on a family farm for anyone to have time to grow anything more than food, he recalls.

Water could be in short supply, depending on rainwater.

He recalls his mother growing wallflowers in a house border, there was a peony rose tree in the middle of the lawn, some flax bushes, and little else.

Because food was needed in such quantities, paddock gardening was practised, and Gordon recalls big areas of potatoes, "beautiful potatoes without disease," which were stored over winter in pits covered in straw and soil to protect them from the frost.

Other veges mass-grown were cabbages, caulis and lettuces - and peas.

"Kids loved peas. You could go out there and have a feed and no- one asked any questions."

Children were encouraged to learn gardening as an essential life skill through the Boys' and Girls' Agriculture Club, and Gordon still recalls his first-year successes with carrots, parsnips and beetroot.

After a lifetime of growing food as both a farmer and gardener he has the authority to say:

"You've got to think ahead and sideways for a vege garden."

Veges also came first when as newlyweds, he and Margaret built their own first home in 1958.

Like the pioneer generations, they started on a bare paddock site, but were able to shape the grounds with the moving power of a crawler tractor.

As ever, shelter was a prime consideration, and the solid hedge behind the house is also a memorial to a young relative, Colin Knox, a brilliant student and keen mountaineer, who helped plant it.

"You will have to tell your grandchildren I planted the hedge," he announced, a request that soon seemed tragically prophetic, for he died young in a climbing accident in the French Alps.

Establishing a garden around the new house was a challenge, Margaret recalls.

"Coming from Northland I didn't understand Southland gardening."

Northland had huge water shortages in homesteads and didn't have big gardens either, just a lot of shrubs and fruit trees, especially citrus.

She laughs looking at old photos, noting the flowers she initially grew were those familiar from the north - iceplant, geraniums, dahlias and hydrangeas.

"I didn't know about rhododendrons."

She recalls noticing Southlanders' enthusiasm for currants and gooseberries.

"They were in everybody's gardens. I thought the red currants were absolutely beautiful."

But her main memory of her own early garden is of weeding.

"We didn't ever feed the garden very well and certainly didn't water it."

In the late 1960s Anne Lewis helped with a redesign, and photos show this took in the current fashion for a heady mix of plants, and for conifers.

In a story that will resonate in many households, a golden thuja had grown ever more beautiful, until the men of the household decided it was shading the lounge, and in that decisive way of men with chainsaws, they removed it.

Margaret recalls being utterly shocked to come home and find it gone, although she's now willing to admit it did open the garden up.

While larger than the pioneer garden (as evidenced by aged macrocarpas framing tiny sites) this was still a garden of enclosed spaces, including stone boundary walls constructed after Gordon's Nuffield Fellowship year in Britain.

"We'd fallen in love with them in Scotland. Though they're not orthodox," he says.

(He knew the stones weren't the right shape, so used sand and cement.)

The wall-building story indicates the seasonal lull farmers once enjoyed in winter, when after two hours feeding out, Gordon and farm worker Jack Taylor could spend the rest of the day on the walls.

In 2005, designer Arne Cleland helped the next generation on the farm, Philip and Shirlie Pullar, redevelop the garden.

The Pullars had first met district newcomer Arne when Gordon was buying the horizontal elm, one of many specimen trees Gordon selected for planting in a paddock beside the house.

Arne's offer to help plant the elm was welcome, given this was a tree requiring an A-frame cradle on a large truck to transport it home.

Arne became a family friend, and saw the garden grow over the years.

His redesign has unmistakeably 21st century landscaping priorities.

The garden is integrated with the house - large doors open onto a deck flush with the lawn - and with the wider countryside by a subtle design of shapes that draws the eye outward.

It respects the past, by using and even repeating plants to reflect the family heritage, but garden beds are reduced, and some are mass planted, often with native plants, to minimise maintenance.

The roses from an earlier era are liberated from formal beds and integrated into mixed plots with repeat plantings.

And while many of the hedges dividing up spaces are gone, and the grove of mature trees, including the horizontal elm, is now part of the park-like vista from the house, the stone walls remain as a statement of continuity.


One anecdote in the Pullar- Trapski story can be claimed as garden-related.

A young lad rushed inside bearing a find he had dug up, just when it was Mum's turn to host the visiting drama tutor, a Mr Worthington.

This tutor had a fine sense of decorum but maybe his dramatic sensitivities carried the day when the prized find on exhibition was a cat skeleton, produced with the triumphant cry, "We've found Ginger."

Hopefully Ginger got a better burial, and if nothing else, the story can serve as a reminder that graves of favoured family pets are such a common garden feature

The Southland Times