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In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King

Chapter Sixteen: The manic gardener

page 183

Chapter Sixteen: The manic gardener

The main purpose of good gardening is the perfect rearing and growth of our fellow-beings, called plants, with a view to direct utility or beauty, or both — and always with a definite plan and purpose, carefully thought out well in advance.

Seeing that plants are living beings with daily and hourly needs similar to our own, the gardener should make an absolute rule to attend to the living before the dead. Of all the faults and mistakes of the gardener, the commonest is forgetfulness or neglect of the needs of the plants themselves in his preoccupation with some particular garden work on which he has entered and which is not absolutely urgent at the moment.

The claims of living plants should always take precedence over any other works in connection with the garden, whether the question is page 184 182

One of the profoundest and most widely applicable sayings of Socrates was, 'In every work the beginning is the most important part, especially when dealing with anything young and tender', this saying applies with equal force and truth to the Nursery for Plants as it does to the Nursery for Babies; and in both cases, lack of attention at the start and consequent impairment of strength and vitality is never completely made up for in after life.'

When told by his daughter Mary that she was going to write his biography, Truby King expressed pleasure. Would he have been pleased with the result? Mary presented us with a picture sympathetic to her adoptive father, being eulogistic, one-dimensional and devoid of balance. Before her research material was lodged, she is believed to have expunged the archives of anything that presented him in an unfavourable light. But buried in correspondence, lists, instructions to gardeners and plant orders, we find evidence of attitudes, obsessions and behaviour that are fascinating and apparently overlooked.

As noted in the introduction to this book, I encountered Truby's work while researching the Barbier nursery in Orleans, which existed before 1900, eventually being overtaken in 1970 by the pressure of land development in the town of Olivet, just over the river Loire. The Barbier family are best known for their wonderful rambling roses Alberic Barbier and Albertine, but they also ran a large general nursery, growing everything from asparagus to grapes, berries, ornamentals, trees and shrubs. Their 1931 catalogue of 194 pages devotes a third of its space to roses of all shapes and sizes. But while King had visited the nursery in the course of his trips to France, it is interesting that his huge plant orders for Melrose from this master rose-grower did not include a single plant of their specialist product. How he managed to overlook sixty pages of the world's best roses suggests page 185 either blinkers or a man on a determined mission.

King's earliest influence in the garden would have been his father Thomas, who was something of a plantsman and, according to his biographer Margot Fry, an importer of seeds and plants.2 His father's fluency in French may account for Truby's Gallic importations. Mary King's first mention of his gardening interests relate to the time he was working for the bank in Masterton, aged twenty.

In Edinburgh, while heading his university classes in medicine, Truby found time to take Botany papers and would have enjoyed the highly reputed Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, which had large collections of plants, including hundreds of species of rhododendron collected from China at that time. These were the exciting times for the Victorian plant collector, bringing new and exotic species back to the mother country, and Truby would have been caught up in the revived interest in botany and the fascination with new species.

The first-hand evidence of King the plantsman is at Seacliff. Unimpeded and unconstrained, King was able to indulge himself in the creation of grounds to soften and civilise the forbidding asylum. With an army of 'willing' workers, he could undertake grand schemes of earthworks, landscaping and planting. The results were impressive. Even today, with the asylum gone, Seacliff as a municipal park has a decrepit haunting majesty. Then before his Karitane house could be built, the problem of coastal erosion had to be confronted, lest the peninsula become disconnected from the mainland by tidal and river interaction. But Melrose was the time he could indulge himself in planting his own garden. In 1923, at the age of sixty-five, he could begin. Was there a plan? Emphatically not. King liked, above all, for things to be natural, and the prospect of a carefully considered, well-designed garden did not accord with this. Mary King, in a 1992 reply to a letter of inquiry from the landscape architects responsible for the garden's conservation, confirmed this: 'I do not think there was ever a written Plan or Document of the planting to be done in and around "Mount Melrose". Any planning was in the mind of Truby King . . . like Topsy, the garden "just grew". The comprehensive 1993 analysis of the garden provided by consultants Boffa Miskell was at a page 186 loss to explain much of the garden design: 'The layout of the garden does not reflect a particular garden style, nor is it based on traditional garden design layouts'.3

The ten-acre exposed hillside provided King with an impressive challenge. Undeterred by the steep slopes, Truby and his team of gardeners began building paths, retaining walls, steps and access ways. He wrote of his intention that 'mother and baby should walk through the gardens'.4 Early pictures show the house perched on a hilltop with a few pergolas and surrounding bush. The development of the garden would have taken place over about ten years, from 1924, on completion of the house. Although it has been suggested in an unpublished thesis that Gray Young was responsible for the garden design, I am convinced that it was all the work of Truby King.5

His idiosyncratic use of bricks in the Melrose garden must be seen as a major feature. As well as the more usual bricked paths and walls, we have piers, pergolas, posts and porticos constructed of bricks. In
The Melrose Garden, 1934.

The Melrose Garden, 1934.

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The Melrose Garden at its best, c. 1943.

The Melrose Garden at its best, c. 1943.

total, hundreds of thousands of terracotta bricks have gone into the construction of elaborate and eccentric features, none more so than the 'moon gate', a circular feature in a tall brick wall. On a relatively steep section, his use of brick retaining walls to create a number of terraced areas is sensible. It is the extent and the complexity of these bricked features that take the eye. While the paths provide functional access, many of the other brick constructions have less utility value. Some of the walls adjacent to the house are out of place and ill-conceived.

The brick walls alongside the house may well have housed Truby King's strawberries. Whereas a keen gardener might consider a dozen plants, Truby's ambitions were considerably greater. He ordered a total of 355 strawberry plants from Barbier alone. There are thirty-five recorded varieties, the majority bearing such exotic names as Belle de la Perraudiere, Reine des Perpetuelles and Mervielle de France. He ordered six of most varieties, sometimes a dozen. To his page 188 brother-in-law he commented how well the strawberries had travelled from France, so it is likely that many Plunket mums and babies ate well on exotic fraises. The walls adjacent to the house have systematic voids, where half-bricks have been omitted. It appears that King utilised these for planting his strawberries, to grow in pockets of soil in bricks warmed by the sun. The archives show correspondence concerning Truby's planting of 'a hundred runners of Bradley's Seedling, supplied by Dr Jeffries of Nelson, and planted 'upon the front face of the brick wall, looking north'. To supplement the foreign strawberry importation, Truby also purchased 125 unspecified varieties from Bennetts in Dunedin, and in 1933 correspondence shows Truby was still seeking more. An order to Duncan & Davies requested 'two dozen well-rooted runners of the Strawberry which you will believe will be most suitable for my conditions in Wellington'.6 What became of the profusion of these berried treasures is not recorded.

Not satisfied with extensive strawberry plantings, he managed to find room for forty-eight imported gooseberry plants and fourteen blackberries.

Spurning the winds for which Wellington is renowned, Truby King planted maples, those most beautiful but wind-intolerant trees, on his exposed Melrose slopes. He ordered over eighty specimens, many of which were catalogued as growing to fifty feet, while a smaller number may have been destined for growing in pots. He propagated Norway maples from seed, which he wrote of 'doing for over thirty years'7 Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence of the survival of these tender treasures.

Broom (Cytisus, Genista) was an unlikely prospect for him to consider planting in mass. But from 1924 to 1929 he ordered nearly 300 Cytisus, comprising nineteen varieties. If that wasn't enough, he added 475 Genista, in twenty-seven different varieties. Most came from France, although some came from Dublin, Edinburgh and Dunedin. Not one for understatement, he noted to another gardener in 1925:

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I really think I have a complete collection of everything desirable . . . my feeling is that the brooms are going to be just as important for us here as the rhododendrons on which we have been specialising. I cannot imagine that anywhere in the world there are hillsides in Nature more suitable as the habitat of the whole broom family. Kipling did not fail to notice the wonderful effect of the common broom when in flower as the background of the city of Wellington when one looks up at the hills from the harbour.

There is no evidence that Kipling and King met, but their paths are very likely to have crossed. Kipling dedicated this verse to Wellington:

Broom behind the windy town, pollen o the pine —
Bell-bird in the leafy deep where the Ratas twine
Fern above the saddle-bow, flax upon the plain —
Take the flower and turn the hour, and kiss your love again!8

If Kipling, a xenophobe Empire loyalist, could eulogise about broom, then it was good enough for Truby King.

Our idea is to plant the nor-eastern and nor-western slopes of the hill almost entirely with a collection of broom ranging in colour from yellow, brown, red, pink, cream colour to pure white, and in height, from a few inches up to 10 or 15 feet.9

What happened to the broom? Today there is no evidence of the hundreds of plants. Were the mothers and babies in the hospital consumed by hay fever, or did the plantings just prove unsuitable?

As the garden developed and the shrubs grew up round the house, Truby would get a saw and go out before breakfast to cut away branches that were obscuring the view of harbour and hills beyond. He would tie his handkerchief round a certain branch, retire to the dining room to see if it was really the offending limb, go back and saw it off and then tie his handkerchief round another one! Mary King said he regarded it as a crime to cut off even a single twig unnecessarily.

In 1925 Truby King was appointed Vice President of the page 190 Wellington Horticultural Society, with the observation: 'Your life's interest in horticulture is known all over New Zealand. The Melrose Garden, 1934.'10 Not content with his planting at Melrose, King wanted to beautify the environs of the city. Finding a kindred spirit in Mr McKenzie, Director of Parks and Reserves, he set about the planting of open spaces around Melrose. He would think nothing of organising a horse-drawn plough to prepare the ground, then seeding it with oats and red clover, and finally planting with trees and shrubs. He was also fond of conscripting his 'keen cottagers' to planting schemes. There are tales of King knocking on doors in suburbs adjacent to Melrose, leaving instructions for the man of the house to attend on Saturday morning with a spade and a barrow of topsoil.

There were two substantial greenhouses adjacent to the Karitane Products factory, where Truby and his staff propagated large numbers of plants. To supplement his own production, he imposed heavily on his friend Victor Davies, founder of New Plymouth's famous Duncan and Davies plant nurseries. His correspondence beginning 'My Dear Davies . . .' alternated between advice to Davies on what he should be doing and requests for assistance in propagating plants, and included requests for donations of plants for municipal planting. King recognised Davies' superior plantsmanship, and lost no opportunity to exploit the relationship. Any nurseryman who wished to supply Sir Truby with plants would need to steel himself against the requests for plants for 'beautifying the district'.

In a letter to McKenzie in 1925 he wrote:

And now I want to take the opportunity to thank you most heartily on behalf of myself and our co-workers at Melrose for the helpful and encouraging way in which you have met our every wish for beautifying the district ... If you happen to be passing up Manchester St, I am sure you will be greatly pleased to see how exceedingly well the hydrangeas, buddleias, rhododendrons, tamarisks and other plants are doing. This makes a great impression on everyone, because they begin to realise what a very great difference it will make to the district if we page 191 get all the suitable positions along the road well planted with good flowering shrubs.

A letter to the Victor Davies in 1933 gives an insight to many of Truby King's attitudes (the underlining is his):

All the plants that I am wanting from you will come under the jurisdiction of the Mayor and Corporation of Wellington; and will be supervised and directed by Mr McKenzie (the Director and Curator of Parks and Gardens) working in conjunction with myself. This means, as you can well understand, that I supply the brains, science and practical knowledge. But McKenzie and the Council give me every assistance they can in the form of 'unemployeds' who are mostly useless unemployables. However, the Council and McKenzie heartily appreciate the fact that for every pound that they spend throughout this whole District, I contribute more than £10. Of course, I derive no personal benefit whatever, which is not shared equally by everyone -rich and poor alike. I have pursued this policy for the last 13 years, and the plants and plantings have been provided solely by myself. But for this, the whole area below Sutherland Crescent would still be merely a wind-swept, steeply sloping valley, scourged by Nor'westerly gales which render gardening of any sort impossible without sheltering trees and shrubs.

Nearly all the cottages below Sutherland Crescent have been put up in the course of the last 8 years by working-men who were tempted by the Government's kind offer (or political bribe) to provide 90% of the money needed. You may be interested to know that in this District alone the political job in question has cost half a million sterling to our long suffering little Dominion !

King thought nothing of hiring armies of gardeners. He commented to his Dunedin supplier Perrett in 1924: 'I have a first rate man for a few hours a day who was at Kew and served his time with Veitches . . . now I have a team of four first-class young men working steadily under Mr Barnett (my expert).' Never one to miss the opportunity to drop names, he acknowledged Kew and Veitch nurseries as the page 192 training ground of 'Chinese Wilson', one of the world's great plant collectors, whom he would have met when the famous man visited New Zealand.

Mainstay of the Melrose garden was the Scot, Dan Russell, who joined Truby King in the early days and carried on when he donated the property to the Plunket Society in 1932. Russell remained at Melrose until retiring at the end of the war. His wages in 1930 were £5 10/- a week, while his 'boys' received one pound a week, and a 'really good lad' thirty shillings. By contrast, King's salary on retirement would have been at least four times Russell's. On his last trip to England with Mary in 1930, King despatched an eight-page typed letter to Russell. He apologised for his hasty departure, then informed Russell that 'times are hard' and that he would have to take a pay cut and dismiss one of the other garden staff. Russell was ordered to sell some of the surplus rhododendrons to a Lower Hutt nursery, and be frugal with other matters. Whether King was not sufficiently organised to confront Russell before departure, or couldn't bring himself to deliver the news personally, is not recorded.

The Melrose garden was at its best in the 1940s, twenty years after Truby began planting. A 1943 picture (showing clearly the mausoleum) illustrates the density of planting and high level of care. By 1950, with the retirement of Dan Russell, drastic modification had taken place, with much of the verdant growth removed in the interest of decreased maintenance by the Plunket Society. At its peak, Truby King's Melrose garden would have been an interesting place to visit.

In addition to purchasing massive numbers of trees, plants, flowers, shrubs, fruits and vegetables from Barbier, he imported plants from Australia, England, Ireland, Japan, Holland and Scotland. He also purchased a large number of plants from Otago nurseries that he would have known from the Seacliff days. Domestic orders from Taranaki, Wellington and Hutt nurseries are commented on, but not documented, although records from Bennetts nursery in Dunedin show over 840 trees and shrubs were supplied. The majority of plants were ordered between 1922 and 1929. Despite his donation of plants page 193 to local beautification projects, it has been speculated that Truby King could not have planted all these thousands of plants in his ten-acre property alone, and that he was probably trading in plants.11 Certainly he was generous with his plants, especially to people of title or status, but I found little evidence that he was trading, certainly not profitably. While continual lack of money may have been annoying, it did not appear to deflect Truby from his goals.

From what I gleaned from the archives, I have assembled a summary of King's foreign plant purchases, although there would be many more from domestic sources.

No. Plant Different varieties
86 Acer 3
64 Amelanchier 5
125 Ampelopsis 4
41 Azalea 13
374 Begonia various
834 Berberis 13
14 Blackberry 3
58 Ceanothus 4
25 Cerasus 4
19 Chamoecerasus 9
20 Clematis 4
16 Cordyline 7
150 Cornus 8
232 Cotoneaster 22
25 Cydonia 5
292 Cytisus 19
15 Erica 3
12 Erigeron 4
350 Escallonia 5
12 Fagus 5
4 Fig 4
35 Fuchsia 2
475 Genista 27
175 Gladiolus 3
48 Gooseberry 2
74 Gypsophila 6
12 Helenium 6page 194
9 Helianthus 3
20 Hibiscus 10
65 Hydrangea 19
25 Hypericum 4
41 Japonica 4
16 Jasminum 3
32 Laburnum 3
82 Lonicera 9
125 Mahonia 2
52 Malus 8
57 Olearia 14
54 Paeonia 18
12 Penstemon 2
9 Perowskia 2
101 Philadelphus 13
18 Phlox 2
300 Pinus 2
344 lbs Potato 3
10 Prunus 4
19 Senicio 7
86 Sidonia 8
12 Solidago 3
32 Spirea 10
355 Strawberry 36
47 Syringa 19
28 Veronica 9
36 Viburnum 2
11 Weigelia 2
6094 plants in total

Truby King's greatest gardening obsession was with rhododendrons.

I have nearly 400 of the finest Rhododendrons in the world, visible from one point: and they vary in height from 5 to 10 or 12 feet, and will be perfect domes of flowers, in succession, throughout the coming eight months. Besides, I shall be only too glad to give you as many cuttings and plants as you like, of the finest and best specimens from everywhere — including the pick of the Dutch page 195 Rhododendrons, many of which are already six feet high and doing splendidly.12

From the Greek rhodos (rose) and dendron (tree), the rhododendron was discovered in the sixteenth century, coming to Britain in 1656. Rhododendrons exist in all shapes and sizes, from tiny miniatures to very large trees. Shallow-rooting, they prefer semi-shade and acidic, free-draining soils. That they enjoy high rainfall is testified by some of Taranaki's great rhododendron dells. Evergreen, they flower from autumn through to spring.

Linneaeus brought order to botanical names and established the genus Rhododendron in his book published in 1753. By 1800 there were twelve species known in cultivation. The next hundred years, with increased travel and better communications, saw plant collectors searching the world for new, novel and interesting botanical specimens. China opened its borders in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking and the ending of the opium wars. Botanical adventurers in large numbers sought to supply the old world with exciting plants, shrubs and trees, and rhododendrons from the remote Chinese mountains were among the most publicised treasures.

What started Truby off on his relentless quest for rhododendrons? Edinburgh is undoubtedly the clue. In his six years there, he could not have failed to grasp the botanical fever present with Edinburgh-trained botanists almost daily bringing back new plants. While his birthplace, Taranaki, now enjoys an international reputation for the rhododendron, it did not really become established there until the twentieth century. Newton King became infected with brother Truby's rhododendron fascination, and is known on his advice to have planted a number of different varieties on his Taranaki property in the 1920s. Pukeiti, the garden flagship of Taranaki, was not established until the second half of the twentieth century.

It is unlikely that the archives are complete, but from what is available we know that King purchased at least 600 rhododendrons, from a variety of disparate sources:

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Bennetts, Dunedin 1922 until 1932
Silberrad & Son, London 1923
Waugh, Hutt Valley 1923
Seton, Fairfield, Otago 1924
Perrett, Dunedin 1924
Dicksons, Edinburgh 1924
Taylor & Sangster, Victoria, Australia 1924
Wallace, Tunbridge Wells, UK 1924, 1926
Van Houtte, Holland 1924
B Van Nes & Sons, Holland 1926
M Koster & Sons, Holland 1926 13

His rhododendron orders were often typed on Department of Health notepaper and contained elaborate instructions as to their packing and despatch. For example, his instructions to Silberrad & Son of London in 1923: 'I want you to make sure that they are despatched to New Zealand by the New Zealand Shipping Company's Steamer "Tekoa". I have a special introduction to the captain, and shall see him about having special care taken to place the plants in the best part of the ship.' Or to Wallace in Tunbridge Wells: 'Special arrangements have been made with the Chief Steward for the plants to be carried in the store for vegetables, etc. where the temperature is maintained between 40-60° Fahrenheit.'14

He went to great lengths to describe the boxes in which they should be packed, including with his instructions a sketch of the desired containers and packaging materials. His elaborate, detailed requirements point to a knowledgeable gardener who was determined to acquire every last specimen in the finest condition. How he collected them appeared not to matter. It was said of Truby that 'whenever he saw a Rhododendron that he did not have, he would not rest until he was able to get it, even to the point of keeping a spade in the boot of the car so that his driver could steal, if necessary, the prize'.15

There are some aspects of his rhododendron collection that are curious, for example his passion for making multiple orders. He often page 197 ordered the same variety several times. Nobleanum, for instance, was ordered from his Australian supplier in 1924, and in the same year from his English supplier. Then in 1926 he ordered three more plants from the Dutch firm, Van Nes. It has been suggested that he had determined that they would grow for him, and was doggedly asserting his right to have them perform. There are over thirty examples of multiple orders of the same rhododendron, generally from different suppliers.

The second point of contention is the suitability of rhododendrons to the Melrose site. It is noted that they are one of the longest-suffering of garden plants, and can frequently be seen cheerfully growing in an abandoned garden with a few fruit trees, many years after all else has gone. The few remaining remnants at Melrose give the lie to this observation. The 1992 inventory lists only five of the six hundred rhododendrons that might have been planted by Truby King. This begs the question of King's dogged determination that Melrose would become his national collection of rhododendrons, despite the site's unsuitability. Discussions with contemporary gardening historians support this contention, and confirm the unsuitability of rhododendrons to the site.

King's correspondence with Bledisloe shows that he raised a number of rhododendrons in large tubs, and would often supply them to Government House. The fact that they grew so well in tubs (as well as in the garden, said Truby) may more be a judgement of how poorly they grew in the garden rather than how well they grew in tubs! An interesting aside to Truby's obsession with the famous and the titled, is his reported fancy for installing potted specimens in the garden just before an important visit, to create the effect of a permanent garden display. He wouldn't be the first to operate this deception.

His rhododendron correspondence with Lord Bledisloe and Edgar Stead can be found in Appendix Eight.

Truby King's garden wisdom can be summarised from a typed note in the Hocken archives:

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1. Attend to the Living before the Dead.
2.One year's Seeding means seven years Weeding. By means of the leaves and roots plants are fed and nourished; but 'flower-formation' tends to impede growth, and 'seed-formation' often kills outright.
3.Leaves and roots feed and nourish the plant; flowers impede growth more or less: Seeding always tends to arrest growth, and may kill it outright. Hence the Golden Rule:
'Pick fading border-flowers; and cut back most free-flowering shrubs, climbers, etc. directly their season's beauty has nearly passed off.' Never delay the clipping for weeks, or even days; and never hesitate to sacrifice a few belated flower buds.
4.Go down on your knees every night and thank God* for the gentle hoe and the devil for the cruel root-cutting spade.
5.God* being thrifty, taught us how to 'mulch'; and the devil, being a 'waster', taught us how to waste water.
Superficial watering is ineffective and even injurious. Either habituate the plants not to expect any drink except from the heavens, or else water deeply when over-dry. Let the roots depend for moisture on prevention of evaporation, hoeing and surface mulching, rather than on watering.
6.Seed-beds are almost always sewn far too thickly. The result is drawn-up, spindly plants which starve and strangle one another. Such weaklings are not worth transplanting: better dig them in and sow thin next season.
7.Plant a rose in May and it must live; in any other month it may. With few exceptions, early autumn is the best season for transplanting in general, and for propagating by cuttings, layers, etc: this applies largely to seed-sowing also.

The asterisk * note contains the only religious reference that I have found in King's writing. It is believed he never attended church but a reference in the archives notes 'a deeply religious attitude to life'.16

page 199

2 Margot Fry, Thomas King's biographer, personal communication, 2000.

3 Boffa Miskell, Truby King Park, Conservation and Management Plan, p. 32.

4 Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

5 Cusins-Lewer, 'The Karitane Hospital in Wellington Swaddled babies and Muffled Walls', p. 1.

6 Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

7 Ibid.

8 Truby King, excerpt from a letter in Scotland, quoting Kipling. Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

9 Ibid.

10 Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

11 Donal Duthie, Wellington garden historian, personal communication, 2000.

12 Truby King, letter to ? Bennett of Dunedin, August 1922, Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

13 A precis of the information tabulated in Appendix Eight.

14 Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

15 Dr James Ritchie, whose father worked with Truby King at Melrose, personal communication, 2000.

16 Plunket archives, Hocken Library.