New Zealand is probably as close to the Garden of Eden as I’ll ever come. When I visited last November, which is early spring in that part of the world, the mountains were awash with blooming thyme. Sheep outnumber people 20 to 1. Dolphins swim alongside boats in water so blue, clear, and serene that I’ll never forget it. I saw underground caves inhabited by thousands of glowworms, trekked through a wildlife sanctuary to see the rare and endangered yellow-eyed penguin, and feasted with native Maori. I saw marvelous gardens with flowers and foliage that were larger, healthier, and more brilliant than the same species back home. But nothing on the entire three-week trip through wonderland impressed me as much as the fragrance garden of Olive Dunn.
We flew from Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, to Invercargill, at the southern tip of the South Island. Cool breezes, but never freezing rains, blow in year round from Antarctica, only 2200 miles away.
We arrived at a small suburban home nestled among unassuming shrubs. A sign read Floresta Fragrant Gardens with an arrow pointing to the back, and we headed down the narrow walkway. As we entered the backyard, we were greeted by an overwhelming abundance: a vibrant floral symphony of fragrance, color, texture, with movement and melody provided by the bees, butterflies, and birds that hovered, buzzed, and sang. We felt as though we had stepped into a different century, although which one I don’t know.
The half-acre that stretched before us was a gentle, planned chaos, cozy and caressing. Intensive plantings of herbs and flowers fill the plot almost edge to edge. Olive Dunn wastes no space on grass, nor on wide strolling paths; plants spill over on all sides of the narrow pathways. Ground covers define and defend borders from the encroachment of weeds. “A lawn to me is a constant chore,” she says.
Although Olive maintains that the intensive planting means less work, I suspect that it saves her only from work she doesn’t like. Others of us would consider the constant snipping, shaping, trimming, transplanting, fertilizing, and watering in this beautifully maintained garden to be relentless work. Even the relatively carefree thyme ground covers require at least semiannual cutting back to keep them from becoming bare and leggy.
Despite the garden’s unstudied appearance, it reflects an artist’s eye for mixing colors, textures, and heights of the plants. Garden furniture and carefully placed statuary enhance the effect. Birds have their houses, a bath, and feeders. Old urns are filled to the brim with sedums and herbs. Walking down one of those narrow paths, we came upon a thyme-covered bench placed to catch the late afternoon sun. The rest of the day, it is almost hidden in the shade of an arbor of white clematis.
All seems to sing out, “Welcome! Feast your eyes, touch, feel, smell, hear.”
Olive Dunn has been surrounded by flowers and fragrance throughout her life. Her family were florists, and she herself spent thirty years as a floral designer. Since she retired, she has devoted most of her time to this garden. Olive is an active member of a local herb society and has worked to promote and encourage the growth of herb groups in New Zealand. She is also a writer; in 1989, she wrote Delights of a Fragrant Garden in New Zealand, published by Random Century and now out of print.
Olive, an elderly woman who wears her age well, has a sparkle in her eye and a tendency to giggle. She is softspoken, calm, and confident, and she clearly loves what she’s doing. She welcomed us with buoyant cheer and an evident pride in her garden.
Olive believes that gardens should be planted with “aromatic herbs to purify the air immediately around us.” Hers stimulates and relaxes her at the same time, and she wonders, “How can people get tired and bored when they’ve got all these lovely things?” Gardening is more than the work that goes into it, she says: it is a therapeutic and spiritual process that is always evolving, never completed.
Much of this garden’s sensuous appeal comes from the emphasis on fragrance and Olive’s choice of herbs and shrubs. In addition to varieties of thyme, we found fragrant dianthuses, lemon verbena, marjorams, lavenders, rosemaries in both upright and prostrate forms, several sages, monardas, fennel, scented geraniums, as well as shrub borders containing daphnes, balm of gilead, flowering cherries, boronia, viburnums, honeysuckles, and roses that were at their peak of bloom.
A private driveway running from the street side of Floresta to a house fronting the next street, where Olive’s brother lives, is a further excuse for filling edges with more shrubs and flowers. Olive plants with an eye to upkeep, steering clear of demanding, labor-intensive plantings.
We were invited inside for tea, and we discovered that her house displays the same love of color and fragrance so evident in the garden. During her years as a floral designer, Olive collected magnificent urns, antique vases, elegant china bowls, old baskets, bibelots, Victorian picture frames, and hand-painted lamps, which are as carefully placed throughout the house as the urns and statuary in her garden. Each room highlights a different color theme. In a lavender room, for example, a corner table holds a bowl filled with potpourri made of lavender flowers and topped with a single purple dried blossom such as a pansy or cosmos. Beside the bowl are pictures in frames that pick up the lavender color, a lavender wand, a lamp, perhaps a book open to an illustration that complements the scheme. Each corner of each room presents such a delightful vignette, and both dried and fresh floral arrangements abound.
In the bedrooms, small rocking chairs hold pastel knitted or crocheted afghans and dolls, some of the latter with book in hand. Doorknobs hold ribbon-tied bags of herbs. Ribbons everywhere add a finishing touch, giving the rooms a Victorian feeling, very English and nostalgic. One of the men in our group commented, “This is clutter I could live with.”
Examples of Olive’s handiwork and garden bounty can be seen all through the house, but nowhere more obviously than in the tiny kitchen. Brown-and-white-checked gingham lines a wall of open shelves filled with herb vinegars, chutneys and preserves, jewel-colored jellies—cranberry, rowanberry, elderberry—and other culinary delights. Old copper pans decorate the walls. In this small space, Olive had prepared an elegant English high tea for us with sweets featuring ingredients from her garden. We stood in her living room, surrounded by her treasures, sipping and nibbling and experiencing the richness.
Portia Meares of Wolftown, Virginia, a long-time herbalist and author, is founder and former editor of the bimonthly magazine The Business of Herbs.