Tending to the soul

Out the back of Dawn Bowen's wee unit near Pukekura Park is a magical garden of rambling and rampant plants.

"I couldn't live without a garden," she says, standing in a pocket garden lush with life.

Roses and rhododendrons, passionfruit and pumpkins, lilies and lotuses help form the backdrop to her home on George St.

The 80-year-old moved to her new spot in April 2012, after one of her daughters suggested it might be time to downsize.

"I gave a lot of my rhododendrons to Sally Masson in 2011 when I was contemplating a move because the place was over-grown and needed cleaning out before selling," says Dawn, referring to the New Plymouth gardener.

She also donated some of her larger orchid species to The Fernery in Pukekura Park and when she finally left her Ballance St home, Dawn took old friends with her.

"I brought so many plants with me I feel I haven't really moved," she says.

In deciding to downsize, Dawn chose a small place with a flat section that was close to the park and town.

After her arrival, the neighbours over the back replaced a corrugated iron fence with an attractive wooden structure, which enabled her to have a greenhouse built to house her orchids.

She also extended the back conservatory a little to have somewhere to store her orchid potting material.

In readiness for the shift, Dawn couldn't quite contain her passion for plants.

Over about nine months, she popped vireyas, bulbs and other precious beauties into pots, including a strong vertical stem of the climbing David Austin rose, Grouse, which has strongly perfumed apple blossom-like flowers.

"I'm trying to keep it in a dwarf, standardised state," she says.

But the rose has had other ideas. "It put out these long runners and reverted to being a climber again. It was even invading the greenhouse."

But Dawn, a woman of great determination, was even more insistent than the rose. "When I cut that back after flowering . . . that was a marathon effort, as you can imagine," she says.

Hard pruning and choosing dwarf varieties are more of Dawn's downsizing tips.

She is also making use of vertical surfaces.

On the other side of the unit, in a space shared with a neighbour, she has put up sturdy shelves to give her cymbidium orchids a warm and sheltered home.

Out back, she has hammered in four-inch nails into every third or fourth fence board to hold up a flourishing pumpkin vine grown from seeds saved from one she bought to eat.

"I shoved a few seeds in and of course it went mad. Once they set fruit, I pick the tips of the long runners to limit them. They go for miles otherwise."

A Magnolia liliflora - trimmed down to size - is also dripping with pumpkins, hanging pots blooming with violet and mauve streptocarpus and a cerise Gloriosa lily.

This magnolia also hides two large lidded plastic rubbish bins, which she uses to make compost. Dawn has made drainage holes in the bottom of each and when one is full she turns to the next one.

When the compost is ready to use, she tips it into the space behind the magnolia where it gradually gets used and continues to break down.

"The compost gives you the organic material, but it's the Bioboost that's stimulating everything so much. It's a good way of promoting recycling and it helps with the flowering and fruiting of things."

Dawn swears by the organic, slow-release, granular fertiliser, made from heat-dried biosolids at New Plymouth District Council's wastewater treatment plant at Bell Block.

She gets it from Mitre 10 at $1 a kilo and uses it to enhance all her plants, including the orchids and her thriving orchard, which she has planted beside the shelves of cymbidiums out front.

Her edible patch includes four apples, a fig and a pomegranate, which are all planted in plastic rubbish bins, with holes cut for drainage and painted. She has used sandpaper to roughen up the surface to help two coats of acrylic paint adhere.

"The paint protects the plastic from the sun," Dawn says.

"Any fruit tree on dwarfing stock can be grown in a container as long as it's approximately 60 litres in size."

The fig is thriving in confinement. "It's already produced a couple of dozen fruit before Christmas. Now it's got a second crop, which is remarkable."

Also in this patch are lemon, lime and orange trees, a double- grafted plum, a pair of dwarf cross-fertilised feijoas, a tropical passionfruit, a dwarf Cavendish banana, a paw-paw hybrid, broccoli, herbs and beans.

"Go back a couple of generations or less and everybody had a vegetable garden. During the war (II), our main vegetable supply was our family vege garden."

Dawn, a mother of two daughters and two sons, says gardening is in her blood.

"I like to say I come from a family that's close to nature and everyone is a gardener. I do genealogy, so I'm aware of the family background."

She is also from farming stock, was the third generation of her family born in Taranaki and is highly knowledgeable about the region's rich growing history.

It is here, Dawn refers to a book published in 1896 by the then Taranaki Herald editor William Seffern, called Chronicles of the Garden of New Zealand, known as Taranaki.

She has also had a hand in preserving a piece of natural heritage.

"This is something I'm very proud of - that's a native forget- me-not, Myosotis petiolata var. pottsiana, which was thought to be extinct and I rediscovered it up the Waioeka Gorge, east of Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty," Dawn says.

She found it on a rocky wall alongside a walking track in the winter of 1982.

At the back of her garden, in a rocky spot, the rare plant is in bloom. "I have given seedlings to Pukekura Park - they are planted at the entrance way to The Fernery and they are flowering."

There's also a plant from beyond these lands that Dawn loves. If you look beside the Magnolia liliflora you will spy what look like green shower heads. Follow the stalks downwards and you get to water.

Dawn is successfully growing a lotus, a plant that enchanted her after she saw it growing wild in the Kakadu National Park in Australia in the late 1980s.

During a wild flower trip to Yunnan province in southwest China with a Pukeiti rhododendron group in 1999, she experienced eating lotus root.

A few years ago, she visited a garden centre in New Plymouth and saw lotuses for sale. "I acquired a 40-gallon drum and cut the top half off. They need a minimum of 10cm of water above the soil. I had seen some growing in a large pot in Beijing.

For Dawn, the lotus sums up how she feels about gardening and nature. "The lotus flower is the Asian symbol for aroha - universal, unconditional love," she says.

"Many people will understand or say that a garden is good for the soul. For me the garden's important for my spiritual well- being."

Taranaki Daily News