Tag Archives: Taranaki Regional gardens

“A garden is really the gardener”

The woman on the left looked a little underwhelmed by Sissinghurst too

I have always felt I needed to whisper rather than shout that, while we enjoyed our one and only visit to Sissinghurst, it did not inspire us to return. Considering the huge influence this English garden has had throughout both the UK and, more surprisingly, little ol’ New Zealand, I have wondered if we were being overly critical, maybe “gardened-out” when we visited it.

The thyme lawn was not a crowning glory when we visited Sissinghurst

It seems not. I was just going to share the link to English landscape designer Dan Pearson’s latest blog  on our garden Facebook page  but then I thought there is a bigger context for this interesting post of his. Pearson is writing about his advisory work with the head gardener at Sissinghurst to re-personalise that famous garden, restoring some of the energy and also the intimacy of what started out as a very personal garden. Over time, Pearson observes, “The way the garden became was ultimately driven by the need to provide for increasing numbers of visitors and, in so doing, the intimate sense of place was slowly and gradually altered.”

And there is the conundrum when a private garden enters the public domain following the deaths of its creators. If it is successful and well-resourced, the expectations of the visiting public play an ever-larger role in determining how the garden will be presented and maintained.

… but the Sissinghurst tower did not disappoint. However, it is structural and therefore a permanent feature

I had been reading some debate about this in the book by Tim Richardson, “You Should Have Been Here Last Week”. As far back as 2004, he was sounding the alarm bells about Sissinghurst. Writing for the Garden Design Journal, he said: “Every day, coachloads of people turn up at Sissinghurst to experience Vita Sackville-West’s garden, yet what they get bears no relation to the original in terms of content or atmosphere”. Further on in the book is his 2015 update, welcoming the appointment of Troy Scott Smith as new head gardener with Dan Pearson in an advisory role.

We have watched with interest the developments of the “regional gardens” in Taranaki – the ratepayer funded gardens of Tupare and Hollards (both created as very personal visions with owners long dead now) and Pukeiti. When the takeover was first being promoted by the regional council, I wrote several strong pieces for the local paper (see below), frankly alarmed at what was being proposed, let alone the budget. In the years since, we have backed off expressing our views publicly about what is happening in these gardens. All I can say is that in my last visit to Hollards, I felt that the originators, Bernard and Rose Hollard, had pretty much disappeared, bar some faded photographic display cut-outs of Bernie.

The faded life-size cut-out of Bernard Hollard is a little poignant

I don’t think these gardens are a victim so much of their own success – we simply don’t get enough garden visitors to Taranaki to put extreme pressure on gardens. I think they are a victim of the drive to attract numbers of general visitors to justify the expenditure. If that means sacrificing the original ambience and character of these gardens, then so be it.

Matched by faded information boards, purportedly written in the first person. Was the term “food forest” even heard of when Bernard Hollard was still alive?

Mark knew Bernie, as he was known to his family and friends, personally and is adamant that he would never have grown yams in an old tractor tyre and indeed his tidy vegetable garden was hidden away from public view

Pearson captures it in a nutshell, when he writes: “Even when the blueprint is strong, gardens can easily assume a different character, for a garden is really the gardener.”

Hollards’ modest home was demolished to make way for a visitor centre, designed in the style I call “Utility Department of Conservation”

Earlier published columns on the topic of regional gardens:

1) A letter from a ratepayer. Published July 2010 I am not sure I would be brave enough to publish this piece in the newspaper these days. I must have been more fearless back then.
2) A tale of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer funding Published March 2010.
3) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 1 – first published late 2004
4) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 2 – first published, apparently January 2005 – the best piece of writing for those who can’t be bothered wading through the lot.
5) And Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 3 – which rather tells about the treatment of an unsolicited submission. (first published 2005). When in doubt, levy accusations of self interest.

But where is the vision today? In Canberra. Apparently.

I can tell you that the Melia azedarach at the National Arboretum in Canberra was planted by Doctor Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste in 2010.

I can tell you that the Melia azedarach at the National Arboretum in Canberra was planted by Doctor Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste, in 2010.

I doubt that many people take the time to pause and send a vote of thanks to our forbears who had the vision to create city parks and botanic gardens. Our closest city of New Plymouth has its Pukekura Park, 52 hectares of park and gardens about 5 minutes’ walk from the main street. It dates back to the visionaries of 1880 and provides a green heart to the city. It is loved with a passion by locals and attracts large visitor numbers. Other New Zealand cities have their equivalents but most date back to a similar era. Aside from Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens being established in Manurewa, I can’t think of major new ventures from modern times.

img_0854It was a second visit to the National Arboretum in Canberra that had me thinking along these lines. This enormous project, encompassing 250 hectares, is a response to the devastating bush fires of 2003 which burned out the area. It is a grand vision, still in its infancy, that will create a legacy for generations to come.

Looking over the city from the arboretum

Looking over the city from the arboretum

While some areas can look a little … utility, shall I say, at this early stage and the selection of some tree cultivars to be represented en masse may raise a dendrologist’s eyebrows, the large vision will triumph over such doubts with time. The infrastructure is going in with attention to architecture that will blend with the landscape, an attractive educational area and one of the most delightful children’s play areas I have seen in a long time. Everything appears to be done with a view to sustainable growth in the long term and it is an impressive venture. It has an international flavour with involvement from foreign embassies and heads of state. This is Canberra, after all.

Indubitably Australian at the National Botanic Gardens

Indubitably Australian at the National Botanic Gardens

Canberra also has the National Botanic Gardens which were not officially opened until as late as 1970 although the first small steps to establishing them were taken in the late 1940s. In that harsh climate of hot, dry summers and cold winters which are often dry, they don’t get the same growth rates that we get here and to my eyes, the gardens still look young. I have been to them several times now. Because the focus is entirely on Australian native plants, they have a very different flavour to anything I see elsewhere and I really enjoy that difference, along with seeing new areas being developed within the site. It is indubitably …Australian. As it should be.

Banksia species in abundance at the Botanical Gardens in August

Banksia species in abundance at the Botanical Gardens in August

It made me wonder where our courageous new ventures are here. We generally steer clear of publicly criticising the local money being spent by the Taranaki Regional Council on what are described as the ‘regional gardens’. This amounts to many millions of dollars more than I think most ratepayers realise but it also sniffs of the cargo-cult mentality – build it and the crowds will come. It remains to be seen if that will happen but it seems unlikely in the long term. The problem is that the Council took on three existing gardens, all of which suffer from issues including obscure location, difficult access, off-putting terrain, pretty awful micro climates and somewhat anachronistic gardening visions from times past.

With so much spare money sloshing in the budget, we can’t help but think it was a missed opportunity to create a new vision for future generations, getting the location, micro climate and terrain right from the start. The role of public green spaces is so very important and likely to get more so into the future. It would be good to look to the future and to invest in that, rather than resting on the laurels of the visionaries of the distant past.

Banksia pods in the children's playground at the arboretum

Banksia pods in the children’s playground at the arboretum

and acorn pods

and acorn pods



The high cost of “regional gardens”

The Taranaki Regional Council’s summary of their annual report arrived as an inclusion in our free community newspaper. “Duty of Leadership”, it heads itself with a wonderful air of importance. The section that interested us was the one on the regional gardens which had around $2,100,000 spent on them in the last financial year.

Just to clarify, the regional gardens do not include the likes of Pukekura Park and King Edward Park which remain with District Councils. The regional gardens are a different kettle of fish entirely to the highly valued urban spaces that city parks and gardens provide. They are comprised of Tupare and Hollards (both former private gardens of a similar size and age to our own garden) and Pukeiti (formerly a private trust garden).

When Regional Council took over these gardens, in their wisdom they decided to give free entry. Except nothing is free. It just means the entry charges have been replaced by ratepayer funding despite the fact that many of the bona fide garden visitors are tourists. So ratepayers are paying for the free entry of people from beyond the region.

The same report this week claims close to 20,000 visitors to Pukeiti last year. We wonder how entries are counted for all the gardens, given that people just walk in. Without electronic counters, there is no way of knowing how many people actually visit and I can’t say I have noticed electronic counters on Tupare’s entrances. As far as we know, Council are claiming combined visitor numbers in the vicinity of 50,000 people. That sounds great – until you divide the $2mill and find it is costing ratepayers around $40 per head for every person that sets foot in those gardens.

We question how many of those 50,000 claimed attendances are actually to see the gardens. A fair proportion are there simply because the gardens are being used as a ratepayer subsidised venue. People who go to Farmers Markets, Fun Runs (there’s an oxymoron for you), an Antiques Fair and weddings are NOT garden visitors. The gardens are merely an incidental backdrop.

Our educated guess is that the number of bona fide garden visitors who go specifically to look at lovely gardens would be less than half that figure. There just aren’t that many garden visitors around. So even if they attract 25 000 genuine garden visitors, that ratepayer subsidy leaps to $80 for every man, woman and child who sets foot in the gate.

The decision to waive all entry fees and place the full costs of these gardens on the ratepayer is one which immediately put Regional Council in direct competition with the private sector. I am still stunned at the naivety of one councillor who said to me recently, “Have you had no positive spin-off?” Well no, because Council set the value of a garden visit at a big fat zero. We see garden tours come in to the province whose itineraries include all or most of the free Council gardens and one or two small town gardens. The much vaunted cruise ship last summer is only one case in point. Of course tour participants pay an all-inclusive price so any extra profit from concentrating on the free gardens goes straight into the pockets of the tour operators.

I quote an email received by friends with a large private garden: “We plan to bring a group down to New Plymouth for 4days early Nov.& have had your gardens recommended to visit. Even though we have brought other groups to New Plymouth we have not come out to Oakura. We are looking at coming to your place either the 5th or 6th Nov. depending on the weather. Are your gardens open all year?, & is it a free council one?

In fact Council have made it much harder for the private gardens which suddenly look very expensive at a $10 per adult gate charge. But to say so publicly (as I am here), is to open oneself to accusations of self interest and sour grapes. Of course we are more interested in our own garden. What couldn’t we do with half a million dollars of public money a year? In fact the annual garden festival (the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular) is the event that makes opening a private garden viable here, not the provision of very expensive regional gardens with free entry.

The Taranaki Regional Gardens have a whiff of empire building about them. Add in the rugby stadium in New Plymouth, as the Taranaki Regional Council has, and the empire expands. Bring on local body reform.

Today’s column is but the latest in a series over recent years. Earlier columns on this topic include:
1) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 1 – first published late 2004
2) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 2 – first published, apparently January 2005. A satirical take on the situation.
3) And Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 3 – which tells about the treatment of an unsolicited submission. When in doubt, levy accusations of self interest. This may explain why we no longer bother trying to follow the “official” channels (read: hoops to jump through) set up by Council.
4) A tale of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer funding Published March 2010.
5) A letter from a ratepayer My satirical letter to the chair of the Taranaki Regional Council from July, 2010. (He never replied, of course.)

A letter from a ratepayer

Mr David McLeod, Chair
Taranaki Regional Council,

Dear David,
I was terribly thrilled to read your press release about having secured the future of Pukeiti. That is so exciting.

I see that you personally rank the importance of Pukeiti right up there alongside our maunga, our mountain, Taranaki. Now I don’t want to be accused of raining on your parade, but you don’t think that maybe you were getting a little carried away with the hype of the situation? That perhaps you have overstated the importance just a trifle? I admit I don’t know you (you don’t mind me addressing you as David, do you? It is just that as you are quite good at spending my money, I feel as if I have some sort of relationship with you). Maybe you do in fact wake each fine morning and look out at both Mount Taranaki and Pukeiti and feel a sense of identity. Maybe when your travelling children are asked where they are from, they identify themselves as coming from Taranaki, the home of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust. Maybe you have enjoyed such frequent visits to Pukeiti all your life that you feel a deeply personal sense of ownership and belonging. Alas, much of your electorate has already voted with their feet and decided that in fact Pukeiti is not such a part of their very identity – that is the whole nub of the problem. Visitor numbers simply haven’t been high enough to support the dream – a dream that belonged to somebody else. But I don’t want to be negative. I am assuming that you and your councillors did a breakdown on visitor numbers to work out how many were local and how many were tourists? And as you are so hellbent on making it free for everybody, I guess that your public consultation showed that ratepayers are glad to pay so that tourist attractions have free entry for visitors from out of the region.

I mention this, David, because in your press release you approved the takeover of Pukeiti “in the wake of positive feedback during public consultation…” That is absolutely wonderful, no doubt about it. I wouldn’t for one minute want to be accused of pouring cold water on your plans. It may be that your networks in the gardening, plants and garden tourism scene are hugely better than mine. That would explain why nobody I have met in the last six months has been consulted. My networks must be terrible. I am talking to the wrong people. No matter, you have apparently found the right people to talk to. Mark says he would really like to hear the names of all three of them.

But lest you think I am moaning, really, David, my reason for writing is to offer you some help. Your press release says that ” …work will begin soon on plans to develop and enhance the property and its plant collection. This will be similar to the planning processes which resulted in the very successful redevelopment and refurbishment of the Council’s existing heritage properties, Tupare and Hollard Gardens. We are looking forward to involving the Trust, PKW and a range of people in this exercise.” That sounds absolutely splendid, very consultative. It is just that I am pretty sure that this has all been done already, quite recently in fact, and I still have the discussion papers in my archives. Actually it is not that long ago – 2005 in fact and I can date it exactly because it all happened when Mark and I were flicking off to look at magnolias in northern Italy. I think along with all the discussion papers from Big Names like Boffa Miscall, Berl and others, somewhere, just somewhere, I even have a letter from your CEO, Basil, telling me how much ratepayer money had been spent on these plans. These sums (measuring into the multi hundreds of thousands of dollars but I would need to find the letter to confirm exact figures) included plans for Hollards and Tupare as well, but the ratepayer has already paid for big plans to take Pukeiti in to a new era of popularity.

Sure, it has to be admitted that some of those plans may have been just a tad grandiose. I think they even included a new home for the wandering gondola, along with a little shopping arcade, of sorts. A tourism hub, even. And fabulous (and I mean fabulous) visitor numbers.

But a little bird told me, and I wouldn’t want to be quoted on this because I haven’t had the information officially and it may be completely wrong, that after Regional Council paid for all those plans five long years ago, the Pukeiti Trust Board commissioned another review and set of development plans immediately after. I think what I was told was that the annual grant of $50 000 of ratepayer money, allocated by Regional Council, was further reinvested in this new set of plans to save Pukeiti. I just recall some discussions at the time because some of us felt that maybe they could have been spending that windfall of 50 grand on another gardener instead of yet more development plans. I am just guessing, maybe putting two and two together and making five, that that was why Pukeiti went ahead and appointed a new CEO with a highly relevant record in managing Speedway. I recently found a newspaper clipping where that new CEO declared that within six months of him starting in his new position, Pukeiti would be re-branded as a functions and events centre. Funny thing that. Six months came and went and it doesn’t seem that long after, the new CEO also went. Made redundant in preparation for Regional Council taking over, do we think?

David, I don’t want to be a moaner but it just may be that there are plenty of recent reports already available to be drawn on, without having to start again. We don’t want to be accused of re-inventing the wheel, do we? Or to make ourselves vulnerable to an accusation of pouring more rate-payer money down the wishing well. Maybe somebody could pick up the phone and have a chat to the immediate past CEO to find out what did and didn’t work?

You don’t think, do you, that maybe it could be argued that it is a teensy weensy little bit precious to say that the cost of Regional Council picking up the tab for Pukeiti will have “minimal impact on average regional rates — over a full year, less than half the cost of the $14 entry fee Pukeiti has been charging up until now” (your words, not mine). That might be true had all ratepayers demonstrated that they wanted to visit Pukeiti at least once a year. A veritable bargain in fact. Such a shame they didn’t. Had they shown this burning desire to visit, Pukeiti would not be in the pickle it is. Instead they would have been run off their feet, even more so on their gold coin donation days when the financially impoverished would have flocked there. In fact, if you take the cost of running the place and divide it by the number of visitors, it just may be that you will find the cost of attracting every single visitor is somewhere nearer $70 per person. Even if you double the attendance in a short space of time, it is still around $35 of ratepayer money to give every visitor free entrance.

Lest you think I am being grumpy, David, I am already on public record as saying that for us personally, Regional Council making sure that Pukeiti survives is, on balance, a good move. We know what Pukeiti’s standing has been internationally, which is more than many of your ratepayers who just have to take your word for it. We also know which key individuals worked tirelessly to earn Pukeiti that credibility. In fact we know quite a bit about the history of Pukeiti. We just hope that you and your fellow councillors have a pretty good grip on it all too After all, you wouldn’t want history to record that you were the people who were all too ready to spend other people’s money trying to realise a lost dream. The Pukeiti dream of Douglas Cook and the founders has long gone. Now you have a large garden in a cold and damp out-of-the-way position, served by a really bad road, branded with a plant which used to be incredibly popular and of high status but few people want any longer.

Do let me know if you need the reports I mentioned.
Kind regards,

Today’s column is but the latest in a series over recent years. Earlier columns on this topic include:
1) A tale of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer funding Published March this year.
2) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 1 – first published late 2004
3) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 2 – first published, apparently January 2005 – the best piece of writing for those who can’t be bothered wading through the lot.
4) And Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 3 – which rather tells about the treatment of an unsolicited submission. When in doubt, levy accusations of self interest.

Taranaki Regional Gardens: Part 1. First published December 2004

THERE is great excitement around our place at the moment. This has come about because we finally got our hands on a copy of the report to the Taranaki Regional Council on the path ahead for the Trust Gardens — Tupare, Hollards and Pukeiti.

We had been waiting for a couple of years to see what was being mooted for these gardens and it was certainly worth waiting for. Silly us. There we had been thinking that the TRC might be looking cautiously at spending a hundred thousand dollars or two on the gardens, accepting that they were regional assets even if they were unlikely to ever pay their own way, in our lifetimes at least.

How wrong we were. No. The plans propose spending around $15 million, give or take, and all of that is on capital works with no allowance made for the management, ongoing maintenance and staffing of the gardens. Not that the $15 million dollars is necessarily all TRC money, but some of it is.

Naturally, we turned to the figures to see how many visitors they were expecting to these gardens. And you could have knocked us down with a feather. We were blown away by the visitor projections. Stunned would be understating our response.

This is such exciting news but we are ever so slightly miffed that all the other private-sector garden openers in the province have not been warned about the tidal wave of visitors about to hit us in the next two to three years. We have swung into emergency mode. Clearly we will need to buy the neighbour’s property to extend our carpark. Our existing facilities are woefully inadequate for visitor numbers confidently promised to rise by between 500% and 1000% by 2006 or 2007. We are going to need more toilets, let alone the fact that the paths around our garden are not adequate to cope with the projected numbers. Our excitement is tempered by panic at this hitherto unexpected surge in garden visitors to our province.

And what are the predicted numbers? Hollards is a fine garden that has rightly been accorded the status of Garden of National Significance but is dogged by both a difficult location some distance from the main road and by an unpredictable climate. The predicted visitor numbers are quite conservative for Hollards — a mere 500% or so increase over the next two years to 12,000.

Tupare was once a fine garden but has declined considerably over recent years and didn’t even make the cut as one of the best 23 gardens in the province in the Blue Ribbon days. It has a wonderful location in the city but a difficult terrain for garden visitors. No matter, the report to the TRC confidently predicts that by 2006 (that is only next year), visitor numbers can be 24,000. Tupare’s current visitor numbers are stated with wonderful imprecision as between 2000 and 4000 per annum. Our best guess, based on 17 years of opening our own garden, is that 2500, maybe 3000 max, would be about right.

And Pukeiti? The garden destined to need the lion’s share of the money if the recommendations are endorsed? Again dogged by a difficult climate and a difficult location, but these problems are clearly not going to hold people back.

The report confidently asserts that visitor numbers to Pukeiti will climb to 34,000 by 2007 and that figure does not include visits by members of Pukeiti. Possibly add another 3000 for members’ visits. That is starting from a current base of around 8000 people each year.

We are assuming that there will be a spin-off for us and for all other garden openers in the province. Naturally we don’t expect millions of dollars of outside funding to be spent here, so we can’t expect the astronomical increase in visitor numbers that the three trust gardens are planning for. We will settle for a mere 300% increase in visitor numbers in two years, thank you. That will still mean we will get considerably fewer than even Hollards expect, but it will pay for the new gardener we confidently plan to appoint in anticipation.

A brave new world of garden visiting apparently awaits us all. After all, Business and Economic Research Ltd (Berl) and the TAG group that prepared the reports for the regional council have predicted it and they must know what they are talking about.

How else could they justify advocating spending close to $1.7 million on Tupare over the next few years? That $1.7 million excludes GST, operational and management costs and costs associated with the plant collection. Add another few hundred grand per annum to cover running costs.

Hollards is clearly a bargain. It is only going to take just over $1.3 million (plus GST and ongoing operational and management costs) to lift this garden into its new, heady space. This includes removing the house (Bernie and Rose Hollards’ home may be older than the house at Tupare but it is not grand enough, dear) and replacing it with a “modest” visitor pavilion. A modest visitor pavilion where the house used to stand, costing a modest $581,500 (including the fit-out but excluding GST).

The big bikkies are reserved for Pukeiti, as befits the premier destination expecting the largest visitor numbers. More than $10 million dollars is all that is needed to take this garden beyond what any of us currently know and respect. That figure of course excludes GST, management and operational costs and it also does not include the development of water-supply systems and effluent management systems required in that sensitive environment to cope with the massive increase in visitor numbers.

There we were, thinking that when the regional council took over Tupare and Hollards and took Pukeiti under its wing it would help fund skilled labour to keep these gardens as regional treasures, accepting that in doing so they would be in direct competition with the private-sector ratepayers who pay for their own gardens.

But what would we know about all this? We are just humble ratepayers and gardeners who open our own garden to the public.