Monday this week found me wandering the Auckland Botanic Gardens in Manurewa. It is a few years since I have been there and I was curious to see if they were experimenting with ideas from the New Perennials Movement which I referenced in last week’s column. I felt sure they would be because the staff and management there are pretty innovative and on-trend. They weren’t, as far as this went.
No matter, there is always plenty else to look at. The Auckland Bot Gardens are still young. When you think about it, most botanical gardens go back a long way and have a backbone of very mature trees. I can remember when we first started to notice the new plantings from the motorway and how barren, windswept and inhospitable the site appeared. That was back in the early 1980s. There are easier sites to work with than this one.
Readers who have been to the famed Wisley Gardens south of London, may recall the background hum of noise from the adjacent motorway. That hum reaches a roaring crescendo when one gets to the trial grounds there. When I found the trial grounds (somewhat dominated by penstemons) where the sound track is the nearby Auckland motorway, I realised there are certain parallels between the Auckland Bot Gardens and Wisley.
It is not just the motorway noise, though. It is the very strong educative function that is threaded throughout that interested me.
Public gardening is a very different kettle of fish to private gardening and it has to meet many different needs. We have never forgotten Jack Hobbs, Director at Auckland, telling us that their extensive visitor surveys had just yielded the information that the single biggest reason visitors came was to feed the ducks. These days, lycra-clad exercise fiends may possibly have taken over the top spot but the gardens are there for a range of purposes – recreation, entertainment, education, plant conservation, even inspiration. I have a great deal of respect for those whose job is to keep all those threads together and still present an aesthetically pleasing, well maintained environment.
Personally, having found the perennial plantings pleasant but not all I had hoped for in terms of inspiring contemporary styles, it was the native plantings that brought a gleam to my eye. Here were ideas that take the use of native plants beyond the bush or forest context of the wild. The abstract shapes of clipped muhlenbeckia were nothing short of inspirational in terms of domestic gardening, as were some of the plant combinations. And the grasses in the children’s gardens set against nikau palms brought to life all I had read about the charm of movement when the lightest of breezes ripples through the fine foliage of these plants. It is time we shed once and for all those awful clichés about native plants being boring. Any plant can be dull or uninspiring in certain situations. It is how we use them in a garden or landscaping context that makes the difference.
Others may take more from the display area dedicated to trees suited to small urban gardens or maybe the environmentally friendly process of dealing with storm water run-off or the roof garden. There is the large rockery – more hot-climate desert than traditional rockery, rose gardens that I didn’t go too and plenty more. Some may even enjoy the large beds of garish red blooms – begonias, from memory. Gardens like these have to cater for all types and that includes dog walkers.
I have not mentioned the temporary sculpture trail. While I saw one or two pieces that I quite liked, there were others that I thought tacky (it’s a fine line to tread between whimsy and tack) and others that I felt did not enhance the environment at all. Sticking out like dogs’ balls came to mind but I am more interested in design and plants than ornamentation. Others feel very differently as evidenced by the enormous popularity of outdoor sculpture exhibitions.
Botanic gardens and leading parks are expensive to run without many means of cost recovery. But when you look at how widely used these urban spaces are, how many different roles they fill, at the often passionate attachments local residents have to their gardens, at the huge contribution they make to the quality of urban life, I guess most of us feel the costs are fully justified.
Ratepayers can get up in arms about many issues, but fortunately it is rarely about the cost of running these city gardens. Long may that last.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.