The woman behind the world-famous Ayrlies garden

For 50 years a Whitford garden has relaxed, thrilled and soothed visitors to its wonders. Rebecca Barry Hill meets the woman who owns and loves it.

Beverley McConnell, 83, on her Ayrlies Gardens property in Whitford, which she has developed for over 50 years. Photo / Peter Meecham.

Beverley McConnell is living proof that an active lifestyle, attitude of gratitude and sense of purpose make for a happy, healthy life. McConnell has a zesty spirit that's hard to miss. As she welcomes Viva to her world-famous Ayrlies property in Whitford, with her dog Bosco, it's clear she's just as enthusiastic as she was when she started the spectacular garden in 1964.

"If you have a passion you tend not to think too much about the age," says McConnell, after enjoying a daily smoko with her gardening team. It helps that her passion is a physical pursuit that has kept her fit.

"Gardening's outside, it's healthy. It's not good for all the muscles. I really haven't got a good back. It's killed that off. Other than digging, I can still do most things."

This week she has been busy pruning roses, weeding and walking, an inescapable part of living on the 4.5ha property, which has its own waterfalls, ponds and wetlands.

McConnell has tended to Ayrlies like an ever-evolving painting, her achievement recognised around the world, appearing in the Wall Street Journal and a BBC documentary on the world's best gardens.

"It's never been work to me," she says. "I had five children and a very busy husband getting his own business going in the city. It was a busy life yet he didn't flinch at all at fencing me off three acres to begin with and letting me go. Gardening became my restorative time, when I looked after my soul."

Not a day goes by when the 83-year-old doesn't think how fortunate she's been. Her parents, both gardeners, made sacrifices to send her to art school.

"If you're given a gift, you do have to work on that gift. You don't just let it fester or mould away in a cupboard."

Once she began to vocalise her dream, she realised people were willing to help.
"My realisation was that New Zealand could have gardens like these if we just put our minds to it, so that was a great incentive."

Although it's constantly changing, Ayrlies is full of plants that evoke special memories. The huge, flowering magnolia at the bottom of the garden still reminds her of the man who gave it to her when it was just big enough to fit in a bucket. An old tree on the property's driveway has just died, she says, wistfully.

"That's always a feeling of 'my goodness, I didn't expect that'. But that happens, and all those trees and plants are part of me and part of my life. That doesn't mean to say I don't move them round. If I think they're in bed with the wrong person I'll move them to where they've got a better chance of thriving."

Ayrlies has about 2000 visitors a year, and McConnell says sharing her life's work is the most important part of what she does.

"I listen to the people who come here, from all nationalities. And as they go out they're quite different from when they arrive. They're more relaxed, they're smiling. So I've always regarded it as a healing place. And I think, with technology, people want answers to questions immediately. You don't get a break at all. So more and more we need these spaces to collect ourselves."

The garden proved especially therapeutic when her husband, Malcolm, died in 1995.

"It was shattering. I knew after that there was nothing that could really hurt me as much. But I thought, 'You might have lost your man but you've still got five marvellous children and 14 grandchildren, you've got a home, you're not a refugee, you haven't been tossed out of your country, so you count your blessings and move forward. And the team was marvellous. They just kept me going."

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