Sonja Slinger: A creekside garden to enjoy
Many people know of the beauty of Liz and Leo Bennett's garden in rural Inglewood. They've been prompted and encouraged for many years to open it to the public. Now, the timing is right and they proudly show Creekside Garden off to Sonja Slinger.
It's a dreadful day weatherwise to visit Liz and Leo Bennett's garden. During a week (or is it a month?) of rain, we arrive and a thunderous sky threatens further downpours as we slosh over wet paths and along muddy tracks. But despite the grey and damp, it's easy to see that while this garden is still relatively dormant in its winter slumber, it will be a showstopper in this year's Taranaki Fringe Garden festival.
It's a garden that has been developed over many years, from a rugged farm subdivision to a busy family garden, raising three children who were able to grow up kicking balls, bashing cricket balls and playing croquet and hide and seek around the huge lawn. Now it's a rural haven, with carefully planned beds, terraced gardens and places to sit, meandering paths opening to different vistas as well as a small lake where doves oversee any visitors.
As the kids have left home, Liz and Leo have had more time to spend on the property and really create the plan that's been in Liz's mind for years. It's helped that Leo retired two years ago and is now the full-time gardener.
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"I just follow the leader," he says, smiling at Liz. "I like doing the practical side of things. I get great satisfaction out of doing the work and seeing the results."
Liz, who grew up around gardeners – her parents had the Eureka gardens at Egmont village, in partnership with the Naus family - always had a vision for the garden and is happy with how it's progressed, although she feels she still has a bit of tweaking here and there to do.
"We've changed things over the years and tried to keep it low maintenance with lots of mass plantings," she says.
"We are only just getting it looking good now," adds Leo. "It was always just a playground for the kids and really, gardens are for kids to play in."
It's not entirely true that the garden is only just looking good. The couple have been known for their garden for some years, and have opened it occasionally for school fund-raisers, to host weddings and other events. But they never wanted to be too public and are humble about what they've achieved.
"We think the garden is ready to share with people," says Leo. "There have been occasions when we have shared it before for private events. We've been a bit reluctant until now to open it to the public but we think it's time.
"We enjoy it, so we hope other people will too and we're looking forward to showing people around, meeting some interesting people."
So what's to see? Looking from the white brick house, lawns and sloping paths lead to the lake, created by Leo some years ago, taking water from a creek that runs through the property.
"We were lucky enough to know Wayne Busby. He came up with a digger and helped me move soil around, creating edges and contours for the land and lake.
"It was fortunate we were able to work with someone who knew what we were trying to create. Being a gardener himself, he could understand the result we wanted," recalls Leo.
There are paths edged with roses, underplantings in blocks of colour, purples and white, and a number of rhododendrons and maples. Liz is keen on hostas and these are planted throughout the garden as well as different lillies.
Well-established trees provide structure and highlights, such as a weeping gladitsia on the front lawn and a wedding cake tree (Dogwood). Leo has used broken concrete to terrace the gardens, creating small enclaves to sit and enjoy the lake and view.
There is a healthy and highly scented John Bull rhodo stealing the show in one of the bordering gardens, perched in front of weeping maples and a copper beech, while pink and white comfrey trails down the walls of the broken concrete edging.
A couple of old wooden men stand guard here, made by Liz and Leo's nephew a few years ago, adding character and complementing some old wooden structures (small sheds and cottage) made by Liz's father, Leo Reumers.
A single set of steps takes us to a water wheel which Leo made about 20 years ago.
"I originally set it up to power the garden lights and we'll have the wheel going for the festival," adds Leo, who's been an electrician all his life and has built a wind turbine and put in solar panels on the 6.5 acre property.
There's a resident eel in the creek near the wheel which might give visitors a thrill, adds Liz, as he's used to the grandchildren feeding him and often pops out at the sound of voices.
A path leads over a small underpass which Leo put in for swans which lived at the lake. "They were always coming up the house lawn and making a mess so I put this underpass in to get them to go over to the paddock and make a mess there instead."
Around the lake Liz has planted alstromeria and masses of water lillies of yellows and mauves, and more hostas and a creeping camelia in pale pink. Large trees make a statement here too, an old walnut, magnolia and chestnut.
Towards a pergola leading from the lake towards a stand of native bush, Liz has planted star jasmine next to a red Rhododendron named Leo. There is a cottage here with climbing vines and a story of Leo's sporadic moments for pruning.
"I get home from work some days and I just look and think, 'Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear', Leo has been pruning."
Leo, however, laughs and says he's amazed at what regenerates after a good pruning, especially when a chainsaw is involved.
The cottage once had a glorious clematis growing over it which Leo decided needed attending to – the rambling vines never did recover – not one of his regeneration examples.
A path flows along the creek and through native bush. Liz loves that you can wander underneath silver ferns and look through their fronds to the sky.
"Every tree that's here we have planted, except a holly on the island at the lake. We have been here long enough to be able to see these trees maturing. Isn't that wonderful?" says Leo.
The land was part of Leo's parents' farm and 6.5 acres was subdivided off for the couple nearly 40 years ago, while his brother carried on running the farm.
"You need to stand back and see what you have sometimes. You have to enjoy what you have done. If you are working in the garden all day then the garden is too big. It's nice if you can spend the morning in the garden and enjoy it in the afternoon. Otherwise it's always head down and you know the rest of it,' Leo laughs.
The bush path pops us out back at the house, on that grand back lawn. Here beds are full of echium, iris, hellebores and unusually large renga renga lillies. There are also large azaleas and small kowhai.
Under the dovecot there are several hydrangeas in pinks and white and Liz placed the vegetable garden beyond here so she would purposely have to go this way.
A part-time nurse at Base Hospital in New Plymouth, Liz loves the garden and having the time now to play around with it. "It's a garden made up of many plants given to us by friends and family, and that's nice as it is full of memories."
As we leave and the rain starts falling, Liz points out a problem area near the front entrance where she is trying to establish star jasmine but she thinks grass grubs are thwarting her efforts.
White carpet roses grow alongside a country fence leading to the garage and working quarters as well as lavenders and spring bulbs. In the nearby paddock a magnificent old magnolia stands out among other trees - maples, elm and dogwoods.
Says Leo: "We've lived here 37 years. It's a lifestyle block and it's a good size that you can do something with.
"I don't see this as a job. If you are working on it all the time, you see it as a job but if it gives you pleasure doing stuff, that's what matters."
Except when you are pruning, Leo.
- Taranaki Daily News