A Place of Beauty & Tranquility
Words & Images: Sandie Finnie
Hidden away in the limestone hills of North Otago, seven kilometres west of historic Oamaru, is the township of Weston, home of Rockvale Gardens. The gardens are a place of beauty and tranquility and where memories and friendships have been forged between visitors and the congenial owners, Bob and Linda Wilson.
STARTED BY LINDA AND Bob in 1989, their gardens are open to the public seven days a week. The Wilsons are well known and Bob is the former manager of the renowned Parkside Quarries at Weston, sole supplier of Oamaru stone building material and the largest quarry of its kind in New Zealand.
Bob and Linda are passionate advocates for the creamy limestone that is hewn from the land behind their home. The stone used in architecture and for house cladding is particular to North Otago’s rural landscape. New Zealand and international sculptors consider Parkside stone an ideal medium with which to sculpt.
In 1999 Linda and I were the driving force behind a major sculpting symposium in Takaro Park, Oamaru where invited sculptors each worked on two-ton blocks of limestone. The three-week symposium had an educational focus as it enabled the public to see national and international sculptors at work. Finished pieces were auctioned on the final day of the symposium and unsold works ended up at Rockvale Gardens (former Parkside Gardens). Such was the success of the early symposiums that they are now run biennially in Oamaru and have inspired other towns to run similar events.
Linda says the quality of the stone is such that the quarry is considered a mecca for sculptors. A sculptress from Seoul has 20 tons shipped over to her workshop frequently.
Alongside the Wilsons’ love of stone sits Linda’s reputation as a landscape concept planner and garden columnist who has a garden radio spot each Saturday morning. Linda’s blog gives weekly updates on gardening and gives readers the inside running on the mammoth tasks required to keep Rockvale Gardens in order.
Aside from her voluntary gardening advice, Linda juggles bookings for weddings, fêtes and special events. Community groups use a venue room in the gardens for a raft of functions and managing advanced bookings is work in itself.
Although ground maintenance is a full-time job, nowadays Linda is assisted by local gardener Stan who has taken over a lot of the work Bob used to do. Linda says Stan is “wonderful” and all committed gardeners should have a “Stan”.
Over the years Linda has conducted countless promotional bus tours of the quarries and gardens.
There is a sense of formality about the gardens with boxed hedges and stately conifers leading the eye up and down as you walk along grass pathways that lead from one visual treat to the next.
Structure is tempered by lurking frivolity. This is because each year Linda introduces a colour theme which, this season, happens to be mauve. There are splashes of this on seating and some tree trunks and other structures. During my visit, strains of classical music wafted through the trees. Linda says a visiting composer designed the music especially for the setting.
Within the circular garden area is a red Chinese gate Linda stumbled across in an old factory. She says once this was erected, it opened up her landscaping ideas on either side.
Like many outstanding gardens, Rockvale Gardens began as a germ of an idea. In this case, Linda realised she needed to fulfil her creative side once the youngest of their four children turned nine and she needed to be able to do something at home to be on hand for the children, and to help when needed in the office at the quarry. Her initial thought was to establish a nursery because she was already potting up plants for their house garden and, with her design experience, the idea morphed into something more expansive for the paddock below the house. A seven-days-a-week garden centre evolved, and a place to display ornate stone work and sculptures.
Given that landscaping is her strength, in the beginning with the help of son Craig, she and Bob developed a plan of how their garden would look, then set about planting it accordingly. They disguised 4m-high wire fencing that initially encircled the main garden for shelter, with trees, climbers and shrubbery, then incorporated limestone-edged grass walkways, a stone rotunda and a small shop. “That was the bones of the garden,” Linda says.
“The rest was dressing, that’s the bit I enjoy the most.”
But once the fencing was in place they realised they had shut out any means of getting heavy equipment in to shift soil around. “So we had to do the work with shovels and wheelbarrows,” she laughs.
At some point the Wilsons planted a shelter belt of hoherias. These grew well but, once the garden flowed out beyond the red gate, Linda said they needed to go. “So while Bob was going to work early and coming home in the dark or playing rugby on weekends one winter, I removed them individually with a chainsaw and dragged them all into a paddock to burn. Bob only noticed them gone come spring. They were replaced with flowering cherries which are now part of the bridal walk.”
People are genuinely interested in the gardens and Linda is more than happy to share her knowledge of plants with them and show what will work best in their own gardens. Of her landscaping business she says, “If a wife calls me in for help, I arrive and I can always see the husband’s face drop as he thinks, ‘how much is this going to cost me?’ So I feel I need to reassure him it will not break the bank.” She says most people have a vision of what they want but don’t know how to go about it. “So I listen to their ideas and depersonalise their debates after working on the images I take of their garden, to show how it will look once shaped and planted out.”
Linda is continually surprised at the number of young people who are attracted to Rockvale Gardens and says they have made many contacts with young overseas visitors who arrive and somehow end up prolonging their stay by moving in for a while and working in the gardens for their keep. “Some days I go down to the garden with my wheelbarrow and come across the clink of wine glasses and people picnicking in a chosen spot.”
Given her undiminished zest and energy for life I can’t help thinking that even though Linda and Bob are looking to move on some time in the future, for this couple, retirement will not include too much rest and relaxation, especially Linda, who is relishing the prospect of change.