Publication:

NZ Gardener - 2021-10-01

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RHODODENDRONS IN KIMBOLTON

KIMBOLTON

STORY: JANE WRIGGLESWORTH • PHOTOS: PAUL MCCREDIE

Seasonal colour means different things to gardeners around the country, but if you’re Scott and Ange Wilson of Kimbolton in the Manawatū, it means thousands of blooming rhododendrons and azaleas come spring. From October to November, the plant mecca known as Cross Hills Gardens is a colour wave of bold rhododendron blooms – and a sea of enthusiastic garden pilgrims. Thousands of Kiwis (and overseas tourists in the preCovid world) visit the garden each year to view riotous pinks, luscious corals, vibrant reds, oranges and yellows, and shimmering lemon-limes, among other hues. “The variety of colours in spring is phenomenal,” says Scott Wilson, whose grandparents founded the gardens. “We have bus tours from all round the country, from Invercargill to Kaitāia, and our annual fair – the biggest social event on Kimbolton’s calendar – attracts around 6000 people.” Scott and Ange officially took over ownership of the farm and garden from Scott’s parents in 2020, although his mother and father, Faith and Rodney, continue to help out in the nursery and garden. It was Scott’s grandfather, Eric, who purchased the farmland back in 1938, and, with the help of his wife Merle, set the scene for today’s gardens. Eric and Merle cleared much of the land of bush and scrub with valiant determination and continued to farm sheep and beef. But when a downturn in farming eventuated in the 1950s, the couple went on an overseas trip and visited numerous gardens. One of those was Butchart Gardens in Canada, where a seed of inspiration developed into an idea to plant their own garden back in New Zealand. They started by building a new homestead in 1951, and the grounds surrounding the homestead were planted out in a mix of native and exotic trees and shrubs, including their now-signature plant, rhododendrons. The rhodos flourished due to the ideal growing conditions of the region, and thus began the Wilsons’ ever increasing interest in the genera. The first major planting of the garden now known as Cross Hills began in the late 1960s. Eric and Merle pulled out an old orchard, and planted a large collection of rhododendrons. The garden was then opened to the public in 1970. As far as the precedent for open gardens goes, Cross Hills Gardens was one of the first private gardens in New Zealand to open to the public. Although the farming side of things continued to be tough, Eric and Merle carried on developing the garden in stages while accommodating homestays (they were also one of the first in the area to do homestays). In 1972 another garden was established, and again in 1982, when the Azalea Bowl was created. The “bowl” incorporates a gully of azaleas, inspiration by Butchart Gardens which is planted in a quarry. “They kept shifting the fence,” Scott says with a laugh. “It swallowed the farm, the hay paddock and a hay barn.” Further development took place over the years, including the waterfall and pools in 1990. Scott’s grandfather just saw the finishing of the waterfall and the turning on of the switch when he died in 1992. Eric’s son Rodney took over business. Scott was 16 at the time. Planting continued, and in 2000 the new millennium was celebrated with the planting of the camellia Millennium Maze. More than 30 varieties of camellias and over 1000 plants were used to create the extra sensory experience, which Scott says is a hit with both adults and kids. What every Wilson gardener knows is that diversity is the name of the game. Today, they are milling the macrocarpa trees that Scott’s grandfather planted. The milled timber is used on the farm and sold throughout the country. They are also planting more trees on the farm to offset their carbon output. While Scott and Ange didn’t officially take over the farm and gardens until 2020, they have been involved in the running of the property for some years. Back in his school days, Scott went to a boarding school but helped out around the property when he was home for the holidays. When he finished school, he went to Massey for a year, then “down south” for a tour but following that has “been home ever since”. He remembers when his grandfather dabbled in breeding, naming the plants after his grandchildren and wife, including ‘Merle Wilson’, ‘Rachael’, ‘Danella’, ‘Cross Hills Frills’, ‘Eric’s Triumph’ and ‘Great Scott’ (Scott doesn’t think this was named after him but he claims it anyway). But it takes 10 years to get a saleable plant, says Scott, and they no longer breed their own. “You cross and hybridise the plant and grow the seed the following year. It usually takes two or three years to flower, you see if that flower is worth growing on, you then take cuttings – you might have four cuttings on that one plant. Then you keep growing until you get stock plants. If it’s a bushy plant you might get seven or eight cuttings off it, next year you get triple that, so you are looking at 10 years before you have enough numbers to sell to the public. Tissue culture has changed things a little bit, but it’s still a slow process.” Cross Hills also used to import rhododendron cuttings from all over the world – Germany, Britain, Canada and the US, and the species rhodos from the Himalayas. They no longer do this due to the expense of importing plant material. They have shipped their plants overseas though, most notably to Singapore in 2019. The plants were destined for the magnificent Flower Dome (within the island nation’s Gardens by the Bay, a nature park spanning 101 hectares). Together with another grower in Palmerston North, they shipped three 40-foot containers filled with mostly rhododendrons and azaleas. It was a huge success (the domes are climate-controlled so the plants all bloomed on time) and Singapore officials were keen to repeat the process, but sadly Covid hit and their plans were put on hold. These days, Ange and Scott focus on their piece de resistance – the standard rhododendron. “We are the only people in the country who are doing that,” says Ange, “and they are really popular.” Admittedly, they are also time-consuming to produce, but less so than breeding their own hybrids. “They take a minimum of five years from the time the grafting stock is propagated until the smallest grade of standards are ready for sale, approximately 120cm in height. Once these are planted, they really will become a special feature in your garden,” says Scott. The standards, as well as over 300 other rhododendrons and azalea varieties, are sold in their nursery; which was opened in 1982 by Scott’s parents, Rodney and Faith. (When the garden opened to the public, the interest in rhododendrons skyrocketed, so it was only natural to extend the business to include a nursery.) Ange also has her own project – the Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair, which she started in 2009. She previously worked off the farm as a business analyst (and still does three days a week), but while at home with a newborn baby, boredom set in and she decided she needed a project. She settled on starting a fair. “This year, if we can still run it (if Covid allows), it will be year 13. Usually, we have over 200 stalls, from people from all over the country, set around the edges of the garden, so you find yourself shopping among the flowers. It had been done in the South Island, so I thought why not here?” The fair, always an enormous success and popular, will run on the third Saturday of November (subject to Covid-related lockdown restrictions). The garden works well with the farm. When the rhododendron flowering season is over, the farm work takes over. And like father like son, Scott and Ange’s two sons, 12-year-old Henry and Eddie, nine, the fourth generation at Cross Hills, enjoy farming as well. “They are very keen on the farm,” says Ange. “Eddie… every time I mention doing some homework, he is on his bike and gone,” she laughs. The favourite part of the garden? Both Scott and Ange agree: “The walk down to the pools and waterfall, when our sculpture comes into sight.”

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