How things can change so quickly.

It is the end of February now, feeling quite autumnal, although still hot and sticky.

What has changed for me is a local reoccurrence of breast cancer.  I think actually I found the lump the say day as my last blog post.  After I’d been out for lunch.  Boom.  There goes January and February.  Surgery had to wait until after the holidays, and then was a mere 1/2 hour.  Since then, radiation.  Zapped.  Today is the last day.

If you are interested you can read my diary on a website I have made

After today, I need to recover first (about 6 weeks all in all, so they tell me) then decide what happens next in my life.

Rainbows – good signs for the future

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Empty sky

Peace in the neighbourhood has been shattered this past couple of weeks by the constant clanging and banging of bulldozers, ripping the heart out of a house two doors down.

Gloria, the previous owner, was the original owner of the property. I did not have that much to do with her over the 24 years we were neighbours-but-one. Early on I asked if I could have some of her plums; she readily agreed.   I duly returned a jar of fresh plum jam to her. Both our properties had ancient plum trees – remnants of when the area was orchards supplying fruit to Auckland.

More recently, she was wandering the street in her dressing gown, slightly unhinged from reality, and within weeks she was relocated to a local resthome for the short time she had left on this planet.

When I walked passed her front yard, I always coveted the yellow bearded iris – my favourite plant if not my favourite colour – but I did not know her well enough to ask.

A silky oak which has slowly withered and died over the years provided the local tui flock with a perch high above any trees close by. For 24 years those tuis, no doubt several generations of them, have been masters of the neighbourhood. They have a distinct, and discordant, chortle, that sounds as if it stops half way through the melody.

As the bulldozers moved in, and the ground shook underneath me, 2 doors down from the site, I just knew it was only a matter of time before the dead silky oak and the other trees were sacrificed to make way for what I assume will be intensified development. The quarter acre dream is dead in this street.

The bulldozers have done their work. Not before I nipped down the road at dusk one evening last week and pulled up the only remaining vegetation from what used to be a border of flowers along the drive. The yellow bearded iris, bravely standing tall among the dust, was rescued from imminent annihilation and sits in a bucket waiting to be planted outside, with it’s siblings of different colours. Also plucked from the jaws of death an orchid with long strings of gorgeous red flowers. I doubt the bulldozer driver even noticed.

Today, while the earth moving machinery goes on to it’s next job, the chainsaws fired up. I glanced at the trees, and just knew that by day’s end they would be gone, and so it is. The sky is bare to the west. The tuis have moved on.

I have been accused of being a bit enthusiastic with the saw and loppers. There is always a need for judicious pruning, in my opinion, unless you are revegetating a forest. Trees and shrubs grow to their own plan and not necessarily in a way the meets our desires as the co-inhabitants of the space. Fruit trees need to be maintained to ensure fruiting is healthy and reachable. Most hard wooded trees and shrubs are completely unharmed by careful pruning, while their aesthetic impact on a garden can be significantly improved. Get stuck in.


Here he is, the former Lord of the Neighbourhood, blissfully unaware that within a few short days his tree will be gone. He will be gone.

In the interests of protecting the pastoral land surrounding us, I guess we must surrender to the intensification of housing in Auckland. I hope that whoever moves in next will plant trees and maybe the tuis will return.

I am harvesting peas from my former microgreen pea shoots that made it to the garden – so so nice to eat. Entire crop? Possibly 12 pods. Tomatoes are fully formed – I just hope they ripen before we exit for our summer break. If not I will lose the lot to insufficient water and fungus.   Leeks now seeding but looking lovely with their big purple pompom flower heads.   There are worse ways to note the passing of the seasons.

Holidays are imminent. Enjoy.

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The unexpected can be good or bad…

This week has seen the completion of a spot of interior decorating that had it’s genesis in some friends buying a new house a couple of years ago.  We went over to celebrate when they moved in, and immediately on entering the building one was greeted by a very unusual light fitting.

“Look at that!” I exclaimed delightedly.

The reply was swift and determined, “Hate it, taking it to the tip.”

“Noooo,” I cried, “I will buy it from you.”

“NO NO NO!” said the Quality Controller, “it’s awful.”

Discussion ensued, and when the fitting was taken down it was carefully packed into a box and delivered to me;  I safely stowed it in the wardrobe out of harms way.  There it sat for two years or so, until a chance conversation pointed me in the right direction to have it rewired (Chelsea Lighting, on the North Shore of Auckland – for anyone with a chandelier fetish that is the place to go..).  Having been checked and certified, it was put back into boxes and eventually returned, waiting for the next big step.

This involved firstly sanding and oiling the window sills – a job for the Quality Controller – completed late last summer.  Leaving the daunting task of painting the walls of a full-height stairwell, some 5.5m high at the peak.  I have spent the two years since the light came into my possession pondering on how to do this.  The scaffold man said it would cost $600 and would need to go up and down in one day.  In the end, I bought a cheap extension ladder for $110.  Armed with a speed brush taped to the end of a plastic pipe which had, luckily, just the right bend in it (formerly part of a boat cover system), my job was to get up the ladder and paint.  The Quality controller’s job was to refill the brush and mop up the drips.

It was not without some tension, and harking back to health and safety matters, possibly a bit daft but I have had plenty of experience painting from ladders.  My neck is still a bit sore, but job done.  Just the one coat of paint;  same colour, speed brush makes it thick.  Enough is enough.

Last weekend, talking to a friend, she volunteered her electrician husband to assist with installation.  “I think the ladder will be long enough,” I texted when she confirmed he was on the way.  There is a joy in watching someone with the necessary expertise doing what they do.  From the ladder (suitably reinforced at the top to eliminate any chance of the ladder punching through the wall) screws in his mouth at the ready, having already worked out where the actual timber was, the light fitting in unassembled mode was put in place.  The decorative bits added carefully; bulbs in; bingo.

The Quality Controller is in for a big surprise – he doesn’t know it is there.

This relates to gardens in several ways:

  • firstly, think things through a bit before you start – know what the end game is, and think about all the steps you need to take to get there;
  • sometimes experts are best.  Could have got a painter in, but I deemed myself suitably experienced, despite the tricky access issue.  Definitely needed an electrician.  You might need a designer, or a builder, or a block layer.  Or you might want to do it yourself, but know what you really can do and what you really shouldn’t do;
  • allow friends to help if they offer – he turned down a bottle of wine and said “What is the world coming to if you can’t do a favour for your friends?”  Fair point, I think;
  • lighting is quite an important consideration in a garden;
  • the unexpected has value.  This light doesn’t “go” with the house.  To be honest I’m not sure exactly what sort of house it would go with, but there was something similar at the Grand Hotel in Torquay, England, on a slightly larger scale.  What it does, for me anyway, is turn a boring stairwell into a wonderland.  “Oh My God” is probably the only reaction I will get, but in a good way I hope, particularly at night.  If you have a favourite plant, ideally tell your designer at the start, but if you forget to say, or you see something you just must have in the garden, but it is not on the plan, so what?  Find a place – it will continue to delight you every time you see it;
  • “things” are meaningless.   While it is true that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” (Keats), a thing that links you to your friends and family is a true treasure.  This light will always belong to our friends with whom we have shared many happy times.  That plant someone gave you, or you asked for, is so much more important than what is currently “on trend” as it were.   Follow your heart.  Life is short.

I have been threatened with defamation action this week.  Wow.  That is a first.

This is what he said

“If you make another statement to anyone … which brings my honesty and/or integrity into question again I will not hesitate to sue you.  Also while I am in the topic and while I accept that you are probably incapable of change, the tone of some of your emails are unnecessarily condescending and sarcastic …. I do not expect to receive an apology from Ngaire because that would be to reasonable and decent..”

In typical bully fashion, the matters that I raised “for clarification” have not been answered…. but then he is a lawyer.

So it seems I can be called incapable of change, condescending, sarcastic, unreasonable, indecent… but I am not allowed to ask questions.  Somehow it feels like I am the one that has been defamed, but there you go.  Enough to make me take to cleaning the ceiling and kitchen cupboards, and weed the garden, so some good has come of it.

Unexpected, and not in a good way.

Delicate frosted glass leaves, even more fragile light shades, carefully assembled in situ, just in time for Christmas.  LED bulbs of course.

Reflection in the window doubles the impact at night. Also means you can’t see the not-quite-perfect paint job, but I’m not pushing my luck going back up the ladder.

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Health & Safety – it is all about YOU…

With much fanfare, new laws a few years ago ushered in a new era of health and safety awareness in NZ.  Ads on TV pleaded to allow all workers to return home safely after their day’s work.  There were dire predictions about the cost of it all;  farm workers received special treatment despite having one of the worst accident rates.  Weird assessments deemed things like doll making a particularly hazardous occupation (I’m making that up but it was something like that).

I am not really one for rules and regulations.  I had a bad experience a few years ago in an employment dispute – what might be expected of any thinking adult is no longer enough – we must have policies and procedures, written, signed off as read and understood, and adhered to.  Some would say, and I am probably one of them, that it is a bit over the top.

As a self-employed landscape designer, my biggest danger is tripping over the cat as I get another cup of tea, waiting for the creative inspiration to strike.

While it is easy to slag off, I am reading a book which has reminded me that all was not as rosy as it is today.  ‘A History of Britain Book IV 1815 – Present Day’ clips along through the famous Corn Laws and reform necessitated by the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the poor and working classes.  To quote:

“On no part of the community did the tyranny of mill life press harder than on the children.  Child labour was useful because it was cheap, and because children could be employed in the comparatively easy task of minding the machines…. Hard indeed was the lot of these wretched little ones.  Dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning, they had to work for 5 or 6am to 7 or 8pm with perhaps two half-hours off for meals.  They were subjected to cruel beatings, for the overseers resorted to violence not merely to get them to work but to keep them awake,”  (page 770).   It was not until 1819 that the Cotton Factories Regulation Act (applying only to cotton mills) fixed 12 working hours as the maximum for all children, and forbade the employment of children under 9.  Nine!!!!

The Factory Act of 1833 was the point where Government interference between masters and their employees became an established principle.  It was “the beginning of a vast code of laws which have been passed since then to protect the workers in the interest of the national welfare.”  (Page 807).  New Zealand was still a very very young country in 1833 – the Treaty between Maori and Queen Victoria was not signed until 1840.  We subsequently inherited our legal system from Westminster, and continue to fine tune it to our own needs.

I am reminded this week of health and safety because of an as-yet-to-be-clarified accident in Australia, which resulted in my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law’s body being returned in a coffin and her funeral is tomorrow.  Be interesting to find out at the appropriate time the exact nature of the accident.  My sympathy to her bereaved and no doubt shocked family.  I cannot help but wonder about the things that she has left behind that she was going to do.  Books to be returned to friends, cards to post, things ordered on Amazon yet to arrive, new summer clothes not yet worn – the stuff of daily life.   What would someone have to deal with should my own life be suddenly and unexpectedly terminated?  Must get on with the tidying up.

From the bus today I watched a Mum firstly adjust the pushchair so her child’s head was no longer in direct sun, then put some baby-sized sunglasses on the child.  And of course then take the photo on her cellphone.  But good for her – eyesight is precious.

It is time to cover up out in the garden.  Sunhat, sunglasses, suitably strong footwear.  My new favourite attire is old business shirts.  Perfect with light but long sleeves and a collar for the neck.  Get some from someone you know (in the interests of being gender and sexual orientation-neutral I cannot assume it is possible to “grab an old shirt from your husband”).  My must-have item is a good pair of gloves.  My number one tip – put on lashings of good hand cream before you put on the gloves.  I reckon it minimises the damage.

Meantime in my garden, the peas are surviving well, i.e. the eggshells in sufficient density really do deter slugs and snails, the leeks are going to seed but I will leave one or two as they are so attractive, and I have a whole brand new raised bed to play with.  Macrocarpa timber, so no poisonous timber treatment to leach into my carrots and tomatoes.  Came as a kitset in 4 pieces, complete with the necessary nails.  Easily assembled after the Quality Controller spent what felt like hours ensuring it was level (is it not going to settle??).  If you are interested in knowing where it came from, send me an email – there is a link on my website

Ready to go. Axe for levelling, level for checking. No job too small for a spirit level, it seems.

The boatman at Givernay. What??? No lifejacket? Boots and wet weather gear? If that boat goes over he is a goner; would not stand up to NZ H&S scrutiny. Unless that famous pond is actually quite shallow? Regardless it is very beautiful.




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On cleaning up and making space to be creative

It is not called Spring cleaning for nothing.  Truly, it is the season of new growth – weeds and all – and tidying up.

I am trying to reduce the amount of stuff in our house.  He is doing heroic work selling surplus items on Trade Me.   Why someone in the South Island would buy a GLASS BOWL in the North Island is a mystery.  Sad the lovely English bloke who came to try it out did not get the piano accordion.  We are doing this not because it is fashionable to declutter, but because it is a necessity to make space and order.  What I did not anticipate is that stored away in those boxes, represented by mementoes of my life to date, was my hopes and dreams.

A separate aspect of my former life was studying business, and a few weeks ago I booked to attend a workshop at the University of Auckland, called a Master Class for MBA’s – Creative Leadership.  My eye is always drawn to the word ‘creative’ since exploring and indeed running workshops myself on how to encourage creativity in children.  As I suspected would happen, the business world is waking up to the fact that what is required is people who can think and then do, rather than just do.

The facilitator of the workshop was Gillian Ferrabee, a Canadian with a background in performance, a stint at Cirque Du Soleil and now running workshops on creative leadership.  She is a delight; fiercely intelligent, funny, energetic.

In a nutshell, her message:  we are all creative; there are stages to the creative process starting with a bright idea through to delivery; our behaviour and energy changes depending on which stage of the creative process we are at (some like to generate ideas, some like to make them into reality); we all have a ‘play’ personality which should also be taken into account when doing pretty much anything in life, but particularly if we are working with others in a team (paraphrasing Stuart Brown, book called Play).

It felt odd being back at the Business School and I did not openly volunteer that I have moved on from MBA to Landscape Design.  They were all so earnest.

Why does this matter?  Well, sometimes what you need is a nudge along – a few starting ideas, a few questions about what it is you want.  Sometimes it is nice to work with others, and sometimes we need to think alone.

Start by making space, then fill it with all your crazy ideas and see what happens.  True in the garden, true in L.I.F.E.  I can’t help you much with the big issues;  too busy working on my own and hoping that creating order in the things we live with will make space for the actual lives we live.

If ideas for your garden remain confused and tangled, give me a call, I can help you turn those wild ideas into your new landscape.  Actually that is why my company is called Alchera – it is the Aborigine name for the spirit that bought the dreamworld into reality.

Le Lecture by E. Manet – in the Musee D’Orsay, Paris. I just love the look on her face. This is not a creative process, clearly.



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More on peas

I relented the other day and spent about $20 on some seeds and a plastic tray to grow micro greens.

Those delicate little shoots are one of the ‘super foods’ jam packed full of the nutrients they think they will need to grow into an adult plant.  Nipped in the shoot as it were, those same nutrients are good for us too.

The instructions are simple enough, but it was a bit like getting a new puppy.  Provision had to be made for the care of the micro greens while I nipped away to Gisborne for a weekend –  “Leave me a note.” he said.

Over Labour weekend they had to come with us, not least because according to the plan, some would be of edible size within the 7 – 14 day growing time.  By then they were past the “spray 3 times a day and cover with tin foil” so they were transported inside a baking dish to ensure the water didn’t go all through the car.  What with having to get groceries for the weekend and catch the cat, I must say planning for the micro greens did seem a step too far.

The first cutting did take place right on schedule.  Sprinkled over the top of a salad,  I can’t say I could even taste them.   Given the number of packets of bought sprouts that have ended up in the compost that might be a good thing.  I don’t understand why sprouts that are supposed to be good for you have to taste so much like grass cuttings.  Might be something to do with the time of the supply chain I suspect, but with micro greens you only harvest them when you want them – brilliant.

There have now been several harvests, and I am almost ready to start the next lot.

I have learnt that it is probably a good idea to stick to one type of seed in each ‘zone’ of the tray, rather than a random sprinkle.  They will  germinate at the same time, making it easier to harvest them.  I think next time I will get one half of the tray underway and a week later start the other half so that I have a more continuous supply.

Adding liquid seaweed food worked a treat.  I am a huge fan of Ocean Organics products – you can buy on line or drive to Paeroa and visit the shop (Warning: you will buy not only seaweed food for the soil but fantastic seaweed or lavender soap and other nice things.  They do coffee in Paeroa, and, come to think of it, it is one of provincial towns that do a nice line in hanging baskets).

This morning I looked at the cropped stalks and decided it is time to chuck them out and start again, but I just could not resist pulling out one of the peas to see what happened.  Turns out you get some very nice pea seedlings with excellent root systems ready to plant in the garden.

I am looking forward to home grown peas for Christmas, perhaps.  If I keep feeding them with seaweed I am fairly confident it is possible.

Micro greens are one solution to the lack of space for vege gardening in the city.  They provide the joy of watching something grow literally right before your eyes.  You get to eat healthy stuff that you have grown yourself.   If you are lucky enough to have space for a planter or a full blown garden, you can plant out the peas, (and I suppose other things but they are very small), wait patiently while your baby plants turn into adults and bear fruit as it were, then tuck in.

Try it.

This lucky micro green gets a shot at growing full-size. The white in the background is crushed egg shell. In dense enough concentration I have discovered it does deter the slugs and snails. If my peas are all gone tomorrow morning I will be wrong. But the plants are a free bonus from the micro green tray so I will have more in a fortnight’s time.

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Flowers are making a come back

It is Spring and so, I must acknowledge, flowering time.  Blossom everywhere, roses already in warmer places.  Even my broccoli plants have burst into flower.

In garden design world, flowers have become the poor relation.  Flowers are not, generally, the so-much-desired ‘low maintenance’.  Flowers, at their best, require time and attention, care, love even.  Who cannot enjoy an evening stroll casually dead-heading the roses?  Perhaps a glass of NZ’s best pinot gris in one hand, secateurs in the other?  Dusk, when the scent of flowers is at it’s strongest.

Flowers hold memories for us.  Every time I smell the fragrance of sweet peas I am taken back in my home town, where our neighbour grew magnificent sweet peas on a frame attached to our shared boundary.  We were on the north side, so probably got more than our share of flowers.  I deeply regret being unable to grow the lily-of-the-valley that roamed freely at the base of the sweet pea frame, interspersed with violets.  So ‘old-fashioned’, but also so reliable and actually now I think about it relatively low maintenance.

Flowers are necessary for bees.  Bees are necessary for life, they tell us, and are under threat.  At the moment citrus trees all over Auckland are a-buzz with bees; like me attracted by that unmistakable scent.  I have loved it ever since I was old enough to mow the lawns, necessitating ducking under the orange trees in our back yard.  At this time of year, dodging the bees as well as the low branches of the trees.  A small sprig off the lemon tree is all that is necessary to bring that fragrance inside for a day or two.  A sacrifice of the future lemons but I think it is worth it.  There seems to be plenty coming on this year.

In our new high-density supercity model, I wonder where the bees will feed?  A 200sqm section does not allow for much in the way of garden – highrise apartments even less so.  What was a given in my childhood is more and more a relic of days gone by.  Gardens to play in, to keep your stuff in, to grow food in, along with the flowers and insects c0-habiting with us.

I have just returned from a quick trip to Europe, and my observation is that flowers are making a comeback.  Flowers that imply constant attention, flowers that provide food for bees and other insects.  Flowers that soften the city into a liveable habitat suitable for people.  Both the French and the English do it well, with hanging baskets and gardens at the base of street trees.  Far too showy for us in Auckland – we are much more constrained, but I think quite popular in the provinces of NZ.

A friend was proudly showing me her new garden over the weekend, and declared “We’ve gone native,” which they have.  I thought fleetingly that it is a shame she sees it as either/or.  There are no rules that say you can’t have native and exotic together.  It was very orderly (a limited range of native, and in rows)  and when the rengarenga lillies flower they will look great.   They are perhaps the most desirable of our native plants for flowers, however usually requiring large doses of snail pellets to keep them looking good.  I myself love the flax flowers that are just starting to open, and the tui that cannot resist their nectar.

Pure native is great if you are revegetating bush.

But flowers will gladden your heart.

This is my 99th blog post.  I am aiming to be a bit more focused on landscape design, gardening and related topics.  Hard to resist just a quick ‘yahoo’ we have a new Government.  Very good news for the conservation of our environment, and numerous other things that have struggled to survive in our neoliberal economy.

The English have lived in terrace houses for hundreds of years. Hanging baskets adorn a row of old houses in Bovey Tracey, Devon, home town of the Wallen’s that emigrated to NZ

This flower-tower is stunning, but then it would be – it is outside Windsor, just below the castle. Taller than your average lady-gardener – perhaps the help take care of it?


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