Taranaki's garden warrior
Elaine Sanderson is a garden warrior. For more than 30 years, she has faced down salt-laden winds, biting storms, hungry cats and wandering cows. And she has not just fought back; she has won. With perseverance, the South Taranaki dairy farmer has tamed a Manaia paddock and turned it into a protected sanctuary filled with native plantings, deciduous trees, roses, rocks, sculptures and colourful perennials.
When Elaine first started gardening, there was nothing but a few established trees around the farmhouse built just 1km from the wild Tasman Sea. "The gardening started because of the children," recalls husband John, sitting at the kitchen counter eating toast for morning tea. "She couldn't leave the house but she could do an hour here and an hour there in the garden. It gave her something to do."
The garden is entirely Elaine's domain. "It's not my thing at all," says John, who is heavily into forestry.
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Not only does Elaine milk cows most days, she cuts the lawns on a ride-on mower and cares for the garden, keeping it up to scratch for entry into the annual Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular. The festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and the Sanderson garden has been part of it for more than 10 years. This year, their coastal garden is one of 47 entries spread right around Mt Taranaki.
It was neighbour and festival stalwart Jenny Oakley who encouraged Elaine to open her gates for the 10-day event, which runs from October 27 to November 5. Now the festival is the impetus for Elaine to keep working on the garden, improving and adding new areas of interest, and continuing the fight against prevailing westerlies and the salt-angry southeasterlies that do the most damage.
This mother of four adult children couldn't plant anything precious until the shelter went in, grew up and thickened. In the beginning her foot soldiers were karo, banksia and poplars, although the latter have all gone now. "So, I put in the windbreaks, then made a lot of mistakes," Elaine says. "I planted rhododendrons and azaleas and what a ridiculous idea that was. They've gone – too much salt. You only need one decent salt storm and that's it for them."
But many other plants have survived and thrived in the rural garden. "We have got beautiful volcanic ash; it just goes on forever," she says.
Camellias, tractor seat ligularia, euphorbia, miscanthus and native grasses, cherry trees, Portuguese laurels and roses flourish in this garden that has an expansive vista of Mt Taranaki.
Daisies are also foundation plants. "How I started off my garden was growing daisies as shelter for a younger plant and then I'd get rid of the daisies. That was back in the early days." Like a tribute to those supportive flowers, she has planted two urns with crimson Federation daisies on the front steps.
Nearby is a towering walnut that was already in the garden when they moved here in 1984, and a border protected by a corokia hedge. This bed stars the arum lily 'Green Goddess', euphorbias, a deep purple salvia loved by bees, a shaggy stand of Elegia capensis as well as a luxurious-looking ligularia, including the leopard plant. There are also two old-fashioned Chinese lanterns – one red and the other yellow. "Abutilons grow like weeds. They are lovely for the birds and wax-eyes."
At ground level, orange-brown carex ripples in the breeze. "I used to have a lot of grasses, but the cats slept on them and it kills them."
Elaine admits she used to have nine cats, but now only has two; a ginger boy called Gorgeous Griff or GG for short ("because he thinks he's beautiful") and a long-haired tabby called Frilly, who has a penchant for fishing. "He ate 27 goldfish before I noticed," Elaine says.
Around the pond, she has planted wee tufts of buxus that will eventually be clipped into box balls. "I have lots of ideas but they don't always get carried out," she says. "I just let nature do its own thing. That's what's so delightful, when you see something coming up."
Some natural by-products are not so welcome. "We grow rocks, unfortunately. It's a back-breaking job picking up rocks out of the paddock." Boulders from the Kaupokonui River had been "plonked" on the lawn for the Sanderson kids when they were younger. "The hours they spent playing on the rocks…"
These days the natural sculptures serve as home to a weeping crabapple. And the children's old playhouse, redecorated inside by Elaine a few years back, has an entranceway entwined with a 'Cécile Brünner' rose that has a stem as thick as a tree trunk.
This garden has other hard landscaping, including borders created with bricks, railway sleepers and river stones, most edged by concrete mowing strips to make Elaine's job easier.
The front hedge, formed by karo, pseudopanax, coprosma, abutilons and original camellias, protects the home from westerly winds and traffic noise. Along the hedge are five offering urns backed by huge headstones. "People joked 'which pet cow is going there and there,'" Elaine laughs.
Two other beauties she adores are her "lady sphinxes" from Myanmar. These bronze-hued fibreglass pieces welcome people to the garden. She first saw beautiful versions of these in Santiago, Chile. "My husband said, 'Don't get any ideas, they are too heavy to carry home.'"
Using her clippers, Elaine has created other sculptures. In a bed near the rocks, there are three box balls backed by pink and orange abutilons. A graceful gum tree with curling bark spreads its limbs over a leggy stand of Elegia capensis, yellow and green striped flax, a shortened karo hedge and three clipped columns of lonicera. "That," she points to the karo, "is essential, otherwise there would be nothing here. We had a huge storm here for three days at the end of May and the salt damage is still evident now."
Because the soil is so good, she constantly cuts back, cuts down and culls. She had seven Chilean fire trees, but they got too big so six had to go. The remaining tree, which she describes as "the scruffy one", is luxuriant and loved by the bellbirds.
At the edge of the garden is a steep drop to a river which winds its way to the sea. As the seagull flies, it's just 1km from the house to the crashing waves, but the river is so winding, it covers 7km. The Sandersons know this because they have done riparian planting along every bend and turn. Elaine points out a tin fence put in place to stop the wind whipping up from the river: "You never win with shelter – it's an ongoing thing."
Maples, clivias, nikau palms and more abutilon create a lush picture by a weeping elm, which are the best trees to handle the salt assault. "They are the last to get their leaves and the first to lose them," Elaine says.
The garden also features weeping pears planted in a pair, and the rugosa roses 'Roseraie de l'Hay' and 'Blanc Double de Coubert' add colour and perfume to a rose walk.
A woodland area is a garden room filled with small-growing perennials, particularly purple geraniums. You crunch through shingle paths edged with river stones and in this space, there are more large rocks, these ones put in place to fill a hole left by an original camphor tree demolished by Cyclone Bola in March 1988.
Other garden destroyers come on four legs. "When we were away in March this year, we had all the cows in the garden, 300 of them. It's all recovering nicely now. If it had been in May I would have been a wreck, but March gave it plenty of time to recover for the festival."
Luckily, it was only the lawn that got damaged this time. "I have had cows in the garden quite often."
This is a dairy farm, after all. Elaine uses calf bedding as mulch everywhere, feeds with Bioboost and barely sprays for pests and insects. "If I see aphids, I just use fly spray," she says.
In her garden (which is rated four stars by NZ Gardens Trust), Elaine is always focusing forward, looking towards the garden festival. "It's the challenge of making your garden up to date. It's obviously meeting all the people because you learn so much from talking to others. You get loads of tips."
Gardening is always on Elaine's mind. Every night she goes to bed and lays there thinking about what she's done and what more she can do. "It's a healthy thing to have in your head," she says. "Don't worry about the woopsies. Let nature take over, because it's just a garden all said and done."
- NZ Gardener