Helen McKerralNZ native garden – Te Kainga Marire

It’s so easy to take our own environment for granted, and so much easier to value and appreciate differences when we travel overseas. From the video promoting the Taranaki Garden Festival, the open gardens featured are stunning, but I was surprised that nearly all seem to have a distinctly English flavour. On the other hand,  perhaps not so surprising for a country settled not only by the Maori people but also by the English, and which measures its annual rainfall in metres.

Te Kainga Marire

Te Kainga Marire

But one inner-city garden in New Plymouth, near Mt Taranaki on the west coast of New Zealand’s north isle, defies this English style. Te Kainga Marire is a native garden open to the public by appointment for a modest fee from September to April… and it wasn’t far from where we were staying that night. I persuaded my friends to visit.

Te Kainga Marire

A jungle of gorse and blackberry when Valda Poletti and David Clarkson bought the 0.2 hectare property in 1972,  Te Kainga Marire (meaning “peaceful encampment”) is now a lush garden  celebrating New Zealand’s native plants: an intimate microcosm of the country’s different mountain environments.

Te Kainga Marire

After opening the mossy entrance gates – more of those captivating epiphytes, softening wooden structures everywhere we looked – my friends and I passed a pond surrounded by native grasses, an alpine zone, and a tree fern glade whose fronds now tower nine metres overhead.

Te Kainga Marire

Through the glade we stepped into the fern house, cool and dim, then down into a glow worm tunnel (yes, we have half a dozen glow worms, Valda says), before emerging into bright sunshine – a symbolic journey of rebirth.

This all might sound kitsch, but it wasn’t, not one bit, not only because of Valda and David’s genuine love of plants, but because of the four decade’s worth of knowledge and experience underpinning their creation.

Te Kainga Marire

Paths are mossy and green – something very special for visitors like us hailing from the driest state on the driest continent! – or set with river pebbles. Nearly all the plants are completely unfamiliar to me – I couldn’t identify genera, let alone species! But I recognise the unmistakable yellow bells of a kōwhai tree (Sophora sp), as well as a native clematis.

The unmistakable yellow bells of a kōwhai tree (Sophora sp)

New Zealand white native clematis

Te Kainga Marire

The house is in keeping with the local theme too – Valda calls it a “posh mountain hut” – and the dark unpretentious timber nestles comfortably within the lush vegetation. And of course Valda has a (mostly) organic vegie patch that feeds the family.

Te Kainga Marire

You could easily spend hours in this intimate, serene garden – there are so many tiny plants tucked into every corner, but we simply didn’t have time. As my friends were heading up the driveway, Valda and I were still poring over a native plant book she’d brought out to the garden seat. In fact, I felt such a connection with this gardening sister that I wanted to give her a hug when I left!

Te Kainga Marire

Many of you reading this will recognise that impulse, springing from a recognition of a shared passion for plants, and the generosity of those who open their gardens to us. Thank you, Valda and David.

To Aussie gardeners visiting New Zealand: don’t miss the Taranaki region, and especially don’t miss Te Kainga Marire.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

5 thoughts on “NZ native garden – Te Kainga Marire

  1. I just love New Zealand plants – its a pity that so few of these plants are available to us in Aus – excepting of course the ubiquitous flax. For coastal planting they are great plants. I would really like to get to both islands one day. Your gardening journey sounded wonderful Helen.

  2. Living in Tasmania does have its benefits sometimes…we can grow many New Zealand species here but I am SO envious of that metre of rainfall! Imagine how many plants you could grow?! I know exactly what you are saying about the generosity of gardeners and recognising the passion in someone else. It happens to us all of the time. Steve and I went into horticulture together and there is no-one to stifle our passionate outbursts and we bounce off one another whenever we get into a garden. We chat to people over the fence while we are walking our dogs and within 5 minutes you can tell whether they are “garden folk” or not ;). It’s like those lodge handshakes except you recognise those weather worn hands, that blackberry damage and those overgrown cuticles that you could wear as fingerless gloves ;). Cheers for this amazing view of a gorgeous natural garden. The son and heir is off to NZ early next year. I will point him in the direction of this beautiful garden…will arm him with a camera and a set of instructions and will say “SHOOT!” 🙂

  3. A wonderful post. Thank you. And how you were able to convey this feeling of being in unknown territory, yet on familiar ground; abroad, yet and in related company. This enchanting garden looks much larger than 0,2 ha, which only shows the relativity of size, especially in gardens.

    (If I remember correctly from another post: Are your travelling companions somewhat pushing you out of gardens in which you would have loved to stay a little longer?)

  4. Thank you, Alison & Narf7. It was indeed a wonderful holiday.

    Bernhardt: well yes, I would have liked to stay longer, but choosing what to see is always swings and roundabouts when traveling with dear friends (we’ve had several holidays with them already) – there were some things they’d like to have spent more time on, too, and vice versa… but the company and laughs we share more than makes up for the minor compromises.

    And you see things you wouldn’t see when making all the decisions yourself, which adds an exciting element of surprise and spontaneity to a holiday, where you might otherwise plan every last detail in advance. WE had a flexible schedule, following the sunshine and only with agreed preferred regions earmarked. We’d then check the day before on the touring map what we’d all like to see in a particular area. I know I enjoyed numerous things and sights I’d not have thought of going to see myself, and my friends and hubby liked the gardens very much (somewhat to their own surprise, I suspect!). We’re actually planning on visiting NZ again!

  5. Pingback: Wildflowers of the Dolomites | GardenDrum

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