Beautifying Christchurch one plant at a time

21:28, Nov 22 2013
Liv Worsnop
PLANT GANG: Liv Worsnop in one of her small rock gardens in central Christchurch.

Liv Worsnop is beautifying central Christchurch one plant at a time. Will Harvie reports.

The succulent is oddly out of place and oddly pleasing. It's between a shipping container and a demolition fence on Manchester St in Christchurch, plunked into the gravel desert that is the central city. The plant is prospering.

Somebody planted that succulent and many others in the area. And somebody planted a little rock garden near the footpath the next street over. In the other direction, somebody has nurtured sage on sparse soil between broken concrete.

Needless to say, this isn't the work of city council or landowners. It's the work of Liv Worsnop, sometimes working alone and sometimes with Plant Gang - a loosely organised band of volunteer gardeners who coalesce around Worsnop from time to time.

They enter vacant land and tidy it. Usually this means removing rubbish. Sometimes this means weeding. Sometimes it means crossing demolition fences, but those are fewer these days. Almost inevitably she enters land without permission. But it's mostly about plants.

"Plant Gang is a mechanism to create a conversation between people about plants, " she says. Her efforts "get people's attention and get them looking . . . I'm after subtle, small changes that spark ideas."


Worsnop works in a sort of halfway, semi-legal world. One of her central city projects, Zen Garden, was officially sanctioned by Life in Vacant Spaces (Livs), the non-profit that brokers deals between landowners and creative types for temporary projects. Livs got Worsnop permission and a proper lease to set up the minimalist meditative space at Manchester and Cashel streets. When she needed help keeping it tidy, the army sent a squad for a few hours.

Other times, Worsnop carries on without sanction. The succulents on Manchester were found out east somewhere and transplanted without anybody's permission. The police pulled her up one day recently, worried that one of her rock gardens was a trip hazard - as if central Christchurch isn't peppered with trip hazards, she says. They let her go and she was back the next day. "I had to plant them somewhere, " she says.

But neither is she secretive. On demolition sites that the group has tidied, she posts handmade signs stating the place was cleaned by Plant Gang. The Plant Gang Facebook page is open to all comers (over 500 so far) and Worsnop sometimes seeks volunteers - "if you would like to come and help, we start at 11". Helpers get patched, just like a real gang.

Worsnop has a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Canterbury University. Last summer she invented a project called the Botanical Preservation Project, which catalogued and celebrated the plants growing wild on demolition sites in central Christchurch. She lifted and pressed representative plants, then scanned them and displayed them on the website Tumblr. She added notes on their origins, naturalisation, medicinal and edible uses.

Plant Gang grew from that - walking the central streets and seeing growing plants. To many, they are weeds. Not to Worsnop. She saw a new kind of garden, one "unordered and wild, yet offer[ing] colour and life. The flora is varied, from bright and floral, to thistled and gnarled."

Worsnop cites the old wisdom that "weeds are plants growing in the wrong place". She calls them "wilds" and typically leaves whatever has sprung up to stay. If the wilds are especially noxious or preventing her own plants from flourishing, she pulls and composts them at Agropolis, the "urban farm" she helped found last month near the former Poplar Lane.

Worsnop's ambition this summer is to care for planter boxes left in the CBD. She's also keen to attract bees into the gravel-grey zone.

Worsnop earns a living at a butchery and jewellery gallery. Plant Gang is mostly voluntary. She looks for more helpers, plants and materials. Soil is especially sought.

"If you like the idea of Plant Gang, you're in the club and you can decide what action you want to take, " she says.

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