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A Taste of New Zealand
by Terry Dowdeswell
May 30, 2000

I receive much mail from Canada and the northern USA concerning growing delphiniums in the climates that prevail there; so completely different to New Zealand. Not having visited that part of the world (to be remedied) it is difficult to fully understand the problems, or rather the circumstances, that these climates bring. It is also interesting to muse upon differences in culture and attitudes that are reflected in the way we regard our gardens and our lives. I have written this article in order that you may understand a little of New Zealand, or at least my view of it.

Some time ago, 35 years actually, a rather thin and bewildered, English youth disembarked with his parents from SS "Orcades" and stood, still swaying gently to the rhythm of the ocean, upon the quay at Wellington city, New Zealand. Wellington, we were led to believe was named after the illustrious Duke, because the rubber boots that also bear his name are essential footwear, and umbrellas, which aren't, are useless as they are invariably blown inside out by the gentle breezes so common there. So, steaming serenely into Wellington harbour on a sea of glass under a cloudless sky, the bright autumn sunshine burning off the last thin flags of morning mist still clinging reluctantly to the hill tops, as if leaving was really too much of an effort on so beautiful a day was, apart from being a needlessly poetic setting for a "Mills and Boon" paperback, somewhat unexpected.

The callow youth has disappeared, mostly, but that sparkling day still remains and many have followed. New Zealand is a refreshing place. At times we can have four seasons in a day and at others it seems, none at all. We are a long, rather thin island (north island and south island) nation bounded by oceans, our nearest neighbour of any size being Australia, two and a half hours west by 747. Argentina is a mere 14 hours flight to the east.

Our climate is therefore determined by the surrounding oceans which tend to be cool and wet, and their interaction with the land which has a backbone of young mountains, snow covered in winter (south island and central north island) running almost its entire length. The prevailing wind is westerly, rather draughty at times and brings regular rain which it drops mostly in the west.

It then descends calmer, warmer and drier to give the east coast, about 150kms away, the lion's share of the sunshine (by and large). Temperatures are rarely extreme due to the intense maritime influence and a wide range of plants survive and thrive including many which are indigenous or endemic. Away from the mountains grass grows year round. We are a country peopled by many races but the rat race is still largely confined to the Auckland region in the north of the North Island, which accommodates the bulk of the population but very few of the brains.

New Zealand was populated by the Maori people who sailed from the Pacific Islands reputedly a good many years before Europeans knew much about navigation. European settlement dates from the early 19th century. There followed a short period of conflict and a long and continuous period of resolution. The vast majority of the population are happy, well fed wonderful people. The balance are politicians and Aucklanders. Because the climate here is so amenable, gardening is a major pastime and there are many wonderful and varied gardens to see. Many National Parks offer walks across mountains, through native bush, by fiord, lake forest and beach. Growth varies from sub tropical in the north of the North Island to alpine of the mountains and subdued cool temperate of the lowland southern South Island.

Wanganui, where we now live is reputed to have the fifth most temperate climate in the world, a description that I regard as rather disparaging. Imagine being so average that you can't even get to be best at it! In Wanganui we have no snow, few frosts and the temperature rarely creeps above 80degF except in our plastic growing house on a very hot day. High summer temperatures are ameliorated by the action of a cooling sea breeze which springs up at about 10:30am when the temperature reaches 75degF. Low winter temperatures are likewise thwarted by the proximity of the large mass of relatively warm water of the Taranaki Bight. This is smaller than the Great Australian Bight as the creators of our fair land were more temperate in appetite too.

As a result of having such a comfortable climate it would be far easier to make a list of plants that wont grow somewhere in New Zealand (I can't think of one), a country about the size of a large banana, than a list of plants that will (banana, crocus). The down side of this is of course that plants that tolerate extremes of temperature and daylength rarely grow to their full potential here and our delphiniums are, for instance, not seen above 8ft high, except in the mountains where they grow as big as Texas. Gardens sport perennials that either die down for a few short weeks or not at all, while we are still able to enjoy the beautiful colours of autumn as imported deciduous trees release their leaves to mulch our gardens and clog our drain pipes. But hey, no burst pipes! No rest in the winter either or that lovely perennial border will be a mass of weeds and the lawn a foot high before you can say Jack Frost.

Well, you have a taste of it by now I guess. Maybe one day you will call in for the rest of the meal. You will be most welcome.

Enjoy your summer

Terry Dowdeswell
692 Brunswick Road
New Zealand

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