One of the very few highlights of the Covid-19 lockdowns of the spring of 2020 was that it gave us a glimpse of the gardens of MPs.
Politicians (and ex-politicians) started issuing snapshots of serenity: photos of their gardening efforts.
From his lifestyle block north of Auckland, former National MP Steven Joyce was tweeting photos of his leeks, his “personal best” kumara and his rhodos dressed up like Cinderella ready for the ball.
Speaker and Labour MP Trevor Mallard was tweeting daffodils and tulips in Wainuiomata.
National’s leader Christopher Luxon, then a humble backbench MP, was not tweeting his own efforts. It was no wonder – in September, he texted me an SOS: a photo of his “stunted carrots”. He did not know why the tops were so lush, but the roots so spindly. Advice on low-nitrogen fertiliser was dispensed.
Louise Upston was putting up photos of her rescue chickens on Instagram.
The photos were little reminders that nature paid no heed to pandemics or government alert levels.
It was time to take a break from the hard news and find out what was going on in MPs’ gardens.
We visited Joyce’s sprawling gardens and potager vegetable plots and Mallard’s former backyard cricket field – now a flower- and topiary-filled extravaganza.
We visited Act MP Nicole McKee’s terraced hillside garden in suburban Wellington – and her pots of shame (flowers now replaced by weeds).
Then we went to Luxon’s formal garden with its weedless lawn and pristine, glorious buxus hedging, a glorious old lemon tree– and a progress update of the vegetable boxes along the side of the house.
The Botanic Gardens of Wainuiomata: Speaker Trevor Mallard's transformed backyard
MPs don’t have much time at their disposal and often it was the spouse or partner rather than the MP who was responsible for the gloriousness.
Mallard is in charge of the vegetable garden on his three-quarter-acre section – but the garden is largely courtesy of the ministrations of his wife, Listener journalist Jane Clifton.
He describes its transformation as “a creeping colonisation” of his backyard cricket field. Clifton slowly but steadily carved off the lawn to turn it into plant beds. She tried unsuccessfully to be stealthy, taking a little bit more lawn whenever Mallard went away.
“Every time I went overseas, another half metre of lawn would disappear,” Mallard says.
“The lawn used to be much wider, and there weren’t nearly as many flowers.”
Clifton is a friend of mine, and I have seen her garden in all seasons.
It has indeed undergone a dramatic metamorphosis from a vast, patchy grassed area with a brick barbecue area and a few trees into Wainuiomata’s answer to the Botanic Gardens.
Clifton loves flowers and there is nothing begrudging about the planting of them. The garden is overflowing, every nook and cranny. It is split roughly into themes, such as the antiques bed with purples and dusky pinks.
Then there is the Grand Coalition bed – plants with red and blue flowers. Even in the garden politics prevails.
We visit in late spring. Some late-planted tulips are still flowering but most bulbs have given way to aquilegias, the clematis is in full roar and hellebores are still on show. The roses will come next – sprawling climbers and standard roses. The dahlia shoots aren’t yet up, but many lie in wait – from massive dinner-plate-sized flowers to smaller balls of red and loud pinks. There is a tree dahlia that has colonising ideas of its own.
There is topiary – a hedge of balls, a cluster of rabbits and a deer. There are stone gargoyles and foxes and copper rabbits.
Most plants manage to survive the rampaging of the two energetic dogs, Jeeves and Violet.
Mallard is the lowly “gardener’s assistant” – hauling compost to the beds, laying paths and buying structures such as gazebos and arches on Trade Me.
Mallard is still allowed a small strip for his vegetables: Māori potatoes grow well, there are beans and peas and lettuces and “kale everywhere” and he has just put in a fig tree to see how it goes.
Otherwise, flowers are king. “I tried to grow a blueberry hedge, but a lot of other things were put around it, allegedly to assist it, which has just about knocked it off.”
He has also become fond of planting bulbs, hundreds of them – including daffodils on the berm and tulips and gladioli everywhere. He started that while listening to the Epidemic Response Committee livestream in 2020 and found it improved his mood immensely.
Despite his feigned sorrow at losing his cricket field, Mallard proudly tweets out photos from “his” garden as different flowers come into bloom. He even admits he finds peace in it.
The formal garden: National leader Christopher Luxon's buxus and stunted carrots
In September, when Christopher Luxon was a mere backbencher in lockdown in Auckland, a cry for help came. He sent photos of his carrots. “Look at my stunted carrots. Can’t get them to grow at all and have no clue what I’m doing wrong.”
Amateur advice on fertiliser for root vegetables rather than leafy green vegetables was dispensed.
I had previously admired the tall, neatly clipped buxus hedges I had seen behind Luxon in a photo, and we had sporadically discussed plants since then.
If simplicity is beauty, Luxon’s garden has it. The backyard is as tidy as the inside of his house, and that is very tidy.
No weeds dare grow in his lawn and it is all neatly bordered by tall buxus hedges with white hydrangeas growing along the bottom.
The garden shed is screened from view by buxus, and is as tidy as the lawn which is as tidy as the house. Each tool hangs on a carefully labelled hook.
Wife Amanda has spent the past few months propagating more buxus from cuttings for new hedging and they are now in nursery beds.
Luxon claims to be a whiz with the power tools in his shed, and sometimes trims the hedges – but he admits he usually has someone come in to do it. He also admits that his carrots are actually Amanda’s carrots – it is she who looks after the vege boxes.
Around the side of the house are the raised planter boxes, home to the once-stunted carrots.
New carrots and beetroot now flourish there, alongside courgettes and lettuces.
And yes, the fertiliser advice for root vegetables did work – Amanda yanks out a beetroot to prove it.
The suburban terraces: Act MP Nicole McKee's hanging gardens of Hataitai
One of the Act Party’s philosophies is personal responsibility, and Act MP Nicole McKee sticks to it in her garden.
“This is my effort,” McKee says, pointing to a row of pots with weeds and grass sprouting vigorously out of them. We dub them her “pots of shame”.
“I’m meant to look after the flowers. Originally they looked fantastic, but recently they have had no attention whatsoever and they are drowning in weeds. My husband tells me I’m bringing his garden into disrepute with my efforts. I deserve that. I’ve kept the pots there as a reminder I have more work to do.”
We move past the pots of shame and up to the terraced vegetable garden on the steep slope behind her house in the Wellington suburb of Hataitai.
Her husband, Duncan McKee, is a retired builder and has lived in the house for about 30 years.
She calls the house a “typical builder’s house”. By this, she means the builder was too busy on other people’s houses to do any work on his own.
“The house is 1915 and has never been touched. The inside still has scrim in the walls, there is very little insulation.”
The garden is another story. Over the past few years, Duncan has turned a steep, muddy slope into three terraces of paved areas bordered with garden beds. A washhouse is under construction and a greenhouse will follow.
The beds sprout silverbeet, cauliflower, zucchini, potatoes and peas. Climbing roses grow over the trellis. There are raspberry canes and other berries, and miniature fruit trees. On the lowest terrace are wine barrels with citrus plants in them.
A row of strawberry plants with tiny berries on them have come from the gardens of Viv Collings, a life member of the National Rifle Association of New Zealand who died in 2015. “Viv was a stalwart for New Zealand women in the long-range shooting fraternity.”
There is also a corner with a miniature apple tree, which stands in memoriam for Duncan’s brother, David, another keen gardener.
On summer evenings, the McKees go up to the “bus stop” – a little hut at the very top of the slope where they can see right down to the south coast and watch the sunset. “This is the place we come to get away. A beer or cup of tea, you sit in the bus stop and you feel like you’re in a different world.”
There are water tanks to catch water from every roof – partly in case of emergencies, but also for irrigating the garden.
The front of the house has a feijoa hedge and the fence McKee uses to hang and process deer when she has been hunting – but she has not had much time for that either since becoming an MP.
The lifestyle block and potager garden: Steven Joyce's constant "work in progress"
Steven Joyce is no longer an MP but makes the cut because of a desire to see his garden in real life.
When he was an MP his #vegegarden tweets called to those of us whose aspirations exceed effort or achievement.
We got to his patch two days after Auckland’s borders re-opened, just before Christmas.
Joyce was a bit worried – a tropical storm had left it looking “a bit whiskery” so we leave the photos for another day, to give him time to deadhead and clean up the debris.
There was no garden when he and wife Suzanne moved into the house 16 years ago – just the house in a paddock.
He is a country boy at heart, raised around New Plymouth, hence his hankering for a bit of land.
He takes care of most of the seven acres of land himself these days. About half of it is garden of some variety.
“Gardeners say it’s like painting the Forth Bridge. You start at one end and by the time you get to the other end, it has already grown up behind you.”
Like most gardeners, he also describes almost every single part of his garden as “a work in progress”.
Christopher Luxon told me a tale about Joyce once having to leave a function because he had to weed the garden before the gardener got there. It seems akin to cleaning the house before the cleaner arrives.
Joyce insists there was a good reason: the beds in question had day lilies coming up and he did not want the gardener accidentally ripping them out with the weeds.
During his years as Minister of Everything from 2008 until 2018, Joyce got a gardener to help out, but it got a bit out of control.
He did, however, remain Minister responsible for the Vege Garden throughout and it is the crowning glory. It is a vast potager garden, beds hedged off with pathways between.
There are vegetables of all varieties. The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye and an enthusiastic pumpkin has decided to compete by clambering up over the rosemary bush.
“I’ll be getting rosemary-infused pumpkins this year.”
In a good year, he gets 30 pumpkins.
He also loves his parsnips, and tells me the secret for growing parsnips: “To get the seeds to germinate, you plant them, and then you pour boiling hot water along the trench. It works really well. And I love parsnips.”
Tiny aubergines are starting to fill out in the summer heat and the peas were timed for Christmas.
Another plot is waiting to plant for an autumn harvest of cabbages.
“I like to have cabbage ready in March and April, when everybody is sick to death of salad.”
“There’s an interesting paspalum plant there, which I’m sure is not edible,” he says, pointing at some rogue grass.
The job he likes least is mounding soil around the potato plants.
“I hate that job. But I do it.”
Beyond the vegetable garden, the house is surrounded by roses, hibiscus and a blazing large bougainvillea. There are 110 rose bushes. He knows, because he counts them down when pruning and spraying them.
Magnolia trees border the drive leading up to the house, and the rhododendrons have had a good flowering season further down. The rhodos are Joyce’s favourites, “as a good Taranaki boy”.
Raupo and ornamental taro grow by the bridge near the pond, where ducks paddle.
There is a gully of native plants down the slope in front of the house. That leads up to the orchard in the top paddock: “It was neglected terribly while I was in politics, so it is still in a state of recovery.”
The back hedge is feijoa bushes but unlike most feijoa bush owners, Joyce is rarely overwhelmed with fruit. The pukeko tend to get to them first.
His new puppy, retrodoodle Molly, and old dog 15-year-old Jemma have come along for the grand tour, and Joyce says when Jemma was younger, she would chase the pukeko away.
She is past that now and the pukeko are taking advantage. Molly, four months old, may well take up the baton. But for now, she is too busy stampeding through his peas with his gardening glove in her mouth, trying to get Joyce to chase her.
Honourable Mentions: the unvisited gardens of the Greens and Louise Upston's mini-orchard, sheep and chickens
Others MPs also told us of their efforts, but we did not get time to visit. Green MP Golriz Ghahraman gave us the rundown on the Green MPs’ gardens.
Her own apartment has just cat grass and cat mint pots on her balcony: “If you want a specific urban vibe.”
She reported that co-leader Marama Davidson had a native bush corner of kawakawa, puriri, ponga and pōhutakawa. “The rest is organic nature. Aka weeds.” Lawn weeds are fine for a Green: bees like them.
Elizabeth Kerekere had grapevines, a fairy tree, and 76 varieties of succulents. Teanau Tuiono had a World War II native seed garden: including kākābeak grown from seeds found in a container after an elderly relative died.
National MP Louise Upston told of her young orchard near Cambridge with espalier apple trees, avocado trees, many other fruit trees – as well as rescue chickens Upston calls her “laydees” and a retirement home for sheep.
Look away now, farmers – the sheep all have names. “They are very, very tame sheep that come when they are called.
“They are lifers. One of them is a retirement sheep. The owner wanted a new home for it, and she had to come and meet me and inspect the property before she deemed it suitable. Her name is Rosie and she is 14 or 15.”
The vege garden feeds both the family and the chickens and sheep, and some is dropped off for food banks.
It is perhaps a little-known fact that sheep love grapefruit and lemons. “They go nuts for lemons. It gets really hot, and they love them at the end of the day, because they’re very juicy.”
Upston also has a long driveway, along which she started planting hundreds of daffodil bulbs this year.
It is a memorial to Upston’s parents, who both died of cancer. Her mother died in 1990 – the first year the Cancer Society’s now famous Daffodil Day fundraiser was held. Her father died last year, on its 30th anniversary. And so the daffodils will be given to the Cancer Society each year to sell for Daffodil Day.
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