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A lifetime of summer shows

Gisborne’s Lilian Phelps has been at the heart of organising and arranging the Poverty Bay Horticultural Society’s annual summer show for decades. The Gisborne Herald’s Andrew Ashton spoke to her about her time as the society’s oldest member and long-time floral arranger, designer and mentor.

AT 96-years-young Lilian Phelps is still looking after her own garden and still passionate about the lasting legacy of the Poverty Bay Horticultural Society’s annual summer show.

Creating floral schedules and displays for the show has been a pastime for Lilian since 1957, but it wasn’t by design at first.

“I was secretary of the Gisborne Garden Club and I sort of fell into it. They wanted someone to take notes.

“I didn’t realise what I was getting into.

“I was just in the position to do it and just did it. It’s amazing how this carried on.

When she first became involved, the society was looking for a new “flat floor” hall.

It was a dream of Florence Redstone’s for that to happen for Gisborne, Lilian said. Mrs Redstone was the president of the Gisborne Floral Festival Inc, and a foundation member of the organisation, which had been fundraising for a suitable exhibition hall for many years.

“We wanted our show to be open for the public to see.”

Money from fees for competitors’ entries in the horticultural society’s summer show was saved up and 50 years’ worth of funds were put towards the cost of the Showgrounds Event Centre.

The entry fee in the early days was just sixpence. “That’s all people could afford in those days, ” said Mrs Phelps.

The Poverty Bay A&P Association asked the horticultural society “what we wanted in the hall and how it could be done”.

Lilian remembers her first display for the summer show — an English cottage.

“Each of us was asked to do a town in the world so we made an English cottage garden.”

Her late husband Ray collected rushes for a rush roof, all topped off with a cat sitting at the pathway. “Boy, what fun we had,” she said.

The hall opened in April, 2001.

“We gave for so many years, it’s now free of charge — and that’s what we’re getting now.

“Mrs Redstone was absolutely blown away but she had worked very hard for it.

“Everyone came to the party to do something to get us there, and thanks to the A&P Association, it’s still going today.”

Lilian said over the years the show became more of a flower show than the huge area covered by horticulture and growing.

“We are hoping to get back to that to get the kids and all the schools involved.”

This year the summer show will have a bigger online presence to let more people have a say.

“The Horticultural Society is in its 97th year, so keep it going.

‘It’s essential to have it once a year.”

In its heyday 400 people would go through the show and it is hoped some new gardening ideas at this year’s show will help rekindle some of that enthusiasm.

This year’s show sections include champion irises and roses, grown locally, floral art design, a new natural fibres section, potted plants/shrubs/cut flowers, locally grown fruit and vege and a children’s section.

“We just want people to come along and enjoy the day.”

Lil held offices as president, committee member, secretary and show secretary and was made a life member.

She has also represented Gisborne East Coast Area at National Floral Art Shows – 1985, Christchurch (“Flowers Alive ’85”) and “Spectrum” in Auckland 1990.

She also took part in arranging flowers the length of the Central Business District for a Sister Cities promotion for Nonoichi — Gisborne’s Japanese Sister City — and has helped do flowers for hundreds of weddings, functions and conferences and fundraiser events.

Lil, along with others saw a need for a specific floral art club, and formed the Gisborne West Floral Art Club in 1980 and was the original chair person.

Lilian stood down finally in 2011 but has remained as a tutor to other members.

“What people don’t realise is that older people have all the knowledge and it’s great to help people learn.”

And Lilian has a wealth of experience to pass on, having won lots of floral display titles both regionally and nationally.

She is the only Gisborne person to ever receive the Muriel De Stefano award from the Floral Society of New Zealand.

She was nominated for the award as “a shining example, an inspirational woman who gives unselfishly of her time and expertise to others”.

■ The Poverty Bay Horticultural Society annual Summer Show is on Saturday November 7 and Sunday November 8.

STALWART: Lilian Phelps has helped arrange flowers for countless wedding parties, conferences and fundraiser events. At 96. she is looking forward to the Poverty Bay Horticultural Society’s summer show next month. Picture by Paul Rickard