Festival bloomin' lovely for all

"It's known nationally as the premium garden festival"

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 27/10/2012
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Last year, the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular contributed $3.3 million to the Taranaki economy

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Listen closely over the next 10 days and you still won't hear it.

But it's there, chugging away for 25 years now, steadily building into the country's longest-running and most-esteemed garden festival.

Last year, the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular contributed $3.3 million to the Taranaki economy, putting it on par with its famous international stablemate Womad and its glitzy, confident biennial Festival of the Arts cousin.

Of the 5156 people who attended during the 10 days of the event, 75 per cent were from outside the province, hundreds from outside the country. Each one of them ended up staying around four days, eating out, shopping, sleeping in hotels and bed and breakfasts, and were almost certainly unaware they were there because of nine years of careful management and clever manipulation.

It started in 2003 when the festival was placed in the hands of the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust, the power behind Womad, the force behind the Festival of the Arts.

In that year it brought in $940,000 to Taranaki, a number now tripled and one that Taft chief executive Suzanne Porter wants to keep growing.

"You just can't rest on your laurels. It's known nationally as the premium garden festival but you can't just sit still. I think what you have to do with festivals is not reinvent them but be mindful you have a core product . . . what is it that you can put around that package that makes it more gravitational for people?"

Part of that pull could come in the form of sculpture. Taft recently gained the rights to the short-lived Kinetika Festival. Held just once in 2010, the festival paired artists with engineers to create kinetic sculptures.

Ms Porter sees the two festivals as a natural fit and at this stage the fit begins next year.

"That's a big trend overseas," says Lynda Hallinan, editor-at-large of NZ Gardener magazine and garden festival connoisseur.

"Sculpture trails, having art in gardens; not dinky mosaics and homemade sculptures but high-end art. That's happening more and more and what a great way to showcase local artists."

The Auckland-based Ms Hallinan has made the trip to Taranaki's garden event half a dozen times. The region's fertility, its mountain, New Plymouth's walkway and even its isolation contribute to the uniqueness of the event.

Ms Hallinan also credits the 2005 decision to grade the gardens as key to its success.

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It hadn't seemed like that at the time. Those bitter that they didn't make the "grade" forged their own festival, the Fringe, now as big as the parent that scorned it but both better for the separation.

"Taranaki was very brave to take that step to grade gardens and I understand it ruffled a few feathers when they did," Ms Hallinan says. "But I think it's been a good thing. Now you have two growing festivals."

In that respect New Zealand is following an international move back to gardening. It started as people turned to their gardens for sanctuary in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Ms Hallinan says, and has been pushed along by the austere mood created by the global financial crisis.

The slowdown in spending has had some impact on the festival, but those who attend are a committed bunch. Some come year after year; some have the festival on their bucket list.

Manaia resident Jenny Oakley's garden has been in the event from the start. Preparing for it is a 12-month task only made possible through the combined work of family and friends. During the 10 days of the festival she will take enough at her gate and sell enough from her garden to

maybe break even.

"I think I need my head read," she says of her quarter-century involvement. "I guess in a way it gives me a licence to be creative.

"I love gardening. I love working with plans and there is something extremely satisfying if it comes together for these 10 days."

The satisfaction is also shared by visitors, some of whom come every year to check on her progress. The social aspect, the conversing with the gardener, is part of the festival's appeal and part of the stipulation for being involved.

In that respect it's a unique event, much like the people who make it their own.

"There are two women from Wellington who come up every year," Mrs Oakley says. "They bring up a horse float to fill with plants they buy, but they can only stay in motels with roundabouts because they can't back the thing."

Not everyone is happy with simply looking at Taranaki's unique plant life and many come with plans to take some of it back. Adrian McLeod, of New Plymouth's Fairfields garden centre, prepares for the onslaught every year, stockpiling plants that will be flowering in gardens now, plants that people will want.

This annual income is a vital chunk of business for such independent centres struggling to compete against big-box garden centres.

"We specialise in collector items," he says. "People come in and go home with a boot full of plants. We're not popular with the coach drivers. "They have to try and fit all the plants around the suitcases."

The festival also gives the accommodation sector a boost, it's leisurely 10-day length making it less frenetic than the Womad weekend, but arguably just as important.

"It's still not getting the busloads we have had in the past before the recession hit," says Taranaki Motel Association president Fi Evans. "I think things are on the turn, though. "It's things like this that help us quite a lot. If we haven't got bums on beds we're not making money but we still have bills to pay. It's these festivals that make life just a little bit easier."

25 YEARS AND STILL BLOOMING

Taranaki's "rhodo" festival turns 25 years old today - but was only expected to last five.

The idea was born in 1987 when then Tourism Taranaki chief Elaine Gill thought about what made the province unique. Naturally, she got stuck on gardens. The region had four big names in Pukekura Park, Pukeiti, Tupare and Hollard Gardens, and if private gardens could be added to the mix Taranaki would have a star attraction on its hands.

So she did and it was. In the first year, 2300 people came and a decade later the festival had 100 gardens.

Though smaller now at 51, it has a bigger and better reputation as New Zealand's premier garden festival with close to 4000 people coming from outside the province each year.

"It has become a lot more professional than it used to be," says Mrs Gill.

"The original programme was one sheet of paper with a map that I drew on the front and a list of gardens on the back. We didn't go out and check the gardens or anything like that."

Now called the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular, it should have lasted five years, 10 at the most, Mrs Gill says.

"But certainly not 25."

IDIOT FRINGE'S GROWTH RAMPANT

They were called the idiot fringe, the rebels, the one-hit wonders.

They were even called $2 shop gardens.

But eight years after their controversial beginning, the Taranaki Fringe Garden Festival is stronger than ever.

The success seemed unlikely after its bitter and difficult birth.

They were once part of the main garden festival, but a grading system brought in by the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust in 2005 saw them booted out for not meeting the required standard.

The split was far from amicable.

"The assessors had the people skills of rabid terriers," admits Taft boss Suzanne Porter, aware of the raw hurt the assessors caused.

One of the wounded was South Taranaki District councillor and gardener Michael Self.

But he bit back and together with New Plymouth gardener Jo Bublitz started their own festival with 16 of the 20 gardens no longer wanted by their parent and 14 new ones.

"We made it about the garden experience.

"We also had organics, vegetables and people had animals or garden art," Mr Self says.

That first year, organisers estimated the 30 gardens got up to 8000 visits over the 10 days.

Having now grown to 59 gardens and places of interest, the festival gets around 36,000 visits each year.

- Taranaki Daily News

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