Under the gaze of Mt Taranaki, Neryda and Peter Sullivan’s heavily planted country garden is a place for picking and peace.
The acting principal of Hawera Intermediate School loves floral work, and seeing her vases filled with fresh flowers and foliage. “I pick lots of flowers. I take them to work with me and give lots away,” she says. “My mother always had a vase of flowers on the desk at home.”
Neryda, nee Williams, was one of four girls who grew up with a big country garden and tennis court at Ohangai, where her parents always had their hands in the soil. She has remained in south Taranaki and continued the gardening heritage, with Peter at her side. “But we’re not slaves to it,” she adds.
The education specialist and the builder are always on the go, so being in the garden grounds them. “When you are busy, busy people, the garden is peaceful and soothing and quiet. I just listen to nature, to the birds.”
Husband and wife have packed their place with so many plants, there is barely room for more, and absolutely no space for weeds. Sitting in the dining room looking out over the perennial garden to the maunga beyond, Neryda talks of the early days.
“We have been in this house 26 years. Before that we lived in a little house across the road,” she says. “We had an eight-acre block and we grew asparagus. It was always the plan that we would build a house with a magnificent view of the mountain.”
They canned their asparagus venture, using the land for their home and garden. Peter built the house, repurposing bricks from the old Hāwera nurses’ home. “We chipped off all the mortar by hand. It was a labour of love,” she says.
On paper, their landscape plans began, always keeping the home as the heart with the garden flowing off and around it. “It’s nice to be in the house and be able to look right around the garden,” she explains.
They also altered the driveway, which originally came from the road to the front door. “You sweep in now and that’s a feature.”
The Hāwera garden is alive with 150 rhododendrons, along with azaleas, magnolias, roses, conifers, viburnums, hydrangeas, hedges, and mass plantings beneath graceful trees. “We put all the larger plants were away from the house,” she says, indicating the whopping Rhododendron ‘Lem’s Monarch’, her favourite of the species. “They have been allowed to grow to that size. It’s just beautiful.”
Neryda says the ever-evolving garden is heavily planted, so it looks after itself – mostly. “There are times when we are busy, like when the roses need to be pruned in late June, July.” Peter also works hard to keep the feather-soft lawn and buxus, teucrium and griselinia hedges perfect.
Their gardening is done at the weekend in dawn-start sessions, which are finished by 10am. “We have maintained what we’ve got and made it easy care for us, and if plants died on the way they weren’t meant to be here,” she says.
There have been casualties, including an escallonia hedge that got woody and a bunch of ‘Loving Memory’ roses which perished just before opening of the annual Taranaki Garden Festival.
Nevertheless, instead of being dug up, the plants were allowed to stay for the spring event and were the subject of much discussion. “Everybody had a theory. This nurseryman thought they had a virus in the rootstock. It must have laid dormant for all those years and suddenly wiped them out.”
These days the hybrid tea rose garden is graced by more than a dozen healthy specimens, including creamy lemon ‘Elina’, tall orange ‘Alexander’ and deep pink ‘Waimarie’. “I’ve got a sister called Claire and that’s her over there,” she says, greeting a pastel pink beauty.
On the lawn between the roses is a “water” feature given to her when she finished as principal of Mangatoki School. The sculpture has never seen a trickle apart from rain. There are strict water restrictions in this area prone to droughts.
Fortunately, the Sullivan property has a bore, which Neryda does use to water the roses in summer.
At times, she brings other liquid. “I do like sitting in the rose garden. I take out cushions, a book and a G&T.”
Along with the arid water feature, there are other sculptural forms beneath trees, at the end of the well-groomed hedges, and among the mass plantings. The garden is punctuated with large bronze-hued urns like rotund exclamation marks. Further decorative inhabitants include a ceramic nīkau, a wētā, spider, teapot, a little face atop a post and a giant apple.
Neryda, ever the teacher, loves to send visiting youngsters off on treasure hunts to find these features. “I do enjoy the kids coming in at festival time. The parents are just wandering, and the kids are charging around looking for the interesting things hidden in the garden.”
In this place of expansive views, a window frames Hawera’s iconic water tower, way in the distance.
Peter, a builder, has a creative eye, and Neryda the flower arranger, has a talent for imagining a scene. Together they have made garden rooms, formed curvaceous paths and created artistic vistas.
Off the dining room is a potager garden handy for kitchen pickings, a lineup of standard ‘Iceberg’ roses, a lush lawn and a grouping of thuja. These are underplanted with a spreading conifer that looks like a rushing sea. “I do like conifers because of the colour – the deep green and gold, and they are good for floral work.”
Other shapely beauties include five Viburnum ‘Mariesii’, whose layered branches are smothered with white flowers in spring. In the jam-packed perennial garden, a globe artichoke provides height and drama during the festival. Nearby, in the Rhododendron Walk, she recommends ‘John Bull’ and ‘Mi Amor’ for their scent and shares advice on care. “If you cut back your rhododendrons, as the new growth comes through, make sure you spray for thrips.”
Everything thrives in this place, including a golden elm that has ripped up its concrete base. A clematis that entwined a pergola was so vigorous it had to go. “It got too heavy and was a bit of a health and safety risk.”
Heading into the Azalea Walk, a Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ has magenta flowers from early spring, and close by a nyssa tree is ablaze in autumn and soft green in spring. Azalea mollis are on fire in this area, where Neryda loves to sit. “There’s a plank just there and there are lots of beautiful smells.”
In a new space cleared of a massive conifer, the Sullivans have planted a tōtara. A social worker in school gave Neryda the native tree when she left her job as principal of Hawera Primary School in 2018. “So that’s special.”
This area is also home to three thuja and a lofty oak, all of which are surrounded by chunky bark chips courtesy of a huge macrocarpa. Just up the path is the façade of a barn, which screens the macrocarpa Neryda thinks is ugly and precarious. “Every time we have a storm, down come more branches.”
The door of the façade comes from the Mangatoki School’s old library. “It’s great having things in the garden that mean something.”
Peter has also built a shed, which has since fallen foul to his golf-swing practise sessions. While his intention is always to hit balls into the farm paddock, some have gone astray. “Occasionally, they hit the shed, so there’s a couple of windows that are smashed,” she says. Not surprisingly, it’s golf that’s caused him to be absent from this interview.
This garden is full of tales and even more so when it opens for the region’s garden festival, on this year from October 30 to November 8. “That’s why I like to have the garden open, because I find people are fascinating and they have so many stories to tell and things to share,” Neryda says.