Green thumb . . . Keen gardener Susan Gilbert holds a photo of her great-grandfather, John Fox, who was a professional gardener. PHOTO: RUBY HEYWARD

Susan Gilbert has been a keen gardener all her life. But gardening was not a passion that developed out of thin air — there was something in the water, or the family tree, writes
Ruby Heyward.

Ever since she was a little girl, gardening has just grown on Susan Gilbert.

Mrs Gilbert started her first garden at the tender age of 5. Her grandmother handed her strawflower seedlings and she got to work.

But her love for gardening truly started in primary school when she and her classmates were given seeds and instructed to grow a garden for homework.

For her 16th birthday, Mrs Gilbert was given a big gardening book, which she proudly packed in her bag and took to school.

‘‘It was the most exciting present I think I’d ever had.’’

The following year she took up a vacancy at nursery that grew houseplants, leaving school at 17 and joining a gardening group.

‘‘I have always been keen on gardening.

‘‘I even had my wedding photograph taken in my shade house and glasshouse — that’s how mad I was.’’

Over the years, she worked at three different garden centres and sold plants in the Pukeuri area when her children were young.

‘‘I really wish I had been a florist.’’

Close, but not quite, Mrs Gilbert was a keen floral artist and is a North Otago Horticultural Society committee member.

The society was started 154 years ago, by estate gardeners wanting to show off their impressive exotic produce. It was common for these gardeners to be brought to New Zealand to set up entire estate gardens before building had even begun.

Mrs Gilbert’s great› grandfather, John Fox, was one of those men, but he came to New Zealand after the society was founded.

Mr Fox had a prestigious gardening background, and was trained at Kew Gardens — the biggest of its kind in England and part of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Born in 1837 to a family of 12 children, Mr Fox had three brothers who were also gardeners.

But it was his older brother, renowned sea captain James Fox, who inspired him to move to New Zealand after sharing many stories of the country’s adventures and opportunities.

Along with his wife and infant daughter, Mr Fox hopped on a ship and immigrated to New Zealand in 1874›1875, landing in Port Chalmers.

They made their way to Waitaki, where Mr Fox was com› missioned by Robert Campbell to lay the gardens at Campbell Park Estate near Kurow.

‘‘They would have had to bring all the trees out from England — they brought all these elks and elms.’’

Her great›grandfather planted many of the trees that were cut down and used to build the Otekaike Special School.

After at least two years at Campbell Park Estate, the Fox family settled in Oamaru where Mr Fox took up work at the Oamaru Public Gardens.

‘‘There’s no doubt he planted a lot of those trees down there,’’ Mrs Gilbert said.

He also worked at Pen-y-bryn Lodge, which is now run as luxury accommodation.

Mr Fox was the grandfather of Mrs Gilbert’s mother, Mary Paton (nee Selman), who remembered him fondly.

‘‘Grandfather Fox was known for coming home from his other job and going out to the garden and just about gardening in the moonlight,’’ Mrs Gilbert said.

He died in 1933 at 96, when Mrs Paton was 9.

As a girl, she would walk from the North End to deliver him ‘‘goodies’’ and in return he would give her grapes — something that could not be easily sourced those days. As an adult, Mrs Paton tended a large garden of her own in Pukeuri, where she lived for many years.

Mrs Gilbert said much of the family continued the green thumb tradition with vegetable gardens, and she was no different.

She and her husband, Blair, grew much of their own food at their Weston property, selling bags of plums and donating plants.

There was no one trick to gardening, but plenty of water and compost did not hurt, Mrs Gilbert said.