"This is a nice place to meditate.” A sliver of sunlight has found passage through low-hanging branches.
“Yes, it is.” He looks up at me fleetingly, then leans forward on the weathered wooden seat. His thin frame sways, emulating the gentle ballet of the flowers in the vista before us; tall elegant stems with their burgeoning heads of coloured petals, dancing to unseen currents. Loose threads of his silver hair twist in the breeze.
A bee helicopters nearby. Tui compete for the loudest and most melodious aria. The air is redolent with perfume.
How to describe the catharsis of nature? There is the moment when you reach for a dewy pink rose, cradling in the palm of your hand the silky petals. You inhale the subtle fragrance of a forgotten feeling.
Or the moment you view an impossibly thin-stemmed poppy with its brightly crumpled paper top caught in the turbulence of wind, petals fluttering like wings in flight, bending but not breaking.
My feet crunch upon the pathway as I weave through Taranaki’s Hollard Gardens, which are resplendent in spring bloom. The foliage has a green that is fresh and hopeful and which heralds rebirth. The rhododendron is in full blush, the gardens abundant with fluttering pearl-white petals, each busy head revealing a curvaceous yellow stamen.
The sun shines through the delicate calligraphy of the Japanese maple leaves, edging each leaf in a startling rim of silver. The November sky is blue and cloudless and, despite the warming sun, the breeze is cool, freshened by the snow on Mt Taranaki. All this, while a concerto of birdsong sweeps overhead.
The Hollard Gardens is just one of more than 40 gardens on display throughout the district as part of the Taranaki Garden Spectacular. The festival capitalises on spring. Admirers converge from around the country to view labours of love: displays of imagination, passion and obsession with beauty.
Some gardens have their origin more than four decades ago while others span more than eight. Their creations adorn the plains that glide out from the base of the ‘Sliding Mountain’.
I discover gardens designed to embrace more than just the sense of sight and smell. The path I follow moves into the shade of a fernery, then – a surprise – it dips below the earth where I enter a tunnel: cool, dim, narrow, before exiting to sunlight and a wisteria that has shaken off its fragrant blossom as if it were confetti.
This same path guides me to a warming spot and it is here that the vegetables and apple trees and grapes flourish in the absence of wind and damp.
In another garden I meander across an exquisite lime green lawn to sit under a shade-giving tree. After a minute or two, as the mind settles, I become aware of it: the sound of a strategically-placed trickling stream surrounded by nectar-giving flowers that attract buzzing bumble bees. Above, flitting through the branches, I hear the excited warble of a thrush.
There are small, carefully orchestrated, inner-city gardens with tropical plants that derive from Russian emperors. Then there are large evolving gardens, untended but for the occasional gently guiding hand, left to take a natural course.
“I’ve lived in Stratford for 49 years,” Maureen Ostler tells me. “We started the garden 45 years ago from an open paddock. It just kind of grew. We let it happen; it wasn’t planned.”
Now in its 27th year, the garden festival acts as a fulcrum, drawing attention to the growing cultural vibrancy emerging in the Taranaki District, at the heart of which is New Plymouth. In the centre of New Plymouth is Pukekura, the large community park.
Here visitors are embraced in greenery and water and, in addition to the wonder of the gardens, there is the life-giving affirmation of a community in the process of recreating. Children play by waterfalls or kick balls or chase ducks, while parents watch and sip coffee and eat scones.
The elderly sit on garden benches, watching the younger ones and perhaps reflecting on life in these surroundings of beauty and tranquillity.
“Is it done now? Are you finished?” I ask Sharyn King, of the award-winning King Garden.
“Did you see the sign on the gate?” Sharyn responds. No, I did not. When I find out what it says, I wonder if we might all take a lesson from it, in whatever passion we pursue. “A garden is never finished, a true gardener never satisfied.”
Reported by Chris van Ryn for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue