52 years spent in the garden

John Farquharson, who ended 52 years in the nursery industry with a stint at Wal’s nursery,...
John Farquharson, who ended 52 years in the nursery industry with a stint at Wal’s nursery, Mosgiel. Photo: Gillian Vine.
Nurseries have changed over the years, as Gillian Vine learns from a man who spent more than half a century in the industry.

More than 50 years after he started work at Bennetts Nursery at Upper Junction, John Farquharson retired last year.

"I’d done 52 years, always in the nursery industry, 40 of them in retail," he said.

Looking back on his apprenticeship, John (70) recalled spending a lot of time learning plant names, as well as carrying out work in the garden, which was differently set up from today’s nurseries.

"Most of the plants were grown in the open ground, not in pots. In autumn, at the end of April, trees and shrubs were wrenched, then — as orders came in — dug and wrapped in scrim," he explained.

Wrenching, which involved cutting the roots but leaving the plant in place, not only made it easier to lift trees and shrubs when they were sold but also encouraged the growth of young roots so plants got off to a better start in their new homes.

Rhododendrons were a specialty of Bennetts, but they also grew crocuses, "100,000 a year, which were sold to Yates", John said.

From Bennetts, he went gardening "for a few years", then to Arthur Barnett’s, which he loved and still keeps in touch with Mrs Barnett, who lives in Havelock North.

In the Barnett’s days, annuals arrived in trays of 100 plants supplied by local nurseries Christies, Ravenswood and Astonville.  They were then lifted and wrapped in damp newspaper.

Quantities were huge: "They came in on Fridays and in spring 100-plus trays came in every Friday."

"In my early days, you sold roses, fruit trees and deciduous trees in winter, then when they started to leaf, they usually had to go back into the ground. They came in [to garden shops] bare-rooted and were heeled into sawdust."

From Barnett’s, he went to the Fairfield Garden Centre, then Matheson & Roberts in  McBride St, where he worked with the late Martin Pryde, before moving to Reid Farmers. Then came the Red Barn and Nichol’s group, for which he helped open the Cromwell store, then he finally joined Wal’s about five years ago, staying until he retired last year.

Looking back, John sees the change to potted plants as revolutionary for gardening.

"In the ’70s and ’80s, plastic planter bags and pots came in. It was a revolution, as you could sell [trees and shrubs] 12 months of the year."

One difference that brought was being able to lay out the garden around a new house and put in all the plants at once. The key was ensuring they were kept watered.

The other major change that started about then was going from a shop in the centre of a town to large garden centres further out.

"Lex Donaldson in Leith Valley and Keith Ellis at Lindisfarne, East Taieri, and Oderings were really the first to start doing it the way it is now," he said.

More space meant bulk supplies of potting mix and the like could be offered to customers, while behind the scenes, the industry was becoming much more mechanised.

Perhaps the biggest change in recent times has been the opening of cafes in garden centres.

"It’s now a major part of a garden centre and brings in many more people, not just gardeners."

Not all changes have been positive.

"The whole nursery industry has dumbed down and you can’t get what you used to," John said.

Some of that reflected fashions.

"For instance, 30 to 40 years ago, conifers and ericas were all in fashion but now they’re not. Then a few years ago, sandersonias were all the rage as a cut flower but have almost disappeared."

And thinking back to his Bennetts days, he said: "It’s very hard to get the tall Dutch crocuses now."

Changing garden practices were also a factor, he said.

"What you’ve got now are people who want low-maintenance gardens. They want it to look good but not do too much work.

"I’m not talking about the true gardener," he added.

The popular structured look used plants such as flaxes, broadleaf, Buxus, Teucrium and Astelia, which looked good initially but some, Astelia for example, could "look terrible after a while".

On balance, though, it was not all bad.

"I think other than the [reduced] selection, things have changed for the better because of the longer availability of stock and the ease of handling the product, so it’s no longer seasonal," he said.

"With annuals, there’s a far greater selection of each type available, for example, up to 30 to 35 pansy or petunia varieties."

John is keeping his hand in during retirement, revamping a garden he laid out some years ago and looking after his own tidy Wakari patch.

"My garden’s nothing special. I’ve spent all my time doing other people’s," he said with a laugh.

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