The joy of gardening
An extract from passionate gardener Lynda Hallinan’s new book, The Joy of Gardening.
Words Lynda Hallinan. Photography Sally Tagg
At the end of 2020, I gave my garden a thoroughly good soak, shovelled out a truckload of mulch, deadheaded the dahlias and rabbit-fenced my new rose garden. Then I locked the front gate behind me and took my family to the beach for a month. For the first time in many years, I have decided not to open my country garden at Foggydale Farm, in the foothills of the Hunua Ranges southeast of Auckland, for any summer events or garden festivals. There was no need to stay at home, lugging the hose around parched plants and panicking over page-long “to do” lists. Instead, I packed my two sons and our two dogs into the car and set off for the Coromandel Peninsula, where we stayed for most of the school holidays. Sitting with a group of friends on Ocean Beach at Tairua one afternoon, nattering about nothing in particular, one of them – a psychologist who runs mindfulness clinics for corporates and carers – asked me what I like about gardening. “Can you sum it up in a single sentence?” she said. I’m rarely lost for words, but her casual question caught me on the hop. What is it about gardening that appeals to me? Why have I spent two-thirds of my life sowing, growing, mowing, pruning, raking, staking and creating gardens when I could have whiled away my leisure time writing angsty poetry, playing sport, learning the guitar, stitching a quilt or reading every word of Marcel Proust’s wordy tome À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), having first gained fluency in French, or indeed any second language other than botanical Latin. The best answer I could muster on the fly was this: there isn’t a single thing I don’t like about gardening, aside from wretched hay fever, which forces me to knock back antihistamines from spring until autumn. I love gardening, but I’m no hippy-dippy plant whisperer. I wasn’t born with green thumbs, and I don’t believe that anyone else is either. If you believe that some of us are genetically blessed with a special ability to commune with nature, then you must also acknowledge the flipside: some people must be gardening’s Grim Reapers, unable to keep anything alive. This is patently untrue, as on any given day you’ll find me successfully nurturing some plants while killing others, sometimes wilfully but more often through neglect or misguided optimism about the survival rates of rare species. I grew up in the thick of the countryside, surrounded by wild landscapes and tame cows. My parents were dairy farmers in Onewhero, a small rural settlement near Port Waikato, and my sister Brenda and I spent our childhood outdoors. We were always building huts in the bush, damming culverts and roaming the roadside in a bid to keep our distance from Mum and Dad, lest we be given a job grubbing thistles or hosing down the cowshed. When I left school, I studied journalism in Auckland. To pay my university fees, I’d return to the farm each summer to milk the cows with Brenda while our parents were out on the briny. During one summer break, a local plant nursery had a clearance sale and for reasons I’ll never fully fathom – was it boredom or fate? – I popped in and bought a few roses and some English lavender bushes. I dug over a corner of our front lawn and bedded them in as a surprise for my mother, but when they bloomed, so did my desire to plant more. In the months that followed, I rapidly amassed a hodgepodge collection of potted plants and gardening encyclopaedias and, every Friday night while my university mates went nightclubbing with fake IDs, I’d stay home to watch Maggie’s Garden Show and pore over the latest Martha Stewart Living magazine (from the library, as my student allowance didn’t stretch to air-freighted periodicals). After graduation, I landed a job as a regional radio journalist in Gisborne, where the temperate climate and sandy loam was to my liking, even if the transition to adult life wasn’t. “I go to work, come home, go to bed, get up, go to work,” I complained in a letter to my grandmother in 1996. “But there’s one positive thing: I have managed to grow really big capsicums here.” My reporting career later took me back to Auckland, to the Independent Radio News network, where I worked 4am to midday or 4pm to midnight shifts in the newsroom, leaving my mornings or afternoons gleefully free to potter in the flower beds I magicked up outside my