Tag Archives: Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens

A somewhat disappointing afternoon. Summer gardens in Auckland – part one.

I started my garden visiting weekend going to Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. I had been impressed by both their swathes of perennials and their meadow when I visited in the summer of 2015 and I wanted to see how they had developed the concepts in the time since.

Ha! This strip of waving gaura with Pennisetum glaucum immediately in front of the entry was pretty much as good as it got when it came to summer perennials. There are major works underway putting in a new sealed route through the gardens and when I say road, I mean something that resembles a fairly major highway. It is going straight through the area of summer perennials so there was no summer display that I could find. It is the first time that Auckland Bot Gardens have ever let me down and I did feel a mite tetchy that I had driven all the way out to Mangere on a thoroughly disappointing visit.

But look at the lovely seed heads on the pennisetum. I thought I needed this plant until I looked at the foliage. Pennisetums are classified as grasses and many have fine foliage. However, Pennisetum glaucum is actually millet, grown commercially for its grain harvest, though these named cultivars with purple foliage have been selected as decorative garden annuals rather than grain production. The foliage is closer to maize than a grass and while it may be possible to keep it lush and dark in a well cultivated and irrigated garden border, grown in harsher conditions, the foliage didn’t have a whole lot to recommend it. The seed heads did, though, especially in conjunction with the airy, waving gaura. In the interests of accuracy, I should perhaps add that there was a row of red bedding begonias in the front but I carefully framed my photo to cut them out. I am not a bedding begonia fan.

Other than that pretty scene, it was the waiting bridesmaids that most took my fancy. It was a hot afternoon and they must have found their stiletto heels a little taxing for prolonged standing around. I assume they were waiting for the bride but I didn’t quiz them. Now I think about it, I only saw a very large wedding party (there were pretty flower girls, another couple of bridesmaids and a fairly large cluster of well-turned-out young men standing in the shade as well) but no wedding guests. I was more concerned about the missing bride but now I wonder where the guests for this large wedding were hiding out. This will remain a mystery.

 

A very public garden

Shimmering grasses in the lightest of breezes.

Shimmering grasses in the lightest of breezes.

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.

Always a sucker for the ducks

Always a sucker for the ducks

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.

Clipped Muehlenbeckia astonii and nikau palms show native plants are not boring at all

Clipped Muehlenbeckia astonii and nikau palms show native plants are not boring at all

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 politely admired two, elderly, plump chihuahuas (not corgis)

I politely admired two, elderly, plump chihuahuas (not corgis)

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.

It is impossible to get everything right all of the time. The sign by this sad plant read “Better than box. Little leaves and lots of new growth from the base make Hebe ‘Wiri Mist’ a great little hedge.” I think not.

It is impossible to get everything right all of the time. The sign by this sad plant read “Better than box. Little leaves and lots of new growth from the base make Hebe ‘Wiri Mist’ a great little hedge.” I think not.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.