Take one dilapidated quarry. Sow it with the seed of one man's vision. Invest thousands of hours from plant-mad locals.
Wendy Laurenson visits the gorgeous Whangarei Quarry Gardens.
Bake amongst rock formations for 20 years, and keep moist with free-flowing water. The result: the Whangarei Quarry Gardens, a tranquil, beautiful mid-city oasis.
The 25-hectare site includes subtropical gardens, a lake, native bush, several themed gardens, a waterfall, walking tracks, a visitors centre and café, and the recently completed Te Wai U O Te Atakura by Kerikeri-based environmental sculptor Chris Booth.
What stands out about this project is that it was born almost entirely of local community effort and donations. For example, in 2005 arson attacks had destroyed some parts of the native forest within the gardens, but 250 gritty locals rallied and put in 10,000 plants in one day to re-vegetate the hillsides.
The gardens are open seven days a week. Entry is by koha as they are run by a notfor-profit trust that pays a low-cost lease to the Whangarei District Council.
There are some amazing subtropical stars:
elephant’s ear fig ( Ficus roxburghii) bearing flowers and huge fig fruit on its woody trunks; Puya venusta, a bromeliad native to Chile with striking silver-grey foliage and vivid blue blooms; mature dinner plate figs ( Ficus dammaropsis)
with massive pleated leaves; silk floss trees ( Ceiba speciosa) with their spinecovered trunks; burrawang ( Macrozamia
communis) of ancient Jurassic ancestry; and blue ginger ( Dichorisandra thyrsiflora), actually a tropical herb from Brazil.
Plant selection is governed by the over-arching emphasis on subtropicals. Northland’s natural climatic conditions are amplified by the shelter and heatradiating properties of the stone quarry, providing an ideal microclimate for most exotic subtropicals.
There are three other specialist gardens.
A Garden of the Five Senses stimulates each of our senses and is currently being remodelled.
The dramatic Arid Garden, which boasts architectural-scale cacti, was instigated by local cacti enthusiasts and is in the sunniest, driest part of the gardens where summer temperatures are often more than 40oC.
In the Bromeliad Garden, diverse specimens strut their stuff on a semishaded slope.
Other established plantings in the gardens include valuable donations by professional plantspeople.
For example, local camellia breeders Jim Finlay and Os Blumhardt’s plants are the basis of the site’s Scented Camellia Garden which is now the largest collection of scented camellias in the southern hemisphere.
Landscape architect and general manager David McDermott is the only full-time employee and came on board five years ago. “The previous manager had been here for 11 years, but prior to that, the whole project had been community driven and created around Laughton King’s original vision over 20 years ago,” he explains. While work in those early years included clearing away car bodies and remnants of the quarry operations, the working bees gradually progressed to the more rewarding tasks of creating and planting gardens under the direction of a Board of Trustees and a flexible master plan.
David now works with a team of about 30 volunteers, with part-time assistance from marketing and events manager Kerry Marinkovich.
He is also aware that in the 20 years since the inception of the garden, there has been a generational shift. “People are now less available for volunteer work and part of my job is to move with the times and to see where current opportunities lie. We have a replenishing stream of people in their 60s coming onboard and I work closely with a handful of committed volunteers who love plants and this place,” he says. “But I also notice the younger generation tends to be available more for one-off single-purpose projects, and Whangarei is rapidly changing with the influx of new arrivals.
”Our café and visitors centre was built in 2015 and brings a more current vibe to the gardens, attracting a different visitor demographic, and Chris Booth’s recently completed sculpture adds a powerful local creative component with a global context.”
David now has his eyes fixed firmly on the future. “We will become one of the defining gardens of the subtropical north. I’m keen to make the most of this diverse landscape, and we’re already planning more events and infrastructure developments. We would also like the Gardens to some day be a place for formal training of horticultural apprentices.”
Massive challenges remain, especially around issues of maintenance and weeding in inaccessible areas.
“The long-term vision of the Trust is to create a sustainable business model that allows for a more diverse team to tackle these challenges,” says David. “The heart of our team will always be our volunteers, but in time we would like to see a larger paid staff and opportunities for budding professionals to train here.”
Te Wai U O Te Atakura by Chris Booth.
Ponytail palms ( Beaucarnea recurvata) by the lake.
Silk floss trees guard the track.