To the very last detail

Pat Ekdahl sits in the white rotunda which is the feature in an area named "the fairy garden".
Pat Ekdahl sits in the white rotunda which is the feature in an area named "the fairy garden".

An extremely formal garden on the outskirts of New Plymouth is all about family fun. Virginia Winder digs into the background of this new festival garden, Oak Valley.

The first time Pat and Paul Ekdahl were asked to put their property in Taranaki's annual garden festival they said no.

But when their niece, Lisa, co- manager of the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular, asked them again and to be part of the festival's 25th celebrations, they finally agreed.

Now the final touches are being done to Oak Valley, which is the English translation of Ekdahl.

The pristine 6000 square metre garden, just part of the 2.4 hectare rural property, sweeps down off Junction Rd.

The first glimpse of this place is the lake, which is studded with wee islands left as nesting havens for wild ducks. Live tree ferns stand next to ponga poles, which look like Michael Smither sculptures, and at one end another island floats - this one formed by healthy water lilies.

Heading up the drive visitors must pass beneath a tree on fire. A red maple, Acer Taranto, is in full flame, but it was a real blaze that sent the Ekdahls on another path.

They already had a house on the property, which they rented out. One night a CD player caught alight and fire swept through the home. Luckily, the incessant barking of pig dogs alerted the occupants to the fiery peril beyond the bedroom and they escaped to safety.

With the insurance money, Pat and Paul decided to build the home on the top of the hill.

That was about 16 years ago and now they live amid a garden that has been landscaped down to the last flower.

But Pat is quick to say much of that work has been carried out by son Phillip, horticulturalist Michael McNeice and Murray Fabish.

On a fast-paced tour, she heads past lush-green buxus hedges that curve around a fountain featuring a bronze Cupid holding a fish. Pausing beneath a weeping cherry, Pat says the basket hanging from a limb is actually a child's crib. It's overflowing with pansies, violas, alyssum and ranunculus.

Nearby is a formal bed lined with a row of cerise cyclamens and primulas and, to the right, a flawless lawn is flanked by bay trees trimmed to resemble lollipops.

Beside this area is a dovecote devoid of white birds.

"We got them from somebody, but they kept on returning so we don't have any at the moment," she says heading to her favourite place - the wedding garden.

On both sides of a grassy avenue, there are mounds of thrift (armeria) leading on like stepping stones.

All the flowers in this area are bridal- gown cream and white.

Irises, roses, rhododendrons, azaleas, primulas and daisies are just some of the chosen ones.

But it's not snowy blossoms that are the star of this round garden - it's the camomile lawn. One step on to the soft, green carpet and a sweet aroma floats upwards.

"I don't mind sitting out here and pulling weeds - it's very relaxing," Pat says.

But establishing the lawn has been a mission. "We grew it and it got a lot of weeds in it so we pulled it out. This is probably our third attempt."

Later, Paul shares his thoughts on the lawn. "You walk out there with bare feet and then it follows you around all day."

The white bed encircling the lawn is punctuated by 14 flowering cherries and plumped out with Mexican orange blossom, hydrangeas, a jasmine ground cover, the white carpet rose and upright roses - Scentasia and Sir Edmund Hillary. Appropriately, the latter is backed by the Rhododendron Mt Everest.

"Meg and Mike were going to get married here, but decided to change it five days before the wedding. They had it out there by the bay trees because it reminded her of Alice in Wonderland."

Walking under a peaked archway, Pat stands at the back fence looking at a field featuring two "wedding trees" and a freshly dug plot ready for another.

Phillip's dog Jax is buried under one and Paul's old golden retriever Yale is beneath another. The third grave holds a puppy that had belonged to Pat's sister.

Yale died six months ago, aged 14, and the Ekdahls have no plans to get a new pet.

It seems the old dog was irreplaceable and so is the gleditsia he used to lie under. "It's been moved four times and it's just amazing," Paul says of the tree sprouting from the patio by the house. "We trim it back to where it is now, but it will be down to the ground in summer."

Close by is Paul's vegetable garden, which could easily be nicknamed "The Land of the Giants". Huge heads of red cabbage, a parsley bush, large-scale kale and tall plants of broccolini show off his green-fingered bent.

He puts the size down to Grunt - pig poo - which is spread throughout the entire garden.

Paul loves the beauty of Oak Valley, but has a soft spot for the bog garden. Right now, the damp area next to the lake is flush with yellow candelabra primulas, variegated hostas, pink-orange heuchera (marmalade) and Japanese irises.

"Walking on the path down the bottom; it's a tranquil-type feeling," he says.

For Pat, the garden is all about family - her three sons and their partners, and especially her six grandchildren.

"One day I picked up the kids and we were driving past the lake and they said, 'look Nanny, there's a frog sunbathing' and we came back the next day and it was still there. But actually it was dead."

Imagination is alive in the garden, which sprouts old-fashioned lamp- posts that look like they come straight out of CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. The fantasy feeling is entirely appropriate for this place, which plays host to tea parties, treasure hunts and supernatural celebrations.

Sitting in a white rotunda, Pat says this area has been named "the fairy garden" by her grandkids because it's like a wonderland.

Once a year the grandkids and their friends have a merry time dressing up as ghost, ghouls, witches and warlocks. "Last year we had a combined Halloween and Guy Fawkes. The kids made scarecrows out of hay, old clothes and stockings and then we put them on the fire," she says, referring to the creations not the children.

The celebrations have included sack races, apple bobbing and using toilet paper to wrap up a "mummy".

Just the other day, she made up a treasure hunt for the young ones and sent them out looking for natural things, like a white flower, an orange leaf, a bird's nest, a worm and a four-leaf clover.

During the festival, one of her grandchildren, Renee, will be making and selling lime curd. "It's her great-grandmother's recipe."

Pat's mum, Marie Moir, aged 93 is the woman behind the spread. "I remember the first time we made lemon honey here," she says. "We had four generations making it."

Oak Valley is a family affair.

Taranaki Daily News