Mavis Smith Of Totara House

Mavis Smith Of Totara House

In my 25 years of collecting plant material around the
Kaipara and the wider northern areas of New Zealand, it has been an absolute honor to become acquainted with the elderly gardeners I have met, many of whom I have written about in the new edition of Design Your Own Orchard, due out about the time this catalogue comes out, and many of whom have become friends.

Going to visit Mavis Smith was another of these special connections. Her first comment to me was “What took you so long? I’ve been waiting to see you for years!” Mavis lives in the Totara House (where she was born), the house her parents built in 1896, 20 years after the original family home (Devongrove) was built in the Matakohe area. Mavis is in her 90’s and is still actively gardening and she has kept alive the original shape of the gardens, the plant material, and the spirit of the family story. It is a wonderful gift for the future, and she has gifted the property to the Matakohe Museum, which she helped establish, so that it will remain as an inspiration to others.

Mavis walked us around the entire property, the old flower beds still vibrant and each flower holding a story from the past, a friend here, an acquaintance there, a favourite smell or colour here, the memories of the homeland and her mother especially. Some of those she showed us included dahlias, chalice vine , old roses, gloxinias and maiden hair ferns in the conservatory, salvias, camellias, beautiful flowering prunes (single and double) cineraria, aquilegia, wisteria, may, datura, jacobinias, and lilies! Also the box hedge (over 100 years old) bordering the entrance way, the fruit trees and ornamental shrubs around the house, the pond and it’s beautiful plantings, the native areas, the farm including the old hand hewn and built head bail, yards and corn crib, the pig sties and fowl yards and up to the old orchard where she is still collecting sheep manure from the sheep camps under the macrocarpas for the flower gardens!

Mavis has a dream of seeing the old orchard re established so that children can “rob” the fruit, just as children, including herself, did in her day.

She can still remember the names of the old apples and peaches etc that were in the original orchard and those that are now missing, having died of old age. Most of these we have in the Koanga Collection so we’ll work with her to replant the orchard with the original varieties which were as follows:



Hames Red (a local variety which we have not sourced as yet, and have been asked for by many others too, so if you know where there is Hames Red apple please let us know), Red Astrakhan, Northern Spy, Russett, Bob Lambert (this one was from an old Gumdigger’s shanty) and the tree in the Totara House orchard is still alive. The apples from this tree were those that were used to decorate the Matakohe church for the Harvest Thanksgiving each year.


Burbank, Wrights Early, Tragedy Prune, Golden Drop, Greengage, Christmas Plum, and the favourite family plum named after their friend, Tom Watson, who gave it to them. The Tom Watson is one of those hugely productive plums that feeds the neighbourhood and makes jam for Africa, sauce etc etc. It is a red plum ripe at Xmas time.



Mamie Ross, Golden Queen, and the white fleshed ones which grew wild, all over the area, grown from stone.

Nectarine Goldmine and also Apricots, Pears, Grapes, Oranges, Figs, Quinces and both Maori and Wonder lemons.


The vegetables that were grown in large quantities to feed the large family were silver beet, potatoes (mostly Red Dakota) leeks, cabbages, cauliflower, pumpkins (Triamble), rockmelons, maize, and notably no carrots. Mavis says carrots were not known in those days in the area. They got their kumara from the local Maori, and they grew their maize on family land on the Ruawai flats and bought it back and stored it in the large corn crib still standing today!

It always amazes me when I visit these old gardens, how limited the range of fruit and veges was in each orchard and garden. I’ve had an enormous range at home because of all the plant collection work I’ve done, and although it would be hard in some ways to go without the range, I can see it would also cut out a lot of work and energy and make the whole thing easier to manage, possibly more sustainable. The art would be in choosing the best few of everything.

One of the special things I always love looking at when checking out old gardens and orchards and homes is the out buildings. In our wisdom today we build houses with no eaves even, let alone garden sheds, or a dairy, corn cribs, potato storage clamps or sheds, kumara pits or old pumpkin sheds. I love it when I find these functional parts of the old culture, still there to be seen and to learn from. Somehow our buildings today have not been designed for functional use. Learning to design homes and spaces that support our shift back to sustainable living means learning to design and build our own corn cribs, pumpkin sheds, potato storage areas, places to make wine and cheese and process meat and store a lot of dried, pickled & bottled food.

I find the art of growing food just the first part of the process; the next part is preparing and processing the food so that what is not eaten immediately is stored for future use. Without a corner dairy or supermarket open all hours this stored food made the difference between eating well or not, or even eating or not! I understand that we have two days food supply stored in the supermarkets – I wonder where the majority of New Zealanders think their food will come from in an international crisis!!!!!

It’s not only outside the houses that we find parts of an old functional culture, they show inside as well. Mavis’s kitchen still has the original woodstove, scrubbed wooden bench and huge table right in the middle of the kitchen. Opening off the kitchen room which looked over the gardens was a beautiful sun room with a single bed covered in hand crocheted and quilted covers. Mavis told us that it was on this bed that her parents spent their last days in the sun, in the midst of their family. Mavis made it very clear that is where she would like to spend her last days too. Those memories and connections are priceless, and what a gift to be able to show and share those memories with others.

The gift of the last of the elderly gardeners and gardens that are out there now is that of connection; connection with our past, our families, our stories, their ways of doing things that worked for them in this environment, the skills and knowledge needed to live simply, and also connection back to a time when things were done by the season, when people worked with nature and in rhythm with the cycles of nature. The time in our own culture when folk lived with the land in a relatively organic and sustainable way is not that long ago and we still have the opportunity to connect with that and make changes ourselves back towards that ancient way; the way that was practiced for millennia

Thank you Mavis you are an inspiration to us all! We will help you achieve your dream of creating an orchard for children to “rob”. My dream is to also be collecting sheep manure from the sheep camps under the macrocarpas when I’m 96! 