Bart Simpson would be saying "Ay caramba!" if he visited Pukeiti these days.
The pithy cartoon kid might have a smart answer to just about anything, but he's still just a boy with a treehouse in the backyard.
At Pukeiti, two treehouses have sprouted among the internationally recognised garden and these are a smart answer to a growing need, says Taranaki Regional Gardens manager Greg Rine.
Two more are planned to be built this summer.
"The treehouses were born out of a need for us to engage people with their garden," he says, emphasising the word "their".
Pukeiti, along with Tupare and Hollard Gardens, are owned by the Taranaki Regional Council on behalf of the people of the region.
"It's all about bringing this place alive to all generations," he says over a coffee in the Founders Cafe at Pukeiti.
"Traditionally, the people who have been involved in Pukeiti have been driven by their passion for rhododendrons and that's evident in the setting here."
Pukeiti, a 360-hectare rainforest property on the lower slopes of Mt Taranaki, was established in 1951 by Douglas Cook and Sir Russell Matthews.
Across the road from the main entrance is a lush stand of Rhododendron Sir Robert Peel, a beauty that bears hot-pink blooms. "They were planted by road workers who lived up here," Greg says. "They were the catalyst for them [Cook and Matthews] to buy the property."
Heading off into the gardens, Himalayan lilies in bloom at every turn, he continues to share the vision for Pukeiti.
"If we make it exciting for the children, it will be them who will want to bring their parents up here, not the other way around," he says.
"We looked at canopy walks, but they were expensive and not unique," Greg says. "We wanted to do something appealing to children and something for other people to enjoy also. The treehouse idea came about so we thought that would be really cool."
Tramping over paths freshly laid with metal, native wood pigeons whirring overhead, he leads on to the first treehouse built beside the Matthews Walk.
The shape of the structure began as a sketch by Greg. "It had a giant pole and a watch-house sort of thing and this just stemmed from that. We had to be pragmatic with our designs because of what we could do and couldn't do."
For safety reasons, the treehouses have been designed to meet playground equipment specifications and were constructed by Okato craftsman Lars Binsbergen, a joiner and builder.
Greg leads up the stairs into the treehouse, which smells of freshly hewn wood. This structure has a pine base, with elements of totara and lawsoniana, plus cedar shingles on the roof.
There is a seat in the middle for people to rest and share a picnic lunch under cover.
Or they can lean on the rails and take in the 360-degree bird's eye view of native trees (kamahi and hinau), lots of rhododendrons, plus ferns, azaleas and an American conifer called a hemlock tree. "It's a poor man's canopy walk."
It also looks like a great place to camp out. "Any kids with any semblance of imagination would want to spend the night in them, but they can't," he says firmly.
The vista also takes in a bog garden earmarked for a makeover - sometime in the next three years. "We have engaged (landscape designer) Xanthe White and identified three areas for development," he says.
These are this bog area, a home garden and a secret garden.
The latter will again be aimed at children. "It won't be obvious what's there - it's hidden and then you discover it."
Encouraging curiosity will be another element of the treehouses, where people will be faced with questions and have to think about the answers.
The treehouses have also been built to size for teaching.
"We wanted to be able to get a classroom of kids up here, even though it might be a squeeze," says Greg, heading on to the second treehouse by the Ayckbourn Walk.
"It's basically the same design, but every one is a little different."
This one, which was finished at the end of October, has a corrugated iron roof and the sides are made of slatted vertical totara battens.
It provides a great view of a Magnolia "Rob Bayly" and looks out over an area that will be a reminder of the past.
"It's an ideal place to put in a pioneer camp, so we can talk about what happened here in the 1920s and 1930s. They logged primarily the rimu and the rata and after that the bush was either pasture or pine plantations or too inaccessible, so left to regenerate."
These days, accessibility is paramount at Pukeiti.
Since July, there has been a big drive to provide all-weather access by laying metal on the paths so less-able people can enjoy the garden from the comfort of a mobility vehicle.
Plans are to lay 1700 metres of metal paths and so far, about 800 metres have been completed.
The third treehouse will look down into the Burns Walk and across to the lodge lawn and is planned to be built at the end next month. After that, a fourth will be looked at.
"We have to be cautious about costs," Greg says. "We are getting more efficient, because it's the same basic design, so the costs are coming down as we build them."
Heading back to the entrance way, past workers laying more metal on the paths, he talks about the ultimate dream for "our" garden.
"To sum it up, Pukeiti will always be first and foremost an internationally recognised rhododendron collection set in a beautiful rainforest," he says. "And if we can have beautifully presented, healthy gardens and a variety of supporting activities that encourage our audience directly and indirectly in to this place, and that within the province and the country there's a real sense of pride and ownership, then the council would have been successful - but it's going to take us a few years."
In the meantime, watch out for the Pukeiti Explorer Days.
The next one is on Sunday, February 2, from 10.30am to 2pm. For this free event, people are invited to discover the mystery of Pukeiti's enchanted rainforest. This is a three-hour walk, so bring good walking boots, a picnic lunch, water and sunblock.
But parents, make sure you do a head count at the end, just in case a young adventurer thinks it's a good idea to camp out in one of the treehouses.
Yes, Bart Simpson, you'd be in your element.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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