"Nancy is right up there with Keith Kirsten, Tanya Visser and Margaret Roberts..."
When the much acclaimed botanical author, Nancy Gardiner, described Hartford House and its gardens as the "jewelled buckle of the Natal Midlands", she might have been talking about herself. You can't love nature and its wonderful bounty like she does, without being a generous-spirited human being, but Nancy is much more than t
hat. To those of us who live in her neighbourhood, she is a treasure of her own kind, and we are lucky to be able to call her our friend. Recently in The Witness, Trish Beaver paid her respects about the legendary horticulturalist.
The day I meet Nancy Gardiner, it is misty in Hilton where she lives. Trowel in hand, she is just in from the garden where she had been weeding and trimming. Gardiner, at 90 is a household name in South Africa's gardening circles and has had a life-long love affair with the natural world.
She describes how this developed while growing up on a farm in Hillary, near Durban. Hillary was very rural in those days, and Gardiner recalls that her father used to love taking walks where she and her sisters would tag along. "I was an avid collector of all things. My bedroom was full of flowers and interesting things I found on our walks. I would show them to the teacher, and I was the queen of show and tell. Gardiner would draw and write notes about everything she found, and her curiosity about all growing things led her to study botany and zoology at the then University of Natal.
Gardiner took up writing some years later, when she was offered a chance to learn to write freelance articles by Durbanite Faye Goldie at the New Era School of Writing.
Her first story about plants was about the planting of flowers in the Durban city centre for Farmer's Weekly. From those early years, she graduated to writing magazine features, taking all her own photographs. Her husband Ian, encouraged her in this, as he used to take aerial reconnaissance pictures of enemy sites, while a fighter pilot in World War 2. Her love of nature took Nancy on an odyssey to many great gardens of the world, as well as the remoter parts of our own gardens.
Recently, she made the transition to digital photography, which she is finding a bit daunting. "I think it is all wonderful that you can discard pictures you don't like and it saves money, but this camera thinks too much".
More than a dozen books later, Gardiner is still considering doing more "After my husband died a few years ago, the books gave me reason to keep on going, but now I always think there is some aspect that needs to be written about."
"One has to keep busy and to be interested in life", she says. Her home is a treasure trove of antiques, which she finds at auctions. According to friends, she is a great bargain hunter, who enjoys the thrill of discovering a rare china plate at the second hand store.
On her passion for gardening, Gardiner has said that while her parents, who were both keen gardeners, planted the seed, this really took off when she moved to Pietermaritzburg. In an interview with Witness journalist Stephen Coan in 2005, she recalled: "I found all these beautiful nurseries and went down to Carters, where Trevor Schofield took me in hand and told me all about azaleas. And so I met lots of people and gardeners."
These days, she is held in high esteem by her green-fingered peers. "Nancy is right up there with Keith Kirsten, Tanya Visser and Margaret Roberts as far as knowledge and expertise are concerned" says Celma Croudace, of the KZN-inland branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa.
Still feisty and forever discovering new things, Gardiner feels strongly that gardening is about much more than just digging and planting. "A garden gives you a certain peace. Just walking out into a garden, or sitting in a garden, you become aware of the close association of plants with the soil, with the earthworms moving through it. Once you become aware of that, it becomes part of you" she told Coan.
She has had a bougainvillea, a daylily and a rose named after her. The rose is described as a "soft salmon-pink colour, with multiple layers of soft petals". On the day I meet her, she is welcoming with pink lipstick and neat hair in a bun, and I am reminded of another part of the rose's description: "It is all gentleness and thornless too".
Extract from The Witness