The Garden at Larnach Castle - A New Zealand Story
In Weekend Gardener, Book Review
dated 23 November 2006, by Michael Gowing
Almost 40 years ago, Wellington newly-weds Barry and Margaret Barker stumbled on the castle that is the 19th century legacy of MP William Larnach, high on the Otago Peninsula.
Larnach Castle and its unkempt 14ha, meant love at first sight. Learning it was for sale, the couple decided to buy the dilapidated building and surrounding wilderness.
“My decision was intuitive,”
admits Margaret in the prologue to The Garden at Larnach Castle.“At 24, you don’t think things through and I felt empowered by the challenge.”
This is a saga of the vision and fortitude demanded by that challenge. It’s also the story of an intuitive plantswoman whose ideas evolve as she pursues travel and new ideas in the name of her grand garden.
Margaret Barker’s finely illustrated book is the more remarkable for the candour she brings to it. She anchors her story in snippets of the property’s history and the joys of old treasures rediscovered.
A typical tale is of an early find – the “lost” rock garden. It had been the centrepiece of the grounds, built in the Depression but long since engulfed by sorrel, blackberry, sycamore and a host of other nasties. Typically, the presence of a rock garden, billed in the 1930s as the country’s largest, was revealed during a chance visit from the man responsible for its creation.
Once unearthed, the rock garden was rebuilt with larger beds, wider paths, and grit and compost added.
“Plants were my passion,”
Margaret writes. “I was driven to acquire them and learn. I went to our mountains to see plants growing in the wild.”
The rock garden’s discovery also propelled her overseas – to an international rock garden conference in Seattle, in 1976. Here, we travel with her as her quests broaden over the years. The search for ideas and plants has taken Margaret to the Andes, the Himalayas, France and, closer to home, to the Auckland, Campbell and Chatham Islands. She even worked at the New Zealand exhibit at the 2004 Chelsea Flower Show.
But it was a trip to Scotland that set the seal on a definitive direction for her garden. In the early days, Margaret reveals she was “caught in the grip of Sissinghurst”. But her romantic notions were “dashed on the altar of reality”, as roses struggled and rotted, and ornamental cherries succumbed to fungal disease. In Scotland, Margaret met the overseer of Edinburgh University’s gardens, who had spent some time in Taranaki. “Don’t do as we do,” he admonished, “look to your own landscapes and indigenous plants.”
Only too aware that just 150 years earlier the Otago Peninsula had been clad in a mixed broadleaf podocarp forest, Margaret set about righting some of the wrongs of the past. An area behind the castle’s ballroom that Larnach planted in North American conifers was cleared and a podocarp planting programme started.
This and similar endeavours give a clear insight into the author’s purpose and her eye for the landscape.
Margaret doesn’t flinch from revealing personal difficulties – the break-up of her marriage, the death of her mother – and how her gardening passion had endured, despite. Talking of 1990, she writes: “Later that year I went on a tour of French gardens to escape for a time my sadness and troubles. There I learnt that a garden is not about plants, it is about concepts.”
Inspired, Margaret returned home to re-design the grounds at the front of the castle “to achieve the clarity and purpose that I had admired in France”. Again, the story of this renovation is interwoven with wry anecdote: the foreign film crew who had to be confronted for their fee (which went towards the lawn); the court case over the crooked reflecting pond; the completion of the astonishing Green Room just in time for TV’s Palmer’s Garden Show.
Signposting the narrative are descriptions of the myriad plant species that have thrived under the care of Margaret and her small staff (the staff offer their expertise in the final chapter).
For those of us who have lesser dreams, the sweep of Margaret Barker’s vision is enthralling – and all the more so in its telling, in The Garden at Larnach Castle.
“I have been fortunate,”
she says, “to have spent so much of my life doing what I love.”
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