The Gardener

Prepared and read at the service by Emeritus Professor Helen Leach, anthropologist and author of 1000 Years of Gardening in New Zealand and The Cook’s Garden.

I should like to speak on behalf of all the people who over many decades have visited Dion and Noelene’s garden at Sawyers Bay.

It is appropriate that we have gathered at Glenfalloch, a garden that was developed in a paddock by the Gray Russell family — they bought this 30 acre plot in 1871. Like the Russells, Dion and Noelene chose a cow paddock as the site of their future home and garden, just across the harbour. It had a fertile clay loam soil and wonderful views of the harbour and its ancient volcanic peaks.

They bought the original one-acre section in 1950 — it was subsequently enlarged. Noelene told me that the first section was an odd shape (a bit like a boat), but had great potential for landscaping. In the same year they bought £100 worth of second hand bricks from the demolished tannery chimney. These would be used in the house and to make paths, walls, edges and steps in the garden. To start with, they concentrated on building the house, doing many of the labouring tasks over the six years that it took to make it liveable.

Noelene had been designing her future home while still at high school, and as the daughter of an architect she brought a developed sense of landscape and layout, and the ability to integrate the house and garden. They did much of the landscaping themselves, with Noelene starting a job while Dion was at work, and Dion taking over when he got home, to make sure the job was done properly. Some features, such as the terrace walls, took many years to reach completion.

As in all good gardens, changes were inevitable as shrubs and trees grew and matured. You can’t keep a garden at a particular stage by trimming and pruning. Coping with the changes requires extensive knowledge of plant varieties and their needs for light and moisture. When I made my first visit in 1996, I was impressed by Noelene and Dion’s ability to name their plant varieties. That same year I had been on a ten-day garden tour in southern England. I found the Ombler’s garden as good as any I had visited.

By this time, their garden had an international reputation. In 1984 the producers of the BBC Gardener’s World programme decided that the Ombler’s garden was worthy of a slot. A team flew out from Britain, and with TVNZ’s Eion Scarrow filmed Noelene and Dion’s garden in January 1985. On Friday March 29th that year, many thousands of garden fans in Britain watched the programme and heard Geoff Hamilton say that Dion’s vegetable garden had the best view in the world. The BBC Two programme notes described the Ombler’s garden as "A wonderful site, cleverly landscaped, and full of good plants and good ideas".

Dion, Noelene and their garden at Sawyer’s Bay had a three-way partnership that lasted over sixty years. Visitors could see that the garden was maintained with love and responded by bringing happiness, not just to the Ombler family but to all their friends and visitors. The garden also enabled the Omblers to raise money for the Fred Hollows Foundation, the Cancer Society and other charities.

In their partnership Dion took responsibility for the vegetable plots, the hedges, the immaculate lawns, and the heavy pruning and digging. I was particularly impressed by Dion’s skills in shaping and trimming one of the most massive hedges in Dunedin. I knew that Dion was bit older than me, but not the twenty years that I later discovered was the gap between us. On one visit at the hedge trimming time of the year, I asked Dion whether he would be up the ladder again that afternoon. “No,” he replied, “I’ll be spending the afternoon wind-surfing”.

Dion showed me that adventures and gardening can go hand and hand into your eighties.

Thank you Dion for your input into this inspirational partnership.