STORY: VIRGINIA WINDER • PHOTOS: SALLY TAGG
Amid raised potager gardens surrounded by plump plantings of petunias, lavender, nasturtiums and a black grape over an arch, Barbara Valintine has placed a treasured water pump from her former father-in-law beside a sundial from her parents’ garden: “I have things that are special to me.” blooming frenzy Channelling her vivid imagination, artist and interior designer Barbara Valintine has created a garden honouring both her late mother and the country of her heart. La Vie en Rose is a French-inspired haven at the back of The Bank, the flamboyantly decorated home and shop of Barbara and photographer partner Mark Bellringer in Eltham, Taranaki. In the beginning, Barbara’s blank canvas was contoured, damp and unpleasant: “It was a lumpy lawn with a dip that used to fill with water – you would expect ducks to land in it,” she recalls. There was also one old lemon tree, a grapevine, a maple, a “stringy little cherry tree” and a rotary clothesline set in concrete. When Mark was away – he wanted lawn – Barbara dug it up, leaving the living plants. Now it’s a walled garden starring standard roses, white pebble and shell pavers, espaliered apples and pears, olives along the fenceline, fig trees, raised potager gardens and pots afloat with colourful spring flowers. “I was painting with plants,” Barbara explains. Scattered throughout the garden are romantic urns, sculptures, old-fashioned park benches, wee animals and garden guardians. Barbara, a colourful interior designer, says she wasn’t a natural gardener, unlike her mother who would take cuttings of old roses from cemeteries. “They would all grow, because my mother had magical gardener’s hands.” When her mother died in February 2012, all the roses were in bloom at the resthome she lived in. Barbara gathered as many roses as she could and asked the florist to use them in an enormous bouquet to top the casket. “We carried her into the church and this glorious perfume drifted in with us and people said, ‘That’s so Judy’.” Barbara took the bouquet home, and it lasted a few days, its fragrance and flowers enticing her to get planting in memory of her mother. “I thought ‘I have to make a garden; it’s time’.” With pencil and paper, she sketched out all the elements of La Vie en Rose, one of 44 gardens in this year’s Taranaki Garden Festival, which runs from October 29 to November 7. It will be the fourth time the private garden has gone public, but festival visitors will see a marked difference between when it opened in 2016 and now. La Vie en Rose has plumped up and out, grown and takes up more space. The cherry and maple are flourishing so need to be pruned each year; the ‘Meyer’ lemon, although riddled with borer, is a prolific producer; and the black dessert grape is bountiful. During levels 3 and 4 lockdown in 2020, Barbara turned the fruit into grape paste to accompany cheese. Her original sketch placed the garden either side of a driveway to the garage. Over the years, the garden has slowly encroached on this passage for cars. “Mark says we don’t have much drive,” she says, noting how visitors can’t believe a vehicle can fit through the space left. Over the years, Barbara has painted over that first sketch, added another layer, then another. She’s still touching it up, daubing new splashes of colour here and there. In the back corner, Barbara’s favourite rose, a red velvet spring-flowering climber called ‘Birthday Present’, twists around a large archway made by Mark’s brother Andrew. “It’s got the most wonderful, glorious perfume.” The grapevine, a star jasmine and the climbing creamy white highly scented rose ‘Mme Alfred Carriere’, add to this natural canopy. “By the end of summer, it’s absolutely chocka,” Barbara says of the scene. “It’s a lovely shady spot to sit and drink wine and eat food.” This sheltered setting, hung with a decorative white birdcage, is backed by a metal rust-coloured Spanish-style horse trough. Three blackbird cages are strung from another Andrew-engineered archway by the back entrance to the house. “There will be no birds in my cages, ever,” says Barbara, a vibrant woman who’ll never be contained or constrained. The arch is tumbling with wisteria, a giant purple clematis that fades to pink, and the cream climbing rose ‘Pierre de Ronsard’. “I do the ‘Jenny Oakley hanging baskets’ in another area – anything to plump that little garden up.” (Jenny, a fellow festival gardener, is acclaimed for her hanging creations in her Manaia garden and demonstrates how to make them every year during the spring event.) “I have been learning lots of things the hard way,” Barbara says. “I have learnt to stop being controlling and let things have control themselves.” She allows flowers to jump over garden edges, whereas before she meticulously weeded the transgressors. One welcome rule-breaker is white lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora). “It floats like butterflies and self-seeds. If it jumps right out on the gravel, I pull it out, but I do let it have a life of its own.” When she dug up the garden, she unearthed old aquilegias. She gathers their seeds but admits not all these floaty flowers are wanted. “I have to pull out aquilegias because they go mad. But they are good fillers.” The garden is also flush with irises, calendulas, petunias, foxgloves, borage, cineraria and of course, many more roses. In the potagers, she plants with an eye for design, placing vege seedlings in pleasing arrangements rather than in rows. Cage-like frames are used for growing sweet peas, beans or snap peas and an old bath is frothing with a horde of herbs. Two years before La Vie en Rose first opened for the festival in 2016, Barbara and Mark spent three weeks in France. “Mark pushed me out of my comfort zone because I hate flying. I will be forever grateful to him for the rest of my life doing that.” On their travels, they visited Notre-Dame de Reims, a Roman Catholic cathedral in the French city of the same name. There, Barbara saw gargoyles like those on Notre-Dame in Paris, which was severely damaged by fire in April 2019. Back in Eltham, her gargoyles and one griffin are placed at the four directions of the compass. “They are there to protect the garden and keep evil intent away. I just like that idea.” A woman imbued with a wild imagination, Barbara has other flights of fancy in the garden. Against a high wall she has propped her just-for-decoration “ladder to the moon”, which creates shadows at night, earning its name. Making a garden has tapped into imaginings from her early years. “The thing I loved most when I was a child was building huts. I don’t think I’ve stopped making huts and they have become more sophisticated with time.” Her garden artwork has also attracted creatures. She has spied a tūī in the cherry tree waiting for buds to blossom, seen blackbirds nesting in the maple, worms writhing under pots, butterflies fluttering over flowers and bees buzzing them. Other creatures are more sedentary. The garden is home to an assortment of vintage concrete animals, such as a seated baby deer under the cherry tree, three flamingos under the fig tree and other creatures that create a sense of whimsy among the plantings. The street side of The Bank opens into Mark’s photo and painting gallery as well as a large eclectic design store filled with treasures from New Zealand and beyond. “I collect things. If I see something, I grab it and I have an excuse that I can buy it for the shop – but it doesn’t always go in the shop.” Some discoveries are placed in the garden. One muchloved sculpture stars a cherub pouring water. Barbara found this at an auction where pieces from former Patea gardener and thespian Rudi Milesi were going under the hammer, so sent up a prayer. “Rudi, wherever you are, if you think that cupid would look good in my garden, please help me get it.” Her plea worked and one day Rudi visited to see La Vie en Rose and his cupid friend. “He came in and said: ‘He’s right here to greet us all.’ He was just thrilled and he had a beam from ear to ear.” Rudi died in October 2020, age 94. Barbara and Mark enjoy welcoming people to the sheltered garden with its own microclimate. They love to entertain under the grapevine, and relish long lunches. The artist also delights in her own company. “Sometimes on a beautiful clear night I take a big huge candelabra out there to the lime green daybed and I lie on that and look up at the night sky.” And lets her imagination soar.