Since Ruth Appleton and husband John bought their 2.2ha at Pahoia in 1992 they have been developing their own mini-arboretum, even though they didn’t move on to the site until 1997.
The land falls steeply away from the road, is boggy at the bottom and climbs up to a ridge on the other side. Ruth is only half joking when she says that she has been given only the worst bits to garden – cattle graze the rest and John has a big shed for his mechanics hobby.
“We used to come over from Tokoroa and stay in our mobile caravan,” Ruth says. “I remember the first ute-load of trees we bought for planting, we thought we had such a lot. But when we’d put them in, they hardly went anywhere.”
She has no idea of the number of trees she has planted but says she always intended it to be an autumn garden – plenty of colour set off by evergreens. “To me leaf colour is more important than flowers.”
Among the colourful trees are the terracotta swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) which, despite its name, grows in wet or dry conditions; the yellows of golden ash (Fraxinus excelsior), which also comes in a dwarf variety, paper birch (Betula papyrifera), and Gingko biloba; various bright shades, including scarlet and orange of Japanese and Canadian maples (Acers); and the spectacular Liquidamber styraciflua, which vary from yellow to deep purple on one tree.
But Ruth admits that her garden looks pretty good in spring too as the cherries (Prunus, both upright and weeping), dogwoods (Cornus), magnolias and Melias comes into bloom. She also loves Fagus sylvatica Rohani (European beech) for its soft spring foliage, which is purple – in autumn the tree takes on coppery tones.
“I don’t buy lots of one thing, as you can probably tell. I tend to buy things and then find somewhere to put them. I have a cherry that doesn’t flower much but it stays because of the colour of its autumn leaves.”
Her first task was to create a series of five ponds to tame the general swampiness along the valley floor, including doing all the rockwork along the sides of the main pond.
“I love working in the garden. John helps too but I do the mowing, the planting, the pruning … anything. I love it all.”
“John’s tree” is a Cunninghamia lanceolata (China fir), which comes with spiky green needles or softer blue needles and, Ruth says, has to be mowed round cautiously.
Plants along the edge of the ponds must withstand both wet and dry as the ponds tend to shrink without regular rainfall. It’s a hard ask but, through trial and error, Ruth has found success with flaxes, daylilies, bog sage and ligularias, while Carpet Roses in various shades are dotted through the garden.
“They are just marvellous plants,” she says of the roses. “They’re hardy and never stop flowering.”
As we walk she makes mental notes to herself to limb this, move that, check on the health of something, picks guavas to munch and retrieves her favourite shovel from a bank where she’d forgotten she left it. “I do walk around the garden for pleasure but I always notice what needs doing.”
Ruth has used small-flowered grevilleas widely on her clay banks and intends to plant more prostrate plants, especially those enjoyed by birds and bees.
Anything put in below the shelterbelt has a hard life as “the wind belts across the top of the shelterbelt and drops down” but a white protea has surprised her by doing well there.
Ruth’s trees are all given time to show off their attributes, including a Davidia involucrata (handkerchief or dove tree) which has unusual hanging white flowers – that is, according to the tag as Ruth is still waiting for hers to bloom. A Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree) also needs a few years’ growth before flowering.
A small memorial garden, entered between camellia hedges, has been created off to one side of the pathway round the main pond and Ruth has also made a “fairies’ garden” for her grandchildren, complete with a friendly gnome, in another secret corner.
“It’s a good garden to let your imagination run wild in,” she laughs.
This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.