Former Shortland Street actress Nicola Kawana has always had the acting bug. But nowadays, she’s dealing with bugs of a different kind – those of the garden variety.
Both her parents are gardeners and Nicola (44) has returned to her roots to work on a second career in horticulture.
“After being an actor for so long, I couldn’t do something I wasn’t passionate about,” explains Nicola. “I had always thought about working with nature, so I took the plunge and I’m loving it!”
Growing up in the Taranaki town of Hawera, Nicola says her family home had wonderful gardens and she belonged to a gardening club at primary school. The certificate she received for “Best Bloom” is still her pride and joy.
“It’s the only thing, apart from acting, that I’ve really loved doing,”she tells.
A picture of Marilyn Monroe hangs in the actress’ retro-styled Auckland home and helps to inspire her. “Did you know she loved horticulture too? She said if she wasn’t acting, she wanted to be a gardener,” Nicola says.
Although she enjoyed success on stage, film and TV, including her role as Huia Samuels on Shortland Street and the movie Fresh Meat, Nicola says she had to find another career after the acting work dried up.
“I had been acting since I was 18. I was starting to become cynical and jaded – and I never wanted to be that person. I noticed that after I turned 40, the work had slowed down. Great roles for older women are hard to find and it’s not nice to be a starving actor.”
Nicola took a year off acting in 2011 to study horticulture full-time and a new career blossomed. Today, she uses that expertise in exclusive Auckland suburbs, including Remuera and Parnell, and tends to a lot of “high-end immaculate places”.
“These gardens are pristine,” she says proudly. “We make them look like what you would see in a magazine.”
But her new vocation has also allowed her the flexibility to do the odd acting job when the opportunity arises. Next week, the mother to Eden (24) and Solomon (13), will return to the stage, starring in the new play Fix by up-and-coming playwright Jess Sayer, which also stars acting legend Elizabeth Hawthorne. Nicola is looking forward to sinking her teeth into her meaty role as a mother who discovers her daughter is having an affair with her new husband.
“I was missing the creative side and was excited to get back into rehearsals, especially with a fantastic role like this,” she admits. “It’s great to come back into this world after being away from it for a while. You feel re-energised and start loving the process of putting your heart and soul into a role.”
In an ideal world, the green-fingered star would love to find an even balance between gardening and acting. But her landscaping job is her main focus as it’s consistent and reliable work. Nicola, who has a history of suffering from panic attacks and anxiety, says the solitary hours she spends in the garden is also therapeutic.
“With gardening, you are connected with nature. You’ve got your hands in the soil and you’re aware of everything around you. It’s a chance for me to meditate.”
At home, Nicola takes a holistic approach to gardening by growing a range of different vegetables and flowers.
“I want to be fully sustainable,” she says. “I have an organic garden and I don’t use any chemicals. I love growing food, but I also plant pretty things and appreciate how they can also be aesthetically pleasing.
“It’s important that everything works in balance. You have your fruit trees, your flowers and trees to feed the birds and insects. I’m a real hippie when it comes to gardening.”
And one aspect she loves about her new job is the peace and quiet it brings.
“There’s no drama in gardening,” Nicola laughs. “Except when a praying mantis tries to attack you if you try to move it.”
Fix is on at the Basement Theatre, Auckland from August 12-16.