Family history at heart

Adrienne O'Sullivan rests her hand on a stone sculpture created as a memorial to husband Terry. His death in 1997 propelled her development of the family's Okato garden.
Adrienne O'Sullivan rests her hand on a stone sculpture created as a memorial to husband Terry. His death in 1997 propelled her development of the family's Okato garden.

Sarah Foy visits an Okato garden returning to the region's garden festival after an eight-year absence.

Years ago Adrienne O'Sullivan would have pooh-poohed suggestions that she might come to cultivate a festival garden.

A mother, wife and teacher, she was too busy to fit in much digging and planting.

Certainly she lived in an elegant villa on spacious grounds with a family history to tell. But 'get real' would have been her reaction to any idea that she open to the public.

Still, as family and work responsibilities eased she found she loved visiting gardens. Then when husband Terry died suddenly in 1997 several years after she had retired so the pair could travel together, the garden became a salvation.

Initially Adrienne returned to teaching, busying herself in her role at Okato College (now Coastal Taranaki school) for six years. But when she cut her teaching ties she sunk her energy into the garden, developing a gracious property with a backdrop of native bush.

A new 'career' as a marriage celebrant also filled her time.

'I was sick of falling asleep over my marking so I gave up,' Adrienne says of that second spell in the classroom. 'Then I embarked on the celebracy thing and that was good because that meant I couldn't be persuaded to go back teaching.'

Adrienne and Terry had moved into the villa in 1984 but they were already living on the property, in another house.

The land first came into O'Sullivan hands in the 1920s, after Adrienne's father-in-law bought 85 hectares. The family have no proof of the villa's age but guess it was built about 1865.

By the time Adrienne, Terry and their three children arrived the villa was full of borer but 'too beautiful a house to let slide". Throughout the years they embarked on a series of restoration projects that included building a new kitchen, opening up rooms, interior decorating and adding a second storey in the roof of the existing structure.

Outside, much work was required. A driveway and turnaround were installed, steps built to lead from the driveway to the house as well as the addition of other hard landscaping.

Landscaper Chris Paul helped Adrienne formulate a basic design. Her brother-in-law also organised a bulldozer.

'The turnaround was the beginning and then I had to do something about those levels to get up to the house so that's where I used some of Chris' ideas.'

The development was a fairly gradual one. Some planting had been done by her sister-in-law around what was once a tennis court on the front lawn. 'I don't know much about colours or fads. It's just intuition. You bung things in and then take them out.

'The house is iconic, no two ways about it. It's a beautiful dwelling and you have to have a garden to offset it. But I call the garden my high-maintenance chick. As far as easy care goes, it's not. I keep thinking as areas full up it will be easier but it isn't because things grow and then need work on them.'

Valentia is in the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular for the first time since 2004.

Adrienne's return was prompted by her need for a deadline.

'There were parts of the garden that were getting ratty . . . and a part I wanted to formalise. I thought because I'm doing this maybe I need a goal to work towards, something that would make me get stuck in.'

The front garden bordering the veranda is the new part. Here a series of small-leaved michelia and burgundy loropetalum are shaped into standards, while mondo grass, the white carpet rose and a small hebe hedge fill the ground underneath.

The clipped nature of the raised brick garden is in trim contrast to other garden beds, also at the front of the house. There is a host of flowers and shrubs jostling for space - clipped camellias behind hostas, sparaxis, cineraria, honesty, alstroemeria, azaleas, rhododendrons and lily of the valley shrub, pieries.

In other gardens closest to the house Adrienne has maintained the formality, edging them in buxus and curved brick borders. She's worried the dreaded blight now common throughout the country may disfigure her tightly clipped greenery, although so far only lime green growth is evident, not bare brown branches.

Many timber structures, from gazebo to archways, give height to the garden and a frame which roses can clamber up. Adrienne has also used brickwork in other parts, as well as low stonewalls and many planters filled either with spring colour or sculptural shrubs.

Down one side of the house the garden is uncontrived: Weeping flowering cherry trees offer colour, while clumps of agapanthus exude shiny green.

The back is shady, notable for three neat garden beds laid out in a square. In these Adrienne has opted for regimented planting that includes a low-growing euonymus hedge she plans to clip like a box hedge.

What also stands out are the gloriously glossy leaves of the blue-flowering Chatham Island forget-me-nots. A difficult plant to grow, Adrienne succeeds by ensuring they're in shade with some dappled sunlight and plenty of chook manure.

Native bush forms an important part of the garden. Visitors can wander among mature trees, King Ferns and spot the non-native clivia.

Adrienne describes her father-in-law as a 'real John Apple Seed' who was always planting, especially native vegetation. One Kauri, for example, marked the birth of her brother-in-law, now aged 73.

Adrienne has enhanced those natural plantings, and there is colour all over the place. Many rhododendrons, azaleas and roses break up the green palette.

Another 'new' part of the garden is on a terrace above the driveway. Garden curves along the lawn and layers of planting are colourful but not tall. 'When it came time to this garden it was always my wish that I wouldn't have plants any higher than one metre because that is a beautiful view through there,' Adrienne says, gesturing to a panorama of farmland evident through a gap. There's a seat to soak up the vista, although Adrienne says she never sits down - too busy toiling away.

This side is also significant because of a stone sculpture carved as a memorial to Terry. 'When Terry died I didn't want a granite headstone at the cemetery. A good friend knew this American carver who was here at the time.' The carver, Dave Holmes, carefully selected a rock from the farm and chiselled a ribbon or flag, words and the Trinity symbol on its face.

Over time lichen has spread over rough surfaces.

The trinity has become the family logo, Adrienne says, representative of her three children and the intertwining of the family - and probably the land.

Here in Okato she's blended decades of native planting with splashes of colour, touches of formality, carefully placed frames and pots and a varied plant palette. House and garden are together a gracious old girl.

Taranaki Daily News