Haven on a hillside

18:27, Nov 08 2012
lucas stand
John and Rosemary Lucas in front of their home.

An Irish-born couple, now firmly rooted in Taranaki, have turned a bare hillside into a pretty, country garden. Sarah Foy visited their Fringe Festival property northeast of New Plymouth.

It was only going to be a three-year sojourn - a chance to soak up Kiwi farming methods and practices. But John and Rosemary Lucas stayed, and stayed some more. Four decades later they know it as their home.

They were newly wed, in their early 20s and the honeymoon was a six-week journey to what must have seemed the other side of the world.

"I'm the guilty culprit," says John with a grin. "I wanted to come to New Zealand to learn about farming and take it back but I never got back." From County Cork they hailed, to Wellington they arrived.

In those days other immigrant couples opted for the same journey, paying just [PndStlg]10. The Lucases chose differently, paying their own way in order to enjoy freedom when they arrived, rather than being tied to a farm position.

John landed a job straight away, working for the agriculture department, while homesick Rosemary, aged 21, grappled with this new country.


Next they shifted to Upper Hutt, where John worked as a farm manager, then Palmerston North for a short stint before they hit Taranaki. For seven years they contract milked in Opunake, then secured a 50-50 partnership in Awatuna near Kaponga. Next up was five years in Plymouth Rd before in 1988 they bought their own farm in Upland Rd.

"It was 200 acres. We milked 160 cows max. You wouldn't live on it today, especially if you had a mortgage," says John. But they did, bringing up three children, and sustaining a dairy farm until it was sold in 2003.

They kept a portion for themselves, a 4000 square metre portion, on which to retire and build a new house.

But old homes caught their fancy. Perhaps it was the fact both grew up in ancient abodes. Rosemary's sister-in-law now occupies her parents' house, a 500-year-old stone house. John's father's home was at least 200 years old before the family sold it.

They spied their turn-of-the- century villa on Watino Rd, Pihama, and had it shipped to their land. What a mission, recalls the couple. "It was like pulling the house to bits and putting it all back together again," says Rosemary. Just as well they'd sold the farm, quips John, because it was much dearer than a new house.

Now she's a grand old home, with three bedrooms run as a bed and breakfast, new additions and a classy exterior. But the initial renovation took two years of rewiring, replumbing, reroofing, regibbing - re-everything.

At the same time there was a garden to contemplate, although that came several years after the bulk of the renovation had finished.

Rows of hedging was planted on all the boundaries to shelter the hillside property. Then there was a lull while the couple painted the house - he on the preparation and sanding, she chasing from behind with a paintbrush.

Rosemary didn't take long to get stuck into the garden. She remembers gardening from an early age and on previous properties both of them had tended flowers and veges. "I think it was in my blood, really," she says.

These days the garden, open as part of the annual Taranaki Fringe Festival, is floral-filled and rambling. Five years ago the couple first entered the festival and last year John took on the role as chairman of the trust that runs the event.

The house sits at the top of the hill, while the garden slopes away from its front and back, looking north on the one side and south on the other.

Rosemary says she had a plan, using landscape builders for example to build the raised beds and trellis bordering the back courtyard. John, who regularly jokes about his wife's tendency to move trees and push garden boundaries, says she didn't know when to stop.

"The girls at golf used to say to me don't make your garden too big . . and we're realising now what they meant," agrees Rosemary.

She planted in sections and with what sounds like order. Many, many trees, most of them deciduous, were planted once the hedge had grown up. Much work was also put into sowing grass between the garden beds.

The raised gardens were filled over time with myriad flowering plants: Roses, delphiniums, climbing clematis, self-sown aquilegias, annuals like anthuriums and low-growers such as catnip, shrub roses, lavender and geraniums.

These days the lawn leading out from these raised beds houses elegant specimen trees like the wedding cake tree with tiers of white blossom, as well as a series of alders, two copper beech trees and Magnolia grandiflora.

Throughout the garden - under trees or in garden beds - Rosemary spread out swathes of hostas and renga renga lilies. They form a green-grey carpet and help suppress weeds.

Down the north-facing slope, John built low walls with broken concrete. "Ute loads," he says when asked how much was used. "Any farmer I knew that was breaking up concrete I said 'stack it up, I need it'."

The work was done in stages as the garden grew and the need to stop soil sliding downhill became obvious.

Rosemary filled these gardens with everything from rhododendrons and hydrangeas to irises and the sun- loving gazanias. The couple also installed a series of three ponds, that step down the garden and provide a base around which native shrubs and trees were planted: Tree ferns, flaxes, kauri trees, ornamental grasses.

At the base of this slope five rectangle-shaped vege beds were built. Foliage towers up in the garden that is the dedicated spud patch. In the other beds, covered with netting to deter the birds, flourish cauliflower, cabbages, broccoli, silverbeet, carrots, onions and lettuce. John plants in succession to ensure there's a steady supply.

Other edible treats in the garden include a strawberry house, which must house at least 45 plants, as well as a raspberry vine.

The berry areas are at the bottom of the garden. Down here, two new gardens contain a variety of shrubs and small trees: Many maples, for example, as well as a blossom-laden snowball tree.

Nearby a patch of bare ground is evidence that a large tree once towered here. John hauled it out this week because it was shading and stunting the growth of nearby plants.

This flat area, at the bottom, is also characterised by a long, grassy walk with high hydrangea hedging on the one side and the raised garden on the other. This shaded area contains a bulk of mature shrubs and trees with an understorey of hellebores, azaleas, liriope, hostas and renga renga lilies.

At the end of the level area the land rises up, where the front gate and driveway bisect. Up the sweeping entrance Rosemary has planted mounds of hebes. They are different varieties, some with a grey-blue leaf, some with green but all notable for their orb-like form. Behind is a line of golden elm trees, neatly clipped to the same height. "It took us three hours to do each tree," says Rosemary, explaining that she and John did all the pruning, just before the festival opened.

Behind this row, are larger trees with colour growing around the trunks in the form of self-sown cineraria, leafy orange-flowering clivia or arching daylilies.

The other side of the driveway is home to tall clumps of astelia 'Silver Spears'. John scoffs, declaring his distaste for their messy state. Before the festival he threatened to pull them out; Rosemary said there wasn't time so the astelia stay - for now.

The top of the driveway sweeps around to the front of the house with its wide veranda and handsome frontage most obvious from this angle. Up here, on the top level, a formal garden of clipped box hedging and white roses is planted in a circle. There are touches of red such as a pair of standardised photinia 'Red Robin' plants standing guard on either side of steps leading to the front.

Rosemary and John's delight in their garden - as well as their capacity for hard yakka - is obvious. He says he's a dairy farmer at heart and would still be milking if he hadn't retired from relief milking just two years ago, when in his late sixties. One suspects the role as chairman of the Taranaki Fringe Festival came along at the right time. She says the more she gardens, the more she feels inspired to improve her patch. Together they have cultivated a hillside haven.

Taranaki Daily News