Change of pace

Margaret Hodges has a new outlook on life - literally and personally.

When the rhododendron specialist strode through the garden pages back in 1999, she was on a fast-paced mission.

Back then she and husband Richard were living on a 404-hectare sheep farm at Tarata, where Margaret had developed an extensive and impressive country garden. It was also one of the founding properties of the annual garden festival.

During that original interview, Margaret raced ahead, leaving the garden writer to scratch notes on the move and run cross- country to catch up. She was forthright in her views and offered strong opinions on the festival, garden design and rhododendron care.

Fourteen years on, Margaret has slowed down. She's softer, kinder and appears to be taking life in a much more relaxed stride. These days, the Hodges live on a 10ha lifestyle block at Oakura and have a smaller, but just as well designed, garden surrounding a new house designed by architect Jenny Goddard.

Their inland rural view has been replaced with a coastal country vista that takes in Mt Taranaki on one side and looks out over contoured green pastures to a splash of distant sea on the other.

The new place is called Korurata, which is a hybrid word using the name of their new address - Koru Rd - and takes the "rata" from Tarata. For the Hodges it symbolises a new beginning.

But the past will never be left behind.

"This is my Tarata area," Margaret says, sweeping her arm over a large circle of lawn perfect for continuing a lifetime of playing croquet. There's also a pebbled space for petanque around the side of the house.

The borders of Korurata are full of texture, colour and transplants from the farm. Trees and shrubs spent a year at a friend's place before being given permanent spots at Oakura.

To add depth and a sense of maturity to the 8-year-old garden, Margaret called on her husband's help to raise its profile.

"Richard has a little Fiat bulldozer out of the ark and he pushed all those up," she says of the heightened borders.

While Margaret has mellowed, she hasn't lost her spirit and will make a noise when she has to, especially to scare away colourful Aussies. "Look at that big prunus there - Shimidsu Sakura - the rosellas came and stripped all the buds and we get hardly any. I went out there with my saucepan lids to scare them off, but I was too late."

More welcome are the natives, especially a pair of resident bellbirds; albeit a much reduced number from the farm days when the Hodges' place was home to about 20.

As she wanders - yes, actually ambles - around the garden on a sunny Friday morning, Margaret talks about the parade of people who have contributed to this place.

"I believe part of having a garden is sharing it, and there's a story in them."

Harry and Fay Looney are the first chapter.

The Hodges bought the land off them and now they are neighbours. For a couple of months at the end of 2004, Richard and Margaret lived in a caravan on their new property while their house was finished.

"We used to go down to Harry and Fay's for a shower and a drink."

Plants and a lot of inspiration have come from Helen Silcock, a friend aged in her early 90s.

"She comes and she'll say 'This colour will go here'."

Standing in front of a koru sculpture that was a 25th wedding anniversary present, Margaret says Helen was responsible for positioning it and then setting it off with a mass planting of echeveria (hen and chicks). "She was down on her hands and knees and she planted all that."

Behind floats a tall pink lavatera "Barnsley". "That was a cutting in November 2011 and I have already cut it back so much. You would think I'd know not to plant big things, but I don't." The reason things grow so well here is because of the "beautiful soil".

Two names - Don Capon and Glyn Church - pop up with the many hydrangeas Margaret has planted as fillers to provide colour and cut flowers in pink, blue, indigo, purple and white.

Inside, she always has fresh arrangements and prizes the bushy, mop-top, lace-capped beauties for these.

But you have to pick the hydrangeas at the right time or they will swiftly wilt. She opens up a blousy bloom to reveal its inner world. "Look among the flowers - the stamen has to be open."

While she is a big hydrangea fan, there's a red one she's found to be a flop because it failed to live up to its colour promise. "That's the Bloody Marvellous one, but I don't think it's bloody marvellous - that's what it translates as from French," she says.

Throughout the garden there are spots with mondo grass and she says the medium one has come from gardening stalwart Pauline Lepper.

Throughout the garden there are drifts of hostas, big and small, which can now flourish because the once-bare garden has established shade.

Trees, along with griselinia and karo hedges, help protect Korurata from a fresh-faced enemy. "We have had quite a major ripping from the wind," she says, explaining how exposed this property is compared with the protected Tarata farm.

With the bad has come good.

She has never been able to grow cineraria because they got frost-bitten, but here they are self-seeding everywhere.

Margaret is an active member of the New Zealand Rhododendron Association and is delighted she can now grow the tropical variety in Oakura.

Firmly, gently, she delivers tips on growing them. "They need good drainage. Don't plant too deep. If it's clay you plant them on top and build up with compost and potting mix. The roots quite like being tight, so they are good container plants."

Even though they are tropical and there's a blooming mix in hot colours by the house, they don't like blazing sun. "Sun in the morning, but not in the afternoon."

As she goes, Margaret talks about what has and hasn't worked, of things that have changed and plants to be shifted or kept in check.

Near a Mutablis rose - "keep deadheading and they keep flowering" - are lush hostas and a wee splash of purple.

"I let the violas go here, but I murder them in other places. You don't want the garden looking all the same," she says.

Koru Rd could be called "Agapanthus Way" because great swathes of the plant fly like flags on verges.

This theme flows right into the Hodges' place, where there are agapanthus in all shapes and sizes. They are the border stars down the drive and around the entry side of the lawn circle, but smaller ones are kept at bay.

In the central garden, Margaret has planted a variety of reds to draw the eye to the front door in the same colour. Among these are rhododendron "Rubicon", geraniums, the rose "Colour Break" and dahlias.

On the coastal side of the house, its landscape designer Chris Paul gets credit for the flowing, open shape.

A limbed-up olive tree, clipped mounds of rosemary that reflect the shape of distant pine trees, carpet roses, catmint and two michelia pruned into balls all add interest to a space where the view rules.

"I had to keep it simple because we do get the wind and we aren't out here that often."

After 27 years at Tarata, Korurata has been a new start. It's been about downsizing and adaptation, shifting and transplanting, growth and change. And it's here that Margaret opens up some more.

"I'm looking for a gardener," she says, explaining about back problems. In another breath she talks about keeping mobile, like her friend Helen Silcock.

"We bike up and down the road for exercise. We are going to Europe this year and we are doing two biking trips."

Margaret might need a little help now, but she vows never to stop.

Taranaki Daily News