Paloma Gardens

Hand-made signs – very well-made signs but clearly hand crafted – point the way to Paloma Gardens from the road through Fordell, giving a hint of the passion Clive and Nicki Higgie have for their one-of-a-kind garden.

The sheep farm has been in Clive’s family for generations, while his half-French, half-Kiwi wife Nicki was introduced to the property in the hinterland of Wanganui and a “typical Kiwi farm cottage” 35 years ago.

“She’d been educated in Belgium, had studied at university in New York, spoke several languages and had servants when she was growing up,” Clive says. “When I brought her here I decided I’d better spruce things up a bit and it has just snowballed.”

A wooden fence on one side of the drive carries an eclectic collection of neatly painted slogans and thoughts – those supplied by Nicki, a district councillor, are in French and Latin, while a bridge in Paloma carries a musing on the creation of Frenchwomen, Clive’s tribute to his wife and mother-in-law.

Part of the welcome fence.

And although the garden’s name is Spanish (meaning dove) it was Clive who named what had been known as “the garden over the road” after his youngest child was born 22 years ago. “We had a son, Guy, not a daughter so I couldn’t use the name I’d chosen so carefully. I didn’t want to waste it and ‘the garden over the road’ wasn’t doing much for anyone, so it became Paloma.”

The extensive garden is in two parts – surrounding the house and in a valley across the driveway – but is now all called Paloma.

“I love trees and I love planting,” Clive says simply. “And I’ll buy plants for their species name – mexicana, chilensis. It’s the names that turn me on.”

They opened the garden to the public in the mid-1990s and have since featured in many magazines and books, thanks to the unique collection of plants Clive has gathered, some of them rare in New Zealand, and since 2008 a “Garden of Death”.

“Wanganui is the fourth-most temperate climate in the world,” he says, “and although we can’t grow everything, we can grow most things – that’s a hell of a wide range of plants.”

Paloma does cop frosts, including in 2009 the second-coldest night recorded in Wanganui, but Clive says most plants will shrug off their frost damage in the spring.

The Red Bridge is a popular spot for wedding photos.

The aloes and cacti aren’t bothered by cold and provide bright spots of winter colour in Paloma proper, which features a lake, picturesque red bridge and a spot for weddings.

On the banks around the Red House cottage Clive has tried to re-create a Mediterranean garden, which he explains as the things he saw growing in France, Italy and Spain, not necessarily things that are native to those countries.

And for anyone who shudders at the thought of bamboo, Clive reckons his large grove of Phyllostachys edulis is less work than having six roses. “Sure it’s a running bamboo, but I control it with trenches and groom it once or twice a year. It’s just a magical place to be, quite spiritual.

Clive Higgie in a grove of Phyllostachys edulis, a bamboo with edible shoots.

“I started with a love of palms and bamboos, then it moved to tree aloes and dragon trees … and so it goes. You join societies and learn more and begin to have access to unusual things. We have over 5000 different species and cultivars on the property.”

Paloma is inspired by the Auckland garden created by Noel Scotting that combined palms, succulents and orchids. Noel died in 1997 – read a 2010 story about her garden and its new owner here.

“We were lucky enough to meet her and she was so generous,” Clive says. “We’re quite a few years behind, but our garden is in a similar vein.”

He has taken the slow route with some plantings – his stand of 32-year-old Washingtonia robusta palms have been grown from seed – and several trees have been grown from cuttings, including one from Wellington Zoo and one Clive begged 20 years ago from a tree he spotted in Wanganui.

“It was a Cussonia sphaerocephala, a South African tree they call a cabbage tree. As far as I know there are only two of the sphaerocephala in New Zealand, one here and, if it’s still there, that one in Wanganui.

“The elderly lady who came to the door was a little startled but she let me take a cutting. She had bought the tree as a little house plant from McKenzie’s [department store] 30 years before that.”

Clive loves the colour of new foliage on Lobelia gibberoa, so much so he had a paint made to match for an outside wall.

An area of garden was “demolished” by a storm in 2004, including bringing down an old elm tree, but the event proved to have an upside. “There was the heartache of losing a big tree in the garden, but it was the best thing that ever happened because it suddenly showed me what my style of gardening was – and an elm, despite being a lovely tree, wasn’t it.”

  • Paloma is open seven days and is situated 20km from Wanganui and 70km from Palmerston North, $10 entry. If you would like a guided tour, please arrange in advance. The self-contained Red House is a B&B, $110 a night for 2. For more information email or phone 06 342-7857.

CLIVE HIGGIE’S PLANT PICKS:

  • Daphne bholua for its sweet winter scent … but note Abbie Jury’s comments on its tendency to sucker and seed freely in her New Plymouth garden.
  • Colletia paradoxa has vanilla-scented flowers from late summer
  • Agave chiapensis for its unusually marked leaves
  • Chusquea coronalis (a South American bamboo) has delicate foliage and arching stems
  • Schefflera Condor for its “spellbinding” new foliage – this plant was introduced to New Zealand by Dick Endt
  • Lobelia gibberoa (tree lobelia) for its pink-purple ribbed leaves
  • Ceroxylon quindiuense (wax palm) from the Andes is the tallest palm in the world and can grow up to 70m
  • Jubaea chilensis (Chilean wine palm) for its splendid trunk – the largest diameter of any in the world. (There is a large tree at The Domain in Tauranga.)

This article first appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and is reproduced with permission. It has been edited slightly for relevance.

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