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The NZ Herald March 1, 2015.  Meg Liptrot

Gardening: Hardy blooms flourish

On a baking hot afternoon in December, our 18-year-old nephew Mark drove us around remote roads in the high country above Kaikoura, doing a great job of showing us the local sights. He recently aquired his drivers license, and thankfully not too much nail-biting was involved for the passengers.
We were staying over Christmas with the Dale family in their log home up Mt Lyford. Driving through small farming village Rotherham, 30km south of the mountain, we came across rhododendron grower Rhodo Direct and decided to pop in to pick up an addition for the family's alpine garden.
Owner Marina Shearer invited us in and we told her what we were after - a hardy white rhododendron that would tolerate the extremes that Mt Lyford could throw at its inhabitants.
We were bewildered with the choice, but narrowed it down to a couple of options. We mentioned the Dales were heading away for a couple of weeks in January, so Marina suggested a voucher instead.
Rhodos need adequate water and attention to thrive and, in this location, survive.
The area experiences temperature extremes, with deep snow in winter, then baking heat in summer.
We were surprised to see the Shearers' lush garden flourishing in such a harsh environment. The farm is 57ha, with 2ha of rhododendron gardens and nursery, on an old riverbed which makes for perfect drainage. They also have a spring, which means access to plenty of water.
New release Rhododendron Melrose Flash

It was a lucky break to drop in on Marina when we did, as she was excited about a new rhododendron she is releasing in New Zealand this month called "Melrose Flash". This rhododrendron is grown by Rhodo Direct from a selection of new release stock brought into the country by Auckland's Lyndale Nurseries. Tiny sprouts were imported in test tubes from Briggs Nursery in Oregon, US.
Marina points out that it helps to have people like Denis Hughes, of Blue Mountain Nurseries, and Bill Robinson, of Tikitere Gardens, who'll share their vast knowledge.
"These guys are my go-to men when I have a question about the origins of a variety, or how we can ensure that a variety doesn't end up lost in New Zealand. They are always willing to chat about their great passion."
She says it was on a phone call to Bill that she found out about the newly imported specimens. She bought as many varieties as she could, and "Melrose Flash" is her favourite. For the first three years there will be a very small number of the new plants on the market, but stock will slowly make its way into nurseries here. Rhodo Direct has propagation under way and has planted stock to meet the demand for future propagation in this country.
What Rhodos like
Rhododendrons belong to the Ericaceae family. Cold-tolerant species (which Marina grows) are found in their native habitat in deep valleys bordering the eastern Himalayas and southeastern Tibet.
Vireya rhododendrons (which prefer warmer climates) originate from the temperate mountainous areas of Southeast Asia.
Rhododendrons like good drainage, but do not appreciate drying out. My aunt and uncle's Titirangi garden has a beautiful large rhododendron which sits on the edge of native bush. A slope provides drainage, and the forest soil is rich in leaf litter and damp. Likewise, there are some large rhododendrons on the Chateau grounds in Tongariro National Park. They perch on the edge of the lawn in free draining volcanic soil, alongside mountain beech trees. Snow melt in the location provides ample water. Both soils are naturally acidic, which is what rhododendrons prefer.
Marina believes rhododendrons can grow almost anywhere in New Zealand as long as their watering and drainage requirements are met, except where there is salt spray on the garden. Clay soil is not good for rhododendrons, but this can be overcome by building up your garden and not planting into the clay. They are shallow-rooted, acid loving, and appreciate being mulched with pine needles. Fertilise with care (less is more) and avoid lime. She recommends keeping Rhododendrons well watered during summer as the plants are establishing the following spring's flower buds.
Plant in autumn, to enjoy flowering from July. Rhodo Direct has 500-plus varieties. Based 90 minutes' north of Christchurch, they can courier plants daily around the country.


When North Canterbury women, Marina Shearer and Tracey Robinson heard of the urgent crisis in Christchurch after the February 22nd earthquake, they wondered what they could do to help.  For the past 5 years Marina and Tracey have journeyed together into the world of online marketing and websites.  Together they have attended training sessions, questioned and helped each other over the hurdles to having two successful online businesses.  Marina, who is also a specialist customer service trainer and motivational speaker set about offering her services for free to Christchurch businesses that perhaps might be looking for an alternative way to keep their business running after the recent disaster. A seminar was organised and promoted as “A Web Solution – could it be the answer to some of your problems?” 

Marina’s core online business, RhodoDirect began as a garden centre that relied initially on gate sales. Marina made the decision to move her business further by going from a general garden centre to a specialist Rhododendron nursery and by opening an online shop three years ago. Now RhodoDirect has become nationally very well known. Marina was not sure if a website would help her business. “I had been told that Rhododendrons would never sell online, and that my target market would not be websavy, the nay sayers were wrong – we have a fantastic online business that is growing from strength to strength every month.”

Marina enlisted the help of her good friend, Tracey Robinson whose business, Cosy Toes (, began 6 years ago retailing merino wool socks for children. Tracey’s rural location and young family meant she was able to market a product that she saw had dropped off the shopping radar. Cosy Toes has a strong national customer base and ever growing international customer base.  Tracey is never short of marketing ideas and knows the value of her businesses point of difference in an increasing competitive market. “The seminar was a great opportunity to let other businesses know that having a business primarily using the internet can be profitable if you work at it. I enjoyed sharing some of my knowledge of what is working for me,” Tracey says. Cosy Toes was the South Island winner for the Enterprising Rural Women’s award in 2010 and has a strong following on Facebook which Tracey says has been an exciting new addition to incorporate into her business.

Two other speakers also volunteered their expertise on the day. Deborah Roberts of Indigo Marketing presented a section on Facebook/Twitter for businesses and Geof Franks presented his ideas on selling online without a website. 

18 Christchurch based businesses attended the seminar which was held recently in May.   Kirsten Taylor who owns company KJD Brewing Ltd based in Christchurch said, “The course was fabulous. I got such a lot out of it. It was altogether a totally memorable and informative day. It was probably the best course on any work related topic I’ve ever been too. “

Marina Shearer