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.
Her parents brought her together with the love of her life, Ian Gardiner — a trainee fighter pilot who had come to finish his training in South Africa. Her parents had offered to accommodate a few young men on their farm, and she had gone home for the weekend.
“I was sent out to call in the young men for supper. It was quite dark and I heard one of the men’s voices — it was so deep and melodic. I thought ‘Ooh, he does sound nice’. When I saw him inside at the table, he was quite a beautiful-looking man. I was taken with him.”
Ian Gardiner, it seems, was also “taken” with the petite blonde Nancy Cowden, and he used to arrive at her workplace with a bunch of flowers and say in his deep voice: “These are for you.” It became a joke among her colleagues.
He went to Bloemfontein to complete his training, and then asked Nancy to marry him. In her study, which is crammed wall to wall with books on plants, there is an old black-and-white photograph of a young, handsome Ian in front of his Spitfire aeroplane. On its tank is the name Nancy.
When he left to fly planes in Italy, where he had been posted, Nancy had already given birth to Allan, the first of five sons. 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.
Gardiner says her first articles were very brief and newsy, and she remembers writing about the first street lights in Durban for the Daily News, and taking a black-and-white photograph as well.
Her first story about plants was about the planting of flowers in the Durban city centre for Farmers Weekly. From those early years, she graduated to writing magazine features, taking all her own photographs. Her husband encouraged her in this, as he used to take aerial reconnaissance pictures of enemy sites.
He was quite envious when she got a loan to buy a Rolleiflex. Over the years, she has deviated from plants and has photographed many things, including the rituals of the Shembe, as well as travelling to various destinations in search of great gardens and interesting features.
“I loved to travel with my friend, Jean Mitchell to do articles because we had such great fun on our road trips. We made many happy memories on those trips, and I think I did some great work,” recalls Gardiner.
Recently, she has 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. I took photographs that looked fine, but which were not quite in focus. It will take some getting used to.”
More than a dozen books later, Gardiner is still considering doing more. “After my husband died a few years ago, the books gave me a 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 a 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, and we are really blessed to have her in our town,” says Celma Croudace, committee member of the KZN-inland branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa. “She has contributed a tremendous amount to the gardening industry, and is still feisty, working hard and learning 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 wonders around you. 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”.
Nancy Gardiner will be giving a talk, along with other local experts, on kitchen gardens at McDonald’s Garden Shop in Chatterton Road tomorrow at 10 am. Entrance is free, and refreshments will be on sale. For more information, phone Celma Croudace at 084 721 8899.