When I was photographing the Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ plants in my local town of Waitara on Thursday, I stopped to photograph this small public garden by the river. I remember thinking when it went in about 15 years ago that it was a most unusual and extravagant planting by the Council. Local authorities are always strapped for cash and, when money is short, Waitara has a history of coming off second best to more affluent areas which are better at lobbying and demanding quality. The money, as I recall, came from a charitable trust and I am guessing an outside designer had a hand on this project.
It was the mass of red flowering aloes that particularly caught my attention this week but I have thought about this planting on and off for years. Culturally, with its heavy African influence, it is like a fish out of water. But logically, is it any more culturally alien than the gleditsias planted down the main street, the bedding plants around the clock tower or indeed the magnolias I had just photographed? Would I have raised my eyebrows had it been a more conventional planting of cherry trees from Japan, daffodils and tulips, maybe with kowhai (our native sophora)? Most of our plantings in this country, be they public or private, are a mix of exotic and native plants.
And there are plenty of native plantings nearby – opposite on Manukorihi Hill, the pohutukawa that we managed to save from the ravages of the flood engineer downstream (as I recall, we lost about 29 to the chainsaws but saved over 80), extensive mixed native plantings upstream on the river flats. Literally a few doors down the road is a little pocket park that has been lovingly and just as carefully landscaped in natives.
There is no arguing that in this free draining, frost-free, sunny situation on the riverside, very close to the sea, these African plants are thriving. The stone gabions in the background are the latest addition to the stopbanks to get additional height to hold back floodwaters. Like much of coastal NZ, large parts of Waitara have been built on the flood plain and that is looking increasingly precarious these days. And this planting has prospered in a maintenance regime that is public sector, so not intensive and it will be a lot less intensive than bedding plants.
I was discussing this with Mark and he made a comment that was like a lightbulb moment for me. “Well, it hasn’t been vandalised in all those years.” He is so right. Vandalism of public plantings is a larger issue than people stripping pretty flowers or stealing plants. Maybe this one just looks too prickly?
While it may strike me as slightly incongruous in its local context, this exotic planting owes much to the style of landscaping favoured at the time for upmarket, domestic gardens in the big city of Auckland. The interesting thing about it in this situation is how well it has done in the conditions and how it has matured gracefully over the years. Fifteen years without anything more than routine maintenance is like a lifetime in public plantings.
I am not so keen on the blue painted seats, lights, rubbish bins and the like but that is my personal taste. I prefer the plants to star rather than the man-made conveniences. The planting is not pretty in the conventional sense, it lacks all cultural context* – but it works. And it is undeniably different to every other public planting I have seen in our district.
*When I mention cultural context, it may perhaps help if I explain that the ONLY building of architectural significance that I can think of in Waitara is the meeting house on Ōwae Marae, the most important marae for Te Āti Awa, one of Taranaki’s pre-eminent Maori iwi, or tribes.