Sentiments bring touch of Ellerslie

Denise Fleming and cat Chu with the walL of words from American botanist Luther Burbank.
Denise Fleming and cat Chu with the walL of words from American botanist Luther Burbank.

New Plymouth florist Denise Fleming has a garden perfect for picking - but don't expect roses.

If you head to the Sentiments Flower Garden on the edge of the city you'll find a place where florist meets farmgirl, structural form is the norm and colour clashes and contrasts create divine design.

This is Denise's first foray into the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular and she's got a roster of nine volunteers helping meet and greet visitors to her property, which is dressed up for the festival.


Floral creations, a mass showing of hanging baskets and colourful furniture and adornments add to the drama; all created without one of the world's most-famous cut flowers.

Sitting in a hot pink "Le Funk" Clare Chair on the large deck off her ironsand-grey house, Denise makes her thornless revelation.

"This was all roses," she says, sweeping her hand over a section now filled with greys. "To be honest, I hate roses. I don't think they suited what was going on in this garden. Everything else is structural and subtropical, so I removed the roses."

Then the businesswoman in her comes to the rescue: "As a commercial flower they are beautiful and there are some amazing colours, which I love, but don't think they need to be in this garden."

She explains further: "They are such high maintenance. My life is too busy to be worrying about them."

Not only does Denise own and operate Sentiments Flowers at Moturoa, she is heavily involved with Interflora as a director on the board of the Pacific unit and a national judge.

This master florist is also a winner herself.

In 2007, she won a gold medal and supreme award for design excellence at the Ellerslie International Flower Show.

A wander through Denise's garden is like visiting Ellerslie, although she says the newly developed part is inspired by a gold-medal winning garden at this year's Chelsea Flower Show in London.

After parking in farmland, visitors walk into an area that was the original orchard and is still home to figs, lemons, limes, mandarins and feijoas. But it also afloat with flowers and foliage, especially South African plants.

Leucadendrons and brunia are important because they look so striking in the garden and also provide Denise with valuable material for floristry.

On the right is a row of low-growing ericas. "The cows stick their heads through the fence and have trimmed them. They should be nice and tall."

Luckily, they haven't nibbled at three golden totara. These stand tall and Denise says they mirror a five-column sculpture of red-rusted steel, set off by the pinky-red and green Leucadendron "Water Lily" and the tropical heat of canna lilies.

The totara and the steel structure form a garden room; one with a wall, sign-written with some apt words from American botanist Luther Burbank: "Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul."

Flowers are Denise's life and this 4046-square-metre garden tells a story of emotions, memories and healing.
 Denise says three o

ther women are expressed in Sentiments.

"Mum (Avis Fleming) really inspired me. The festival has been going for 25 years and she died 25 years ago."

Avis and her friend Priscilla Adamski, both from Rahotu, had wonderful gardens. Priscilla's garden was in the festival for several years and she's sure her Mum would've followed suit. "I think there was a bit of competition between them."

When Denise started her florist business, Priscilla asked what she could grow to help out.

The garden, originally designed by landscaper Chris Paul, was created by Norma Hooper who used to own Big Jim's Nursery near Waitara.

She put in large boulders, some rare species, huge palms, and many natives.

Norma died in 2004 and for a couple of years the garden went a bit wild, until Denise bought it in 2006 and slowly began to tame it.

While many people may plant a tree or shrub on a special occasion, like Mother's Day or a loved ones birthday, Denise has done the opposite. She has marked these moments by cutting out something big, which has allowed the remaining trees and plants to thrive.

Along with the roses, another spiky plant has also been given the heave-ho. "When I came here, it was all over-grown. You couldn't see from the deck to the paddock; it was all yuccas and I hate yuccas - they are yuck."

Again she tempers her statement: "They are great in a commercial garden. For me they aren't people friendly. They are too sharp; kids get hurt."
She has allowed the dragon trees to stay and th

ese tall, ancient-looking ugly beauties, add to the drama and tropical feel of the garden.
Other special trees and shrubs in this place include a monkey puzzle tree, a Queensland kauri, a pigeonwood, a rare ginger and a tropical hydrangea.

Islands of plantings, well-groomed lawns and new concrete-and-pebble edges all add to the picture.
So does colour.

The florist has planted a red area and also has a stunning silver and grey space, but the latter has suffered a bit of wear and tear from an eager creature. Bella, Denise's 2 ½-year-old golden retriever, likes to cut corners and leap through the silver garden.

Her two young cats, Chu and Mimi love racing up trees or slinking through the flowers, their black and white coats a contrast to the hot hues Denise loves to throw into the mix.

"Some people come in here and say 'I don't like yellow and pink together', but in nature all colours go together," she says.

Denise and daughter, Frances Gray (18), literally live amidst one giant bouquet of flowers and foliage; a living tribute to the art of floristry - and damn hard work.