Yes, this is a conversation we have every year: shall we go on opening the garden?
It’s very hard work and I end the season exhausted. It comes easier to the naturally gregarious, I suspect, the ones that don’t want to hide under the bed when people arrive. But for us, it’s the way we fund the enormous extravagance a large garden is. Has to be done – and anyway, it would be ridiculous not to share it.
Do you other openers love it?
Abbie clearly didn’t.
Anne Wareham, editor
We closed our garden recently. It has been a revelation.
When we first started opening twenty six years ago, it was for the ten days of our garden festival. In the time since, both the festival and our own garden have gone from strength to strength. As our plant nursery business grew, so too did the time we opened draw out until it was for eight months of the year, every year. We would open for the magnolias from August 1 – that is a spectacular time of year here. But all of our springtime is pretty spectacular, really, so we stayed open. Then we found ourselves opening for the summer season until we extended out to March 31.
The garden was an integral part of our business. It gave us horticultural credibility. Garden visitors bought plants and plant customers would often go round the garden. But neither side of the business was ever large enough to employ sufficient staff to give us a breather. At its peak we had four full timers (plus us and the two of us were close to another four labour units) and a few casuals or part-timers. It took an Australian colleague to point out to us that we were killing ourselves.
First to go was the mail order side of the business. We breathed a big sigh of relief. Next we decided we were sick of working seven days a week and retail could go except for the busiest month of the year. Another big sigh of relief. Then we decided we would rather garden than do nursery work so the wholesale side of the nursery went. We made all but one staffer redundant and, dare I say it, the irritation factor in our lives dropped by 90%.
This year, while loving being in the garden, we began to feel that we no longer wanted to share it with the public. At least not for a while. We had reached the point where we would hide from visitors if we could. Neither of us wanted to answer the phone when it rang. Yes, we may be the magnolia experts but no, we did not want to advise endless individuals on which variety to plant in their garden and exactly how wide a particular variety would grow in x number of years – especially as we were not selling them the plants. Shame on me, I stopped replying to all emails. After more than two decades of building up a high public profile, we just wanted to hibernate.
Added to that, it has been a difficult time here. Tikorangi has the misfortune to be sitting on large gas reserves and the last eighteen months have been hell, with two companies determinedly extracting as much of it as possible. We are lucky. We can’t see the petrochemical development. But we can hear it. Some of the drilling is audible. The unrelenting heavy traffic has been distressing. The installation of infrastructure (roading, pipelines, designated high tension power lines and the rest) has been intrusive.
We have been fracked to kingdom come over the past six years because of deviation drilling beneath us. Our water is monitored for contamination. We had an oil spill along our two road boundaries. Trying to get better process, better monitoring, setting up a neighbourhood network, pressuring Council, negotiating with one of the two companies (the other is hostile) – the toll on me has been high. It is meant to get better for us this coming year but I no longer wanted to wait and see if that was the case. I didn’t want visitors going away saying: “Lovely garden. Shame about the noise.” I started to talk about closing the garden.
Added to that, visitor numbers have been in decline. It is not that we ever got large numbers. Few gardens in New Zealand get big numbers and we are off the tourist trail. We took on the English model of open gardens in this country but there aren’t actually enough garden visitors to sustain it. Nor were we willing to compromise and go for events where the garden is used as a venue. Mark has always been adamant that he only wanted visitors who actually wanted to see the garden. I once tried doing a few weddings. Mark was opposed to it so he hid. It was…okay, I s’pose, until I met Bridezilla. “Lady,” I thought, “you are not paying me anywhere near enough to treat me like the hired help in my own garden.” The only wedding we have done since was our daughter’s best friend and no money changed hands.
The global financial downturn is still biting, if the decline in overseas visitors is anything to go by. We used to get a steady trickle of British and American enthusiasts and some interesting tours. That dried up with the GFC and the trickle is now only a drip.
Time to close, we thought, at least for a year or two. The day the signage went up saying “Closed until further notice”, we received the first ever letter of complaint that we can remember. Some old biddy. The man who greeted her had not smiled (that would have been Mark – he is reserved). She resented paying 50c for a cup of tea (!!!). We were ripping her off. We should only be charging $8 for garden entry, not $12 and that should include tea and coffee. We will keep that letter as a reminder of why we have closed. We don’t want to be public property any longer and have people like that wandering around looking for fault.
As soon as we closed, our lives changed in ways we had not thought of for years. Our children spent much of their lives in a garden with the public passing through (albeit in small numbers). There were rules. They were not allowed to swear, bicker loudly, have screaming arguments or play loud music if there were people in the garden. The kids hated the leaf blower and the lawnmower waking them in the morning. It is damned inconvenient never being able to hang the washing on the line at certain times of the year or when tours are coming. I still remember second daughter saying to me at a busy time: “Mum, can you tell people that they don’t need to wave to me as they pass the dining room windows and I am having my breakfast.” That of course would be a late morning breakfast. She was a teenager at the time.
Out of every hundred garden visitors, ninety nine will be pleasant and appreciative. Two or three will be positively stimulating and enrich one’s day for having visited. And the hundredth will be horrible. Sod’s law says you will always remember that hundredth visitor. I have noticed this with other people who open their gardens. In fact we can have quite entertaining conversations amongst garden openers about the hundredth visitor and what new depths of ghastliness they plumbed. It is very unfair to the other ninety nine who are much less memorable.
We opened about seven acres of garden. We have more but the core area is that seven acres. Maintaining that to opening standard takes a lot of time and effort. Lawns have to be mowed often, edges done, debris cleared, surfaces swept, paths raked, long grass cut with the weed eater, public facilities kept clean – and that is on top of the usual weeding, planting, pruning, trimming, staking and all the rest of gardening. When you have an open garden, the timing of projects is critical because the garden has to stay looking good.
It is also quite difficult when you are a serious gardener with one of the better plant collections and one of the few inter-generational gardens in the country, to be competing for garden visitors against free public sector gardens and the plethora of what we call $2 gardens (those that charge by gold coin donation, $2 or, horrors, maybe $4 if they really fancy themselves). (NGS equivalent? editor.)It makes us look expensive even though our garden contains more intensive garden and different areas than a dozen of those small gardens. We have been patronised and put down by the ignorant many times over the years (that 100th visitor again).
No more. We are like prisoners out of gaol. It is wonderfully liberating.
We can hang the washing on the line any time, any day. Skinny dipping in the pool is not fraught with potential embarrassment. It does not matter if the paved areas are overdue for a sweep. Bare patches here and there in the garden are fine as long as they don’t worry us. We only have to deadhead rhododendrons that set seed, not all of them. It no longer matters if a bit of debris is left for a while before being cleared away. We can cut back plants as hard as we like, knowing it may take 18 months for them to look good again and we will not be judged by the hacked appearance in the interim.
Now we are gardening solely for our own pleasure and satisfaction. It is too soon yet to see whether I lose the constant sweep of my eyes wherever I walk, checking for missed weeds, something askew or in urgent need of attention. It is the eye of the assessor. I am hoping it goes.
It is also too soon to see if closing our garden gives us more creative space. We have two major new gardens to build in the areas freed up by closing the nursery. One has been on the drawing board for about six years. We have all the foundation plants in our open ground areas, just waiting to be moved into place so when we finally do it, the effect will be pretty established from the start. We have the funds allocated. We know what needs to happen to build that garden and it will be a major extension. We just haven’t had the time and mental space to do it. Maybe now we can get into the swing of construction in the next few months, ready for planting in the coming year. We may even get to finish the wild garden or North Garden as we call it, which has been gently growing for over two decades but needs the bridges fashioned and the final tweaking to get it to the stage we want. We are now free to experiment.
Maybe we will get the time to finish the wild North Garden and make the bridges at last.
We may never open again. Who knows? We haven’t taken down all the signage yet. We are keeping our options open. We may only open for targeted weekends – maybe snowdrops, magnolias, rhododendrons and summer lilies. We have no idea whether we will miss the contact with garden visitors which can be very affirming. In the meantime, the only way to get into our garden is by personal invitation as our guests. Does anybody want over four dozen china mugs, two tea urns (different sizes), a folding trestle table, umbrellas, walking sticks, a canvas gazebo, a visitor toilet block and assorted other accoutrements?
We won’t ever stop gardening. Mark won’t stop breeding plants but glory be. We be free.
Abbie Jury website
The Jury Garden in New Zealand is the breeding ground for the Jury plant hybrids, many of which are known throughout the international gardening world. Abbie Jury is also a garden writer, while Mark Jury continues plant breeding in the path first trod by his uncle, Les Jury and his father, Felix Jury. @Tikorangi (Twitter)