Carer Story: Roses and Silverbeet Among the Daisies

HarcourtFamilyEnjoying flowers from their garden is an everyday treat for Dame Kate and Miranda Harcourt – literally, because a vibrant garden is a central part of their Wellington home, and metaphorically, because it symbolises how they work, share and laugh together as mother and daughter. 

The Harcourts used to live a more conventional life.

When Kate’s husband, Peter, was terminally ill, Kate did the caring and the children, who were typically dispersed, did the visiting.

Years later, when problems with Kate’s knee meant she needed to find a house with easier access, Miranda and her husband, writer Stuart McKenzie, suggested pooling their resources and buying a house together.

Now Miranda, Stuart, their son Peter and daughters Thomasin and Davida live upstairs, and Kate lives downstairs in the light, airy, iconic 1960s house perched on the cliffs of Wellington’s south coast.

Behind the house Kate has lovingly created a garden which she describes as “quite mad”, and which defies all moods of the notorious Wellington wind.

There are three sections to Kate’s garden – one for the southerly where hardy cacti bloom, one with a tree house for the children, and one with a “northerly aspect where I can grow roses and silverbeet among the daisies”, she says.

Kate’s grandson, Peter, has an apple tree with five apples on it. Recently Kate helped Peter and Thomasin plant herbs and brightly coloured violas in their own patches of soil.

Being able to share the garden is just one of the joys the family has discovered through living together.

Sharing resources has meant Miranda and Stuart never want for a babysitter, Kate has company, the grandchildren have an extra ‘parent’ in Kate, and they can all enjoy the spacious, interesting house they have bought and adapted together.

“It works a treat”, says Kate.

A key preparation to living together so successfully has been working together, which Kate and Miranda have done off and on since Miranda was eight years old, and began doing voice-overs to earn money.

Flowers from My Mother’s Garden, a play they wrote and produced with Stuart a number of years ago, is not only typical of their unique style of collaboration, but symbolic of how Kate and Miranda relate to each other – with intimacy, honesty and humour.

The play is about family and how history becomes particular, repeating and transforming from one generation to another.

At one point in the play, mother and daughter compare their experiences living in London.

Kate says, “I think I thought that’s what London was going to be like. Like in Katherine Mansfield. All very thing. Modern manners. Slightly bohemian. Poets and musicians and painters. What did you think about when you modelled in the nude?”

Miranda replies, “Oh, all sort of things really. I’d often compose letters in my head to you. Really long, detailed letters’.

“You never sent them”, Kate says. “No”, Miranda replies. “Well you know what London’s like. It was just impossible to get through the snow to find a post office”.

The play is also an oral history covering three generations of mothers and daughters through the family.

Kate tells the story of her own mother, Winifred Austin, who came to New Zealand from Australia, establishing beautiful gardens everywhere she went.

“When I went away overseas, that was what I missed most, the flowers from my mother’s garden”, says Kate. “Bunches of violets, sprigs of boronia and daphne, baskets of camellias or roses. Even at the back of beyond, Okuku Pass in north Canterbury, she made a garden”.

Kate obviously learned from Winifred, as gardening on a clifftop in Wellington poses its own challenges.

Another key element in creating such a successful extended family environment has been careful planning. The house had to be remodelled to created two separate living areas linked by a set of stairs. It was stressful to begin with, but as Kate says, “great when we all landed together”.

House rules have evolved over time but basically reflect caring for each other, mutual respect and consideration.

“We always ask if we can visit,” says Miranda.

Kate is a wedding celebrant and often has meetings with clients, while Stuart works from an office upstairs.

Kate is usually on hand to babysit, but Miranda says they would never take advantage and party every night.

“It all comes down to sensitivity, thinking ahead and considering others”, she says.

The environment encourages everyone to share their resources, expertise and passions. For example Stuart does much of the cooking and Kate supplies the herbs from the garden.

“There is tremendous trade up and down”, says Kate.

“Kate is like another parent to the children”, says Miranda. “She is a great story reader, which is a very important part of the commerce in our house. She reads to the children and sings to them very night”.

Miranda and Stuart have just built Kate a new garden outside her living room window, where the raised flower beds mean she doesn’t have to bend over. They water the garden when she is away and are good company for her when she is at home.

The only thing Kate grumbles about is sharing a newspaper.

“Stuart usually gets to it first”, says Kate, “but when he doesn’t, the joy of a pristine paper is unbelievable!”

Miranda’s Tips for Making A Raised Garden

Our raised planter was built with three functions in mind.

The first was to mask car headlights raking through Kate’s living room at night.

The second was to afford her some more privacy, and the third was to provide her with a garden she could tend without having to kneel or stoop.

It doesn’t stop her of course. She also has a south-facing garden behind our house which she loves to develop.

But this north-facing bit of her garden is a delightful mixture of herbs, flowers, lettuce and shrubs at waist height, where she can dig and pluck to her heart’s content.

Michael Gould, the same architect who designed the alterations for our shared house, designed the planter.

It is a massive beast running the length of Kate’s apartment.

It mirrors the dimensions of the 1960’s house, and has the same vertical weather boards.

It was a community effort.

Cliff Abbott, our neighbour, built the planter, and it is rewardingly solid, just like the house.

We live on top of the Melrose hill in the teeth of the southerly, so it has to be tough!

Height and width were the main concerns when designing our raised garden.

It is easy for Kate to walk all the way around it, and the hose is nearby, which makes watering easy.

Cliff and Michael conferred on the mysteries of drainage and how much soil we would need to fill the black plastic liner.

The whole family had a great time stomping down the soil after it poured off the truck!

I would recommend using a designer and registered builder as we did, as making one of these gardens looks deceptively easy!

We all reap the rewards of Kate’s garden.

Stuart cooks with the herbs and vegetables, and the kids and I pick posies for the table and for our friends.

Bliss!

Helpful Tips for your Raised Garden

  • A raised bed dries out more quickly than a traditional garden plot.

  • To help retain moisture, include plenty of decomposed organic matter: compost, composted manure or sphagnum peat moss. Organic matter decomposes quickly, especially during the summer.

  • Plan on adding additional compost or organic matter to your bed every spring and autumn to help keep the soil rich and fertile.

  • If you can’t physically make your own raised garden, hire a local landscaper or specialist to build the fame.

  • Then once the soil is in place, you can enjoy the convenient working level, the easier maintenance, and the attractive look of the raised bed garden.

For raised garden ideas, a helpful website is www.motherearthnews.com

© Family Care NZ

HarcourtFamily