Doug Wilson once grabbed headlines for what some would term mad antics. He walked up, down and around New Zealand pushing a pram or trolley.
He did the same in Australia, hauling his belongings from Melbourne to Brisbane and on to Darwin. Sometimes politics motivated him. Other times, he promoted an event or cause.
He has not really retired from his soapbox, but this time a garden competition has him back in the news.
He lives in a block of pensioner housing in Wrantage St and this month the property won the top prize in the New Plymouth District Council Housing for the Elderly garden contest.
Four brick units make up the block. Doug's house is one of the middle ones. Dorothy Harrison has a unit on the end, and in between is two others. Together, the four units were named the best in the district. Dorothy's garden was also runner-up in the flower-garden section.
Clearly, Doug is chuffed.
A narrow strip of flowers at the front greets visitors to his home. There is a flawless cream rose, a pink sprawling miniature rose, clumps of gazanias and a range of annuals such as petunias, marigolds and pansies.
In between the floral fancies are tomato plants, while up above hang colourful baskets.
Like most things in Doug's life there is a story to the woven baskets. He bought them from The Warehouse, neighbours liked them too, so they bought some. Now, three of the four units sport the baskets. Doug has hung the hooks for next-door-neighbour Tui, but they have yet to go up.
"I'm quite happy with them," he declares. Petunias, geraniums, begonias and dianthus flourish in the baskets."
Doug says the tomatoes tucked in at ground level are an experiment in how to grow edible and non-edibles in the same patch of ground. "This way you have a balance and that doesn't look out of place, does it?"
But there is also an excellent range of edibles growing elsewhere on the property. At the back, Doug and his neighbours dug out tatty shrubs that grew alongside an iron fence. They mixed compost with the soil and started to grow a range of vegetables - cabbage, broccoli, beetroot, spinach, rhubarb, silverbeet, pak choy and more tomatoes, including some grown from seed.
Doug edged the strip of garden in bricks and cleared a rampant rose threatening to engulf a garden shed. In a far corner, another vegetable patch was laid, with a bean frame erected and space made for potatoes.
Dorothy and Doug now source most of their produce from the Wrantage St gardens. "It's a far cry from what it was," says Doug. He has done all this in six months.
Doug hit Taranaki's news in the late 90s, when he stood for the 1998 Taranaki-King Country by- election. He has been living in Tauranga most recently, but in June returned to New Plymouth.
"My grandchildren said, 'When are you coming back?' and I happened to be here and said to the council, 'If you have a flat, I wouldn't mind coming over,"'
Gardening isn't a new interest. "My kids would probably say, 'Dad puts his garden in before he even shifts in. I've always been a gardener, I love a garden. I know the council is amazed at what's transpired. Out the back, it was a jungle before we got stuck in."
Jungle could be stretching it, but Doug relishes a yarn and he has oodles of material to fill a story. Ask him about his walks up and down the country and he disappears into a room, emerging with three briefcases of material.
A plastic folder is filled with neat sheets of typed paper. These were the plans for his 2004 walk around Australia. On that mission he was promoting a marathon and cycle event between London, Australia and New Zealand.
Visitors would flock to the country and youth unemployment would be tackled, he reckoned.
He estimates he covered 70 to 80 kilometres a day. The walkabout took about four months, but he was prevented from getting through the rest of Australia and on to London because of what he terms "conflict up in Indonesia".
He had another idea to build a youth choir and orchestra in Taranaki - one male choir and one female choir made up of young people between the ages of 15 and 18.
"Doesn't matter how big or small the nation is, there are no barriers between music. They could all sing and perform.
"A world choir in Taranaki - what a beautiful scene with the mountain behind them. The other thing would be to gift each nation a piece of land [in Taranaki] the size of a shipping container, and you imagine each nation's youth designing something on that spot for the future."
Art would be created and thousand of dollars poured into the hospitality sector.
He offered the idea to the Chamber of Commerce. They didn't go for it. "Thought they knew better," he grumps.
Before that, Doug had been the People's Choice candidate in the 1998 by-election, where he received 127 votes, or 0.6 per cent, of the vote.
On another occasion, he stood as a candidate in the northwestern Maori seat of Te Tai Hauauru.
His first walk involved pushing a supermarket trolley from Taranaki to Wellington to highlight the Government's repeal of lifetime licences. He canvassed signatures for a petition and arrived in Parliament with 56,000.
It seems redundancy from Telecom in the early 90s motivated him to speak out. "I rose through the ranks quickly because I proved a lot of things and showed them how to do things.
"One morning in Timaru, about 10 past eight, three goons walked into my office and one asked me to vacate the desk, the other one handed me the cheque and the other one showed me the door."
There was no work to be found. He says he set up an "employment centre thing" to find work for youth and help them with CVs, appropriate work attire and other employment issues. The council gave him the disused bus depot for a peppercorn rental and Telecom provided a free phone line. Two or three others helped out.
In Taranaki, he teamed up with political wannabe Rusty Kane, who later went on to stand in many elections as an independent.
These days Doug seems content with gardening his Westown plot and bossing Dorothy around, not that she minds.
She outranks him in seniority and longevity in the Wrantage St units. A former Okato resident, she moved in about 3 1/2 years ago. Seven different colours of geraniums grow in her garden, along with busy lizzies, dahlias and a range of annuals. Much of her garden is made up of pots because it is easier to shift them around and pull out weeds. At the age of 88, she is a little unsteady on her feet, but nonetheless active.
"I was quite happy," says Dorothy of her second place in the flower garden section.
"Mind you, it was a nice day and everything was out in flower and it was looking good."
The main prize for winning the Best Block of Units prize is a wooden seat. There Doug and Dorothy will rest, although it is hard to imagine Doug sitting impassively. There are plans next year to design and work in the gardens at Marfell School, where he knows the principal. It is likely his mind will be running through ideas even if his feet are up.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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