Tea With Olive
I will always remember with pleasure taking tea with Olive Dunn, the doyenne of New Zealand cottage gardeners, in her Invercargill home. First she inquired which herb I would prefer, and persuaded me to try sage with the old saying ‘How can a man die, if there be sage in the garden?’ Then she scooped a kettle-full of water from her rain barrel. Next she picked tender new leaves from a large sage bush at the edge of her wonderful garden, where narrow paths meander through a profusion of herbs and flowers. Marjoram, thyme, chamomile, oregano, applemint, cornflowers, clove pinks, bergamot, campanulas, feverfew, lemon balm, lady’s mantle, love-in-a-mist, irises, sweet rocket, self-heal, valerian, tansy, poppies, lilies, ‘Ballerina’ roses, honeysuckle, lavender, Queen Anne’s Lace and much, much more. Finally we drank the delicate green brew from flowery china cups, while looking out at the garden and discussing plants and gardening.
If you haven’t been lucky enough to visit Olive’s garden the next best thing is to read about it and look at the photos in her three books. Or you could make another garden where herbs and veges and old-fashioned flowers are the heart and soul of the place. It won’t be like Olive’s, unless you have Olive’s cool climate and deep soil, and Olive’s experience as a professional florist, and Olive’s decades of study of herbs and herbal crafts. But we can all learn a lot from Olive about what we need to know to make a successful garden.
I think about Olive whenever I work with sage now – and also when I plant lavender, or use lavender products. Yesterday I planted a New Zealand-bred stoechas lavender, ‘Avonview’, and an angustifolia, ‘Gray Lady’. I also put in a slip of the green lavender, Lavandula viridis, a strange plant with flower heads that seem to be covered in tiny suckers like an octopus’s tentacles. Lavender is the ultimate cottage garden plant. The angustifolia types are the ‘true’ lavenders – the source of essential oils for perfume and medicine, soaps, cosmetics, insect repellents and other domestic uses. The stoechas lavenders are the ‘rabbits ears’ types that provide months of colour in the garden, while the other main lavender subgroup, the dentatas, with their tighter, narrower, bluer flower heads, also flower for months. All three types are suitable for low internal hedging and edging in the garden.
In New Zealand we are lucky to have a world expert on lavender in our midst. Virginia McNaughton’s second book on lavender, Lavender the New Zealand Gardener’s Guide, has just been released, and it’s an essential reference for anyone interested in growing and using lavender. There are so many varieties available now that there is quite a bit of confusion about what is what. Carelessness by nurseries doesn’t help either. Virginia recommends buying your lavenders from a reputable source that grows its lavenders as cuttings from properly named sources. I get mine from Somerfields, which has 63 varieties to choose from, including lavenders from Virginia’s collection. (Send $5 for the catalogue – which includes a great range of other cottage herbs and flowers as well as lavender – to Somerfields, 22 Somerset Drive, Glen Tui, R.D. Oxford.)