Amid the lush green of springtime Taranaki are sparkling gardens and a feast of experiences of all things horticultural.
There are gardens tight and loose, native and exotic, earthy and refined. And, in the garden festival that runs from October 26 to November 4, are plenty of extras: talks, tours, demonstrations, a landscape design project.
A day looking at Taranaki gardens at your own pace is pretty much paradise. The festival hub provides enough info to help you decide what appeals; four or five gardens are about as much as a day can hold.
Taranaki is flung out to the west, like a North Island elbow. Its maunga pulls moisture out of the prevailing west winds and spreads it about. Festival-goers are advised to bring gumboots — stylish ones, of course.
The mountain is always the thing in the 'Naki. You're either heading up it, heading down it or going around it. You can either see it, or it's hidden in cloud. Whether it can be viewed from a garden is always a factor worth mentioning. The name of the Japanese Tea House Garden open in the Lynmouth suburb translates as Mountain Water Cottage.
I was utterly charmed by my first garden — the historic Te Henui Cemetery. It was sparkling with blue Chinese forget-me-nots and festooned with white Queen Anne's lace. It had irises, lilies and dahlias, daffodils and tulips in a slightly random mixture.
The old cemetery was, a volunteer told me, a creepy untended place until the council planted trees across it in the 1980s. Ten years ago, the volunteers started gardening it.
The flowers are mostly confined in grave enclosures and sprawl up the sunny hillside, among broken, leaning headstones.
Another thrill was a Japanese tea ceremony at the Japanese Tea House Garden, taken by a Japanese tea master, with explanations from the owner, Masashi Iwata. Tea ceremonies have been unchanged for 400 years, he said. Chado, the way of tea, is related to many aspects of Japanese culture, such as calligraphy, incense and flower arrangement.
"We do tea whenever we feel the desire to share the joy or sorrow of our daily life. Some examples are flower viewing and moon viewing."
The plants in the tea house garden could be found in any suburban New Zealand garden but, pruned by Japanese gardeners, they were rugged and exotic. The tea house was made in Japan, sent to New Zealand in eight containers and erected by 19 Japanese craftsmen. Even the stones were from Japan.
Out on the highway, driving to the next garden, the ordinary houses of Taranaki were a bit of a shock. The paddocks, so green they could give you a headache, lie amid the not-so-lovely gas and oil installations.
Puketarata garden, near Hāwera, is on the site of a former Māori kainga. Oven stones and adzes were found during earthworks and there's a pā site and urupā just along the ridge. The house has its back comfortably against a mound and looks east across its own wooded gully. Owner Ken Horner has written an account of the area's pre-European history and gives talks about it.
The garden had tall young kauri trees, a miro hedge, native brooms and a parterre planted with Iceland poppies.
Then there were gardens of huge ambition, like Waiongana, with its pavilion, vast lawns, sunken garden, 300 peonies, bees bumbling in opium poppies, a bamboo grove and rustic log walls.
Gravetye, in Hāwera, was very linear. Everything was trimmed to a T — unless the owners intended a contrasting disorder. It's divided into rooms, each with its own spectacle, a grass pyramid, an oblong pool that reflects the sky and plantings of hornbeam, laburnum, beech and lime trees. The colours were blue, yellow, purple and white. The irises were flowering.
Hirst Cottage is a small central-city garden around a black and white 1862 cottage, with huge old oaks above. It has a restrained layout and colour palette of green, red and white, with trimmed hedges, arum lilies and red pelargoniums.
Te Kainga Marire is a wholly native Garden of International Significance. It has a tunnel with glow worms and a sculpture of the first woman, Hineahuone. Owner Valda Poletti promotes conservation, traps predators, provides food for native birds and hosts talks about native plants. "It's not even a hobby. It's a passion," she said.
On the earthy, alternative side, the festival lists 30 sustainable backyards to visit, plus workshops on food forests, permaculture and organic growing. There's a lot to learn. If you have a mind to try a hedge, for example, there are lots of them to look at: miro, māpou, euonymus, griselinia, teucrium, the ubiquitous box and many other species. The owners are on hand to answer questions, and often food and drink is available to buy.