Labour of love

SARAH FOY
Last updated 08:27 23/11/2012
cuckow stand
ANDY JACKSON
Allan Cuckow has developed and maintained gardens around houses in Cook St.

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Bike bodies, old mowers, rubbish - Allan Cuckow hauled them all out.

He shovelled mini mountains of dirt and resculptured a bank to create a flatter area for garden.

All this he did himself, clocking up hours of voluntary labour around council-owned flats in Cook St, Marfell.

For the past two years his horticultural efforts have seen him and his Cook St flats win the overall best unit category in the New Plymouth District Council garden contest.

On December 4 judging starts for the 2012 competition, with 19 individual entries across 11 sites received. The sites are units maintained for elderly tenants.

There will be four categories: Best vege garden, best flower garden, best overall site and the Mayor's choice award.

"It was a big job," concedes Allan of the bank clear up. He's a trim man, aged 66 with a matter-of-fact away about him. Exclamations from the Taranaki Daily News about his inspirational gardening are met with economical responses.

"The council had got in contractors who said it was going to cost $7000 or $8000," he tells us.

So he sorted it himself, a year or so after moving to the Cook St flats.

The bank sloped away to a public path at the bottom of the property. There was little flat ground. "It was narrow and I pushed it [the ground] out and dug out the bank to get the dirt."

About four years ago he laid out a vege garden and these days it's a thriving patch of edibles. Rows of spuds, leeks, silverbeet, carrots, beetroot, corns, peas, and rhubarb are there, along with eggplant and basil seedlings.

Nearby is a heap of compost: A mass of grass on which Allan sprinkles lime to sweeten it.

An old bathtub is sunk into the ground, providing a home for his cuttings.

Elsewhere on the lower terrace are many fruit trees. A host of citrus is grouped in one area and at their base flourish more veges. "I don't waste too much ground," agrees Allan. One citrus has a collar of lettuce, another chillis, and another parsley.

Other edible trees include plum, apple, peach, feijoa, fig, and walnut.

As well as the main vege garden, Allan maintains a narrow patch directly outside his flat. Tomato plants planted directly into a bag of tomato food are thriving. Lettuces are lush, silverbeet sumptuous, beetroot bonnie, carrots coming along, garlic growing and radish look ravishing. A disused wheelbarrow is filled with soil and, in it, more chillis flourish.

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Nearby, Allan recently cleared grass away from a slope and in here are different types of cucurbit - butternut, squash and different types of pumpkins. Young courgettes are also emerging, with plenty of space to sprawl. And beans are making their way up a homemade wire frame.

"An old fella gave me spuds from America so I put them in behind the beans," says Allan.

He passes produce on to other people in the flats. "I give everything away. It's no good letting it go to waste. Most people around here have had broccoli and cauli."

Later he talks about the apple tree being raided one night. "Got up in the morning and all the fruit was gone.

"Ah well, they needed it more than us, I guess. Still, if they would only ask we could share it out. Some of them are too greedy and want the lot."

This is not a dig at fellow residents. At the back of the flats is the public Mangaotuku Walkway and while Allan gets nice comments from passers-by, some stragglers obviously feel the need to help themselves.

The bank, much of which Allan pushed back, is now home to a mass of shrubs and plants. Many abutilon boasting different coloured flowers are there along with hydrangeas, buddleia, apple blossom, rock roses, daisies, pentstemon, gazanias, geraniums, marigolds and pansies. Some are self- sown but many were planted from cuttings. Allan weeds some parts while perched on a ladder. Viewed from above and below, the sloping ground is a patchwork of texture and colour.

Don, one of the residents, tells us he moved into one of the eight flats about a year ago.

The property is notable for its tidy appearance. "It's well-kept. I've seen different flats and some are quite unkempt whereas these ones look nice."

Allan maintains a garden outside Don's back door - Don providing plants, Allan putting in the labour "I like gardening but I'm past it now."

Another elderly woman, aged 92, heaps similar praise on her fellow resident. She used to garden a small area outside her flat that is now filled with flowers and clumps of shrubs. "I'm very grateful for what he does.

"I used to be able to garden but Allan has taken it on now and he's very good.

"If it wasn't for him I don't know how I would manage."

Natalie McDermott also lives in the flats and, while getting her hands dirty isn't her style, she says she makes Allan cups of tea and lunch and enjoys yarning while he's out and about.

Allan says he's always gardened - growing up in a family of 11 children meant toil in the soil started early. "My old man had a quarter of an acre . . . there were eight boys so we got on the banjos and dug the vege garden. We had to do so much, each one of us."

His hometown was Haldane, near Invercargill. "It was a sawmilling outfit and my old man worked in the bush. We had pigs, cows, chooks - all sorts." Over the years he's always had gardens. "You've got to have a garden," he says. "Without a garden, it would drive me nuts, sitting round."

His paid jobs have varied: Scrub cutting, carpentry, plumbing, wall papering. "I do everything I can turn my hands to."

Back by the Cook St roadside he points out neat flower borders he maintains. There's the chock-a-block garden outside his 92-year-old neighbour's place.

It's a cottage style area with a colourful variety: miniature roses, geraniums, cinerarias, marigolds, carnations, gazanias, lamb's ear and alyssum fill the gaps. Gladioli will soon be flowering but their long spear-like leaves are already in evidence. Behind, shrubs like buddleia, apple blossom and other unnamed bushes provide a backdrop.

In another narrow stretch of garden, irises recently finished and now summer flowering beauties are taking their place.

This year's judges for the NPDC garden contest are Ray Pope, a council parks department staff member, as well as Tony Barnes, co-owner of long- standing festival garden, Ngamamaku, near Oakura. Judging takes place on December 4. Contest organiser Kaye Thorpe says this is the third year the competition has been run, with entries up on last year. Last year the Cook St flats and Allan Cuckow won the best overall site prize while Cliff Libeau took out the top vege garden prize and Margaret Edgar the best flower garden award. Allan also came third in the vege garden category. The 'Boys' at the Somerset St flats were named recipients of the Mayor's choice award for gardening on a difficult site.

- Taranaki Daily News

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