Sophie Barker is a Dunedin city councillor, who lives in Andersons Bay with her teen daughter Charlotte and two cats. She grew up in the city's Larnach Castle, famed for its gardens and remains a keen gardener.
People thought it was really glamorous growing up in a castle , like we ponced around in long frocks. But it was freezing and haunted and terrifying and hard, hard work.
My first memories are of running around with buckets to put under the leaks. There had been sheep kept in the ballroom. It was a challenging existence out in the countryside in a cold building. We were trying to restore this building which ate money and, in the 1960s and 70s, tourism was two weeks a year so there was no money coming in. We started work as very young children selling ice creams – our poor parents, we ate more than we sold.
There are 35 acres around the castle. I remember weeding the rock garden and it would take forever – an hour to weed a square foot. I hated it, but my mother was such a perfectionist that you didn't dare leave one little weed there.
Mum and Dad divorced. "Our relationship had become untenable," was what Mum tactfully wrote in her book, Garden at Larnach Castle. It was a challenging childhood. Families break.
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Mum is a famous gardener of international significance. Margaret Barker. I call myself a gardener of international insignificance.
Initially, when Mum would drag us around gardens, the only redeeming feature would be the morning tea. But gradually I travelled a lot with my mother and you can't help but learn. We've been to all the famous gardens in New Zealand and a huge number of them overseas. You start to understand the structure of a garden, but in the end I garden to make myself happy.
I was locked up in boarding school for five years. We all wore tartan hats and little brown gloves and had rules for everything. Those ones are always the worst when they get to university. Suddenly you're drinking and smoking – life opens up. I did get a degree in the end, in economics. I was also working full time at the castle, cooking and cleaning and marketing. You had to be able to turn your hand to anything.
Was the Castle really haunted? Well, it had all the creaks and groans. It had been a lunatic asylum at one stage, full of shell-shocked soldiers. And the Larnachs themselves were a really unhappy family. Mr Larnach was a politician and he married three times. His third wife was a much younger lady who fell in love with his second son by his first wife and then Larnach shot himself in Parliament Building. I think he'd written a will but he hadn't signed it. There was a lot of family palaver. Families and large properties…
We had a family "challenge" when I was around 40 and as a result of that I'm no longer involved with the family business. I still see my mother but I'm really grateful that I was ejected from the nest. It was a beautiful nest but I've met so many amazing people since then. I lived for 40 years in a small world and now it has broadened so much more. At age 40 I was working 60 or 70 hours a week at the castle and taking care of a young baby on my own.
Obviously there was a man involved in the beginning. But I brought my daughter up by myself. She's 18 now. I've brought up a lovely young lady. She's rebelling against me by being well behaved.
About 10 years ago I had three brain operations in 16 months. That was quite horrendous – and expensive. So then you begin to appreciate life, when you're forced to be a little bit still. I said to the surgeon, "I need 10 years". Because my daughter was eight at the time and you have to be there, especially when you're the only parent.
I had to spend more time at home and I guess I started nurturing the garden. I started off with a vegetable garden because I'm quite practical underneath it all. It was going to be all green and productive. Gradually the flowers crept in.
All you hear around here in the weekend is bloody chainsaws chopping stuff down. I'm creating a little place to escape. Everything is for the bees and the birds.
Being a city councillor is quite challenging. You need to be refreshed when you're in the public eye and having to work so intensively. It's just lovely to escape into the garden and be in the moment and maybe put on the National Programme or a podcast. My style is to get out there and do an intense day's work. I look like Worzel Gummidge.
One of the things I love about gardening is how people's different personalities emerge. Mum's an amazing, talented, intellectual gardener who knows all the Latin names. My garden is purely for my own pleasure, I'm a lot freer. If people were to look at my garden they'd think that I attempt to have structure in my life. Then I just let everything do its own thing.
Sophie's garden tips
Get a worm farm. Worm juice is absolute magic, just don't leave it in the sun – the worms die.
Get some chocolate mulch! It smells delicious. I get it as a by-product from the Otago Chocolate Company, where I volunteer, but you can buy it online.
Embrace the joy of sharing flowers, vegetables and plants. The sort of people who garden are generous and I always say this is how I can turn chickweed into eggs.
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