One thing Steve and Louisa Portman of Clareville Nursery have learned about the Wairarapa Garden Tour is that afterwards there will always be a rush on a certain plant – they just can’t predict what it will be. By Katherine Robinson.

“One year it was a viburnum carlesii, last year it was a red mulberry – so somewhere in the Wairarapa, we know there are some magnificent specimen trees,” says Steve.  

His advice is if anyone sees a tree or plant they like, but don’t know what it is, take a photo as it will make it easier to identify.

“Everyone who works here either has horticultural qualifications or a good knowledge of gardening, and we like to help where we can,” he says.

Steve’s parents started the business 30 years ago growing vegetables, but his mother’s love of all plants expanded the venture into plant sales.  “It started with a wheelbarrow and an honesty box,” says Louisa. 

“I began working for them 25 years ago – as a temporary measure,” jokes Steve, who has a diploma in horticulture. 

He and Louisa took over the business 10 years ago and the nursery has expanded from there. 

“We do quite a bit more of our own production, and have extended the public part of the garden centre again this year,” says Steve.

They are bucking a trend that has seen family-run nurseries, often at the edge of towns and cities, disappear in a tide of rising land prices.

Over the years, they have seen trends swing from cottage garden plants to modernist grasses and back to more colour again. Asking what their favourite plants are is a bit like asking someone to name a favourite child. When pushed Steve says he has a soft spot for hostas and deciduous azaleas, while Louisa likes the Dr Seuss-like yellow daphne and freesias.

“We have noticed that more people are coming back to growing their own vegetables and fruit. It was almost lost for a generation but lots of younger people not only want to grow vegetables themselves but they want their kids to learn how to do it too,” says Steve.   

“What you can achieve is driven by what is realistic to grow in your garden. People with a wheelbarrow full of plants do sometimes ask us, ‘will this be okay for my garden?’ and if we don’t think they will thrive we will suggest taking some plants out,” he says.

“We do try to inform people without being too pushy. Everyone’s situations is different, and it’s not just about soil or wind but also about the amount of time people can put in,” says Louisa.

And if you come back from the garden tour, both inspired and daunted by what it might take to get your own patch up to scratch, Louisa’s words offer some comfort. 

“Every garden is always a work in progress. Take it a section at a time, you don’t have to get it all done in a week.”