The Dirt: Journalist and self-confessed flower fanatic Rachel Clare – Stuff.co.nz

Rachel Clare is a magazine journalist and gardening writer who lives in Henderson, Auckland, with her partner Jacob and their sons Billy, 11 and Harry, 9.
I’ve always been obsessed with flowers. I did a flower arrangement as show-and-tell for my class in standard three which was very uncool but I got a certificate for it.
In high school I got really into the language of flowers, the symbolism of plants, Greek mythology, Victorian poetry – I mean there was a big Victorian thing in the 90s right? I had to see the school counsellor when I got caught wagging school, and I told him I wanted to be a flower. I suppose at 16 you’re getting a bit existential…
When I was at university I did gardening work – I was a glorified weeder really. This was in Wellington and everyone had a lot of onion weed. I hadn’t done intensive manual labour before, I didn’t have a car and I walked everywhere. I remember walking home, the smell of onion weed and the feeling of exhaustion.
I had gardens in all my flats. I used to buy Gardens Illustrated. I loved the articles about snowdrops and things like that. And I cut out the gardening pages from The Dominion and NZ Gardener. I had a box of garden ephemera. I remember pulling out pictures of snowdrops, getting them laminated and putting them in the bathroom. I lived in this really gross Wellington flat – scungy, although it was quite a happy existence. The bathroom was yuck but I laid artificial turf on the floor and threaded fake irises through it. It was dreadful.
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I met Jacob at a party in 2000. I’d just moved to Auckland and I’d gone to this party by myself. He was working on Xena, he’s a visual effects artist. I remember I had this feeling that I had met him before – a feeling of familiarity. He said “you’re quite cute aren’t you?” which must have been his line at the time.
There must have been an attraction because sometime after that he had a cocktail party at his flat and I went along with a friend (the one from the artificial turf flat). I sewed this dress before the party – a Lurex dress with a Debbie Harry kind of vibe. Apparently when he said “I’ve met you before” I said “no I don’t think so”. Not, “I’m really excited about this party and I have made this dress specially”.
We gradually got together. It wasn’t very serious for a long time. I like to joke that it’s still not serious. Sometimes the kids will say, “why don’t you get married?” Obviously I’d like the romance and the flowers and the dress and all that stuff but Jacob’s not the kind of person who’d like to proclaim his feelings in front of a whole lot of people. And just about everyone we know that got married is not together anymore.
I get most excited about flowers but I grow a lot of food now. I love not having a bag of greens rotting in the fridge and then chucking out a plastic bag.
I’m really lucky because Jacob can build stuff. He and his dad made six raised beds, sort of a potager, where I grow vegetables, because we have heavy clay soil. He does the DIY section for NZ Gardener magazine, where I used to work. I got a glasshouse made out of upcycled windows out of that and I think I like it more than I like the house.
It’s my own special space. I raise seeds in there. I’ve got my tools in there. It’s really warm. Glasshouses are kind of romantic. Although this morning when I put on my gardening glove I felt something squishy and there were two lizards in there. They use the gloves like sleeping bags. I was running on the spot, like Scooby Doo.
I think it’s very comforting to be a gardener because you know that you’ve got this thing you can do that makes you feel better. Something that doesn’t involve another human, which sounds like I don’t like people – I do. But gardening is very steadying and immersive. Life is so complicated and human relationships can be difficult.
There’s science that shows that there’s bacterium in the soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, that has a positive effect on mood. But I think it’s also just doing something physical. The other day I found a dead rat and I absolutely hate rats, but just digging in the soil to bury it made me feel better. I like to put them under rose bushes because they fertilise the soil.
We have four beehives. Jacob’s a hobby beekeeper. People who get into beekeeping get completely obsessed. You get heaps of honey but it’s a lot of work. There’s one male (drone) to 100 worker bees, which are female. I like to think they’re the other females that I share the property with. The drones mate with the queen then their penis snaps off and they die. It’s really interesting.
I don’t have a really tidy garden. I’m busy so there are a lot of weeds. But at least they’re keeping the soil covered. I think we’re really embracing this more natural way of gardening. People used to be so into clipped edges and bare soil with spaces between plants. But now we’re into living mulches and gardens that imitate nature. You never reach a point when it’s done.
Seek out seed suppliers online because there are so many interesting companies selling a wide range of seeds for flowers and edibles. And there’s a real thrill when you pick a flower or vegetable that you’ve grown from seed and nurtured all the way.
Don’t be afraid to pull things out. You don’t have to be stuck with a plant you don’t like or that’s hogging sunlight from other plants.
Plant flowers such as calendulas and borage with your vegetables. They act as a catch crop, attracting pests away from your edibles. They attract pollinators, and are a living mulch.
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