The park of memories: What do they want to do with ChCh's Botanic Gardens?
News of a "secret" council spatial plan being prepared for Christchurch's Botanic Gardens has got the drums going. But what does the community really want from its most cherished civic attraction? John McCrone reports.
Weeds. Once you start looking, you see them poking up everywhere in Christchurch's famous Botanic Gardens.
This afternoon there is in fact a crew sweating away on its hands and knees in the rockery. They have managed to fill a few barrows in short order.
But Alan Morgan – an apprentice here in the 1950s, and now on the gardens' trust board and friends committee – says he can only give the rockery a 4 out of 10 for its current condition. Before the earthquakes, that would have been an 8 at least.
There is some excuse. It is high summer, he says. "The rockery is coming into its off-season so will look a bit tatty."
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However Morgan, the immediate past president of the Friends of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, was showing an English visitor around last year when embarrassingly she started admiring a particularly splendid example of a Scotch thistle sprouting in the middle of the hebe bed.
"It had grown almost head height," he chuckles.
And there are now also some real nasties lurking in the garden – like Aegopodium podagraria, the ground elder or goutweed that has got away in the herbaceous border and box hedging.
It grows from the tiniest scrap of rhizome and is pretty well impossible to eliminate. If that escapes the confines of the grounds, it could be an oxalis-scale problem for the whole city.
So let's face it, Morgan says. Christchurch's best-loved civic attraction – which gets 1.4 million visitors annually compared to Kew Gardens' 300,000 – is looking tired and down at heel.
Budgets have been slashed. Council figures show the parks department has been trimmed by 14 per cent as part of the general post-quake squeeze on spending over the past six years.
And this has shown in the gardens' staffing. The curator now does a double job as also team leader for all Christchurch parks. Once New Zealand's premier horticultural training ground, the number of trainees have been cut to just two, with a third over at Mona Vale.
Regular staff are having to give up their botanic duties to spend their time on basic gardening chores. Or else unskilled labour is filling in the gaps.
Yet Morgan says while the quakes are certainly part of the story – the gardens have been let go while the city has had bigger priorities – they were in fact being allowed to drift even before that.
And for an unexpected reason. Simply put, doing anything to update and modernise them had become just too contentious. The public so loves the Botanic Gardens exactly as it remembers them that the council had become rather frightened of suggesting any real change.
Morgan says the last big re-think was in 2007 when – after three exhaustive years of consultation – a 10 year masterplan was drawn up. Now that masterplan expires this year and virtually none of its vision has been implemented.
The exception is the glitzy $16m staff greenhouse cum visitor centre opened in 2015. A few egos were served by that one, says Morgan. Yet as the natural new main entry point to the gardens, it was built without the bridge to connect it to the car park across the Avon River.
Then nothing else is even on the "long list" of the council's funding plans except $1.5m held back for a revamp of the children's playground, he says.
"And as a city building asset, it gets that as part of its own regularly scheduled maintenance allowance. The playground doesn't come out of the Botanic Gardens' budget."
So a masterplan, but one frozen by inaction. Then finally last year, some wheels seemed as though they might be turning.
An architect was asked to draw up some sketches for the missing bridge. Auckland landscape consultant Isthmus was contracted to supply a spatial plan that might give effect to the masterplan's key goals – in particular, a "Gondwana Garden" to tell the living history of New Zealand flora.
Then to run an independent eye over the general state of the gardens, the curators of Auckland and Dunedin Botanic Gardens, Jack Hobbs and Alan Matchett, were given the job of doing an audit report for the council.
These various documents are still circulating in draft and not due to go before councillors until March. However news of them has now leaked – prompting the predictable alarm that secret plans are afoot to rip up the whole gardens.
Morgan rather snorts. Having seen the spatial plans himself, he says the opposite is probably the case. To him, it has come out troublingly vague – looking almost an excuse to delay everything for further study.
But still, the question is what do the public of Christchurch actually want?
Is there the desire to see the Botanic Gardens restored again as one of the world's recognised top 10 centres of horticultural and scientific excellence?
Or instead, are people okay with a gardens gone to weed and seed, just ticking over, because at least then they are guaranteed to remain much what they ever were.
In a central city where so much of the familiar has been erased, have the Botanic Gardens become even more important as a memory forever to be preserved?
The protective instinct was well in evidence a week ago when Christchurch City Council head of parks, Andrew Rutledge, agreed to talk about the Botanic Gardens at a public forum organised by former Christchurch mayor and instigator of the 2007 masterplan, Garry Moore.
Some visibly flinched as soon as Rutledge spoke about the need for the gardens to "tell stories". More than a few replied they already had enough of a story in how they are.
Neglect is the main issue, said Mark Chandler, head gardener for Sir Miles Warren's Ohinetahi in Governors Bay. The Botanic Gardens just need to be funded to bring them back up to scratch as the city's most cherished park space.
Former councillor Claudia Reid made the point that Christchurch is known as the Garden City. That is its DNA. For this reason alone, the gardens really matter. And six years on, the excuse of the earthquakes is wearing thin.
"It's a brand that's impossible to dislodge. And it has so much potential for leading this city into its future."
Others noted there is the practical concern that the council may soon find itself shouldering a good part of the cost of turning the Avon Residential Red-zone into a giant park.
Bruce White, a Beckenham accountant, said the red-zone could suck up the park department's resources. "I assume there's going to be a real crunch around that." So the Botanic Gardens might need to get any spending plans on the table pretty quick.
The consensus of the meeting was whatever the decision about directions, this year is when the city must get on with it.
So what might that look like?
The Friends' Morgan – who ran landscaping and ready-lawn business, Morgan and Pollard, before becoming a garden guide on retiring in 2004 – leads the way from the scruffy rockeries to the native New Zealand section where he starts to explain the masterplan's Gondwana garden vision.
A botanic garden has to be more than just another park, he says. It has a scientific purpose in being a collection of species and a storehouse of knowledge.
It is true that Christchurch's has a somewhat haphazard history, the collections being partly shaped by earlier curatorial whims – sometimes the exotic for the sake of the exotic.
However Morgan says Christchurch does now have the opportunity to do something educational and inspirational by making a feature of New Zealand's story as formerly part of the super-continent, Gondwanaland.
Some 200 million years ago, that great land mass began to break up. Morgan says the bit that makes up New Zealand became almost totally submerged under the waves as it scooted across the globe to its new position.
"Did you know that we disappeared below the ocean for 35 million years, apart from a few islands that stuck up? We had all this stuff, then we sank and it wiped most of it out."
So like a life raft carrying a few surviving Australian plants, plus whatever else then washed ashore from the other Gondwana remnants like South America and South Africa, New Zealand became a vivid illustration of some important evolutionary principles as it rose out of the sea again.
Look, this is one of the stories we should be highlighting, says Morgan, heading for a bed specialising in divaricating plants.
You know the type, he asks? When young, they are just squat spiky bushes, a confused tangle of twigs. Then they get about 3 metres high and suddenly take off as proper trees or shrubs.
"This is something we should be proud of here because Banks Peninsula is considered to be the world headquarters of divaricating plants."
Morgan says the theory is this form of growth is due to the browsing pressure of South Island moas. Many plants had to adapt to the same trick of being as unpalatable as possible until safely above the reach of browsing beaks.
"About 60 different species have adopted this habit from 16 different families. So they look indistinguishable from one another even though they're totally unrelated." Convergent evolution in a nutshell.
Marching past a few ponds to another section, the hebe collection, Morgan then shows the example of the exact opposite – adaptive radiation. Again this is a special New Zealand story with Canterbury as a hotspot, he says.
The tale of the hebe family is that some innocuous little herb, a species of Veronica, found the re-emergent land to its liking and produced a vast range of varieties. There are the big flowery bushes from the plains, but also the things that look like dwarf cypresses, adapted to exposed alpine slopes.
Morgan says Christchurch alone has seven species which are native to its city boundaries – bet you didn't know that either.
So the Gondwana plan is to build on the native collection that already exists, but to spend money so visitors can make better sense of how the evolutionary history fits together in a way unique to New Zealand.
We keep walking and head to the children's playground where Morgan says the Gondwana garden should start. This was all thrashed out in public brainstorming sessions back in 2008, he says.
The idea here is to create a "Jurassic" area to bring together the original Gondwana flora. A few trees have already been planted at this end of the gardens in anticipation, like a Chilean monkey puzzle and a super-rare Wollemi pine.
The Wollemi – a cousin of the kauri found in New South Wales in 1994; only 100 known in the world – was installed in 2013 inside a protective cage to show eventually the kind of foliage that dinosaurs used to feast on.
Morgan says the intention is then to have three new streams of planting fanning back towards the native area, representing the steadily dividing continents of South America, Australia and New Zealand. This would replace some existing lawns and a sprinkling of mature English garden trees.
And you can see how well it could work, he says. Kids would be fascinated if there were discovery trails. "You could have a talking moa they could go find." Both locals and tourists would get that sense of identity from understanding the full natural history of a landscape.
The gardens would still function as a public park. For a start, says Morgan, this would be a plan that takes 30 to 50 years to execute. Plantings take a long time to mature. Change would be gradual.
But it would give the Botanic Gardens a clear purpose. It would allow things to be tied together rather better.
Look at the visitor centre – a lovely frilly confection perhaps. Yet what if instead its design had been more closely connected to a Gondwana garden theme? And the same with the $1.5m about to be spent on the playground.
Morgan says the masterplan had a vision but it got sidelined. And now with the spatial plan appearing to have watered down the Gondwana concept to something much simpler – a Canterbury plant collection – an opportunity seems to be slipping away.
Is there the political courage to act on intentions long agreed?
Back at the council, Rutledge – who took over as head of parks two years ago – is candid.
No doubt the Botanic Gardens' crown has slipped. The audit by the outside curators, Hobbs and Matchett, confirms it. The grounds do look tatty and weedy.
"Just the broken pathways and kerbs, the missing monuments, the broken steps – the simple things that are not consistent with it being Christchurch's, and probably the South Island's, key visitor attraction."
And it has lost its botanic focus, he agrees. "Certainly it has the opportunity to be world class. But it doesn't even register on the radar for world gardens, even if it probably once did."
Yet Rutledge also confesses that from the council table's point of view, it might not seem there is that much of a problem because mostly no one is complaining.
Local resident surveys still regularly give the Botanic Gardens a 98 per cent rating. And likely this is because a public gardens – an English arcadia of oaks, daffodils and roses, rather than a botanic collection of curated specimens and didactic lay-outs – is what the majority want to get out of it.
"It always hits its level of service targets, its annual visitor targets – the very obvious measures that councillors see. The anxiety some people have been expressing is really, dare I say it, from a more knowledgeable audience."
So given the still scarred memories of some earlier battles over the gardens and Hagley Park, it would be no surprise if many might prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.
Rutledge says both councillors and officers remember the furore over the "art bridge" across the Avon in 2000 – a footbridge connecting Hagley to Park Tce which sparked such an expensive legal fight that no money was left to build anything but a functional gantry over the river.
The Botanic Gardens, being for many the spiritual heart of the city, can lead to decision paralysis.
However Rutledge says the curators have confirmed the 2007 masterplan as a still sensible document. The Isthmus spatial plan might seem sketchy, but it is a step towards concrete proposals that could be plugged into the council's long term budget.
And while the spatial plan sets out a general area for the Gondwana story, it also stresses the other values the public holds dear, like a garden craft area for ordinary gardeners, a river gateway area around the visitor centre which is for welcoming and display.
So it is about the long-term balance. And from his own point of view, Rutledge says he would like to roll back the commercialisation which has crept in.
He says the reason Christchurch gets so many more visitors than even a place like Kew is that it is right in the middle of the city – and of course, it doesn't charge an entrance fee.
Rutledge hastens to add that charging remains forever unlikely. Yet in hard times, the council has expected it to do more to pay its way.
The visitor centre does good business with its cafe and souvenir shop. And also since the earthquakes, Hagley Park in general – being something of a psychological refuge during the recovery – has been rather thrashed in terms of holding large public events.
For instance, the winter light show in the Botanic Gardens – Night of D'Light – has been a great hit. Far more people turned up than expected. But then the cost of the tidy-up falls on the park. Likewise, it is the botanical staff who have to take time off to help get things organised.
"The guys have been working hard, asking how we can get more revenue – like do we host more weddings? But sometimes that's a lot of energy for little gain."
Rutledge says he favours a return to smaller, more specifically horticultural, events. Again that would be getting back to the botanic function of the gardens.
So this year he hopes to get the conversation going. He will be providing council with costings first for doing the basics, and then the more ambitious.
Rutledge says to bring the existing plantings up to snuff could be only $500,000. A more concerted programme of renewal might be $2m. Tackling the paths, buildings and car parks could be another $2m.
Then come the bridges and bigger things. The Friend's have set up a money-raising Botanic Gardens Trust that may help considerably once projects are actually approved by council.
However again, it is not just about turning on the money tap, Rutledge says. The public has to say what it wants. Otherwise the chances are the gardens will simply be left to drift along in their somewhat genteel state of dilapidation for the next 10 years as well.