Monday, May 3, 2010

Christchurch - The Garden City?

While standing around in our unusually clean and tidy open home on Saturday, lots of visitors commented that our home must be great for entertaining.  We said "Yes, it is".  Maybe we are easily led, but Ken Oath! and I then looked at each other, looked at our clean and tidy house, thought what a waste it would be not to make the most of it, then got straight on our various communication devices to invite friends to a Sunday afternoon post-open-home-knees-up.

This morning I've filled the yellow bin to overflowing with the resulting bottles, washed and dried all the Crown Crystal and reset the house to its unnatural, surely-only-a-bad-mother-could-have-such-a-tidy-home state. During the cleanup I found a packet of seeds that had arrived around the neck of an Allan Scott bottle of wine (very nice it was too).  The sentiment on the packet of native tree seeds -"planting for our future families"- made me think about one of the changes I'd love to see in Christchurch should I ever come back here.

I am not only a recovering fabricaholic, maker of textile goods and member of Overdressers Anonymous, but I am also a maker and admirer of gardens.  When we decided to move to "The Garden City" from Wellington ten years ago, I was excited at the prospect of perusing Christchurch gardens, exploring the Canterbury landscape and of possibly building a new garden. But what I found in the gardens and wild spaces of Christchurch and Canterbury was not at all to my liking. The let's-pretend-we-live-in-another-country style of garden so prevalent here didn't appeal to me in the slightest and certainly didn't fit with my idea of a New Zealand "garden city".

Just as I am not the slightest bit impressed by stunning-looking but functionally-hopeless design, so I am not impressed by showy gardens that use huge resources to build or maintain yet provide nothing apart from eye-candy in return. To me, these are the garden equivalent of having cupcakes and wine for dinner: great fun occasionally, but unsustainable and unhealthy if the norm.

My friends and family living in other urban centres around New Zealand not only have Tui in their gardens, but Kaka clambering on their rooves, Kereru pooping on their washing lines, Kotare stalking their fish-ponds and Ruru waking them in the night. They have native butterflies sunning themselves on their fences and skinks on their patios. Call me greedy, demanding and opinionated, but I won't be satisfied until Christchurch has all that too. Only then do I believe that Christchurch, New Zealand can truly call itself "The Garden City".

I admire gardens that a) look stunning, but are easily maintained with minimal resources, b) pull their weight by providing the gardener with food and, most importantly, c) make a positive contribution to the wider environment they are part of. My garden is the one patch of land I really have control over, and it makes sense to me to do my best here before I get my knickers in a twist about environmental damage happening in my city, country or world.

I love all the contemporary designer fabrics, home-wares, artworks and garments inspired by New Zealand flora and fauna that are currently so popular.  But I believe this design trend is just 100% Pure nostalgic nonsense unless we also all do our bit to ensure that the real flora and fauna actually has a chance of surviving. (The fabric pictured above is called Harakeke, is by artist Tim Main, can be found in various galleries and shops including Bolt of Cloth and the Christchurch Art Gallery shop where this print is also available as coasters, and it also hangs in my house.)

The city's native flora/fauna situation has improved during the ten years I've lived in Christchurch.  The council and various community groups are doing amazing work in the city.  But imagine the enormous difference it would make if every gardener in Christchurch also planted a few native plants. Imagine the difference farmers and life-style block owners could make to Canterbury eco-systems if they planted their shelter-belts with a self-maintaining band of mixed natives local to their area - rather than the waste-of-space species needing constant trimming that are currently so prevalent.

If you want to make a positive contribution to this city's eco-system via what you plant in your garden, then it isn't hard, it isn't expensive and you don't need much space.  Here is how to do it in a nutshell.

A)  Eliminate the negative.
Identify what is currently growing on your property and get rid of any pest plants. A great starting point is the Weedbusters site.

B)  Get informed.
The best few dollars I ever spent was buying a booklet called "Indigenous Ecosystems of Otautahi Christchurch" by Lucas Associates. It is still available from City Council Service Centres and is also available to borrow from the library.  (There are four booklets in the set covering various geographic regions of the city.) The council has also produced a variety of excellent pamphlets on attracting native birds to your garden and making wise choices about what to plant here.  The Banks Peninsula Tui Restoration trust have produced an nice, simple brochure called Tui tucker. The public library has a great selection of books on native plants.

C)  Start small / Doing anything is better than doing nothing.
If your preferred way to spend time in the garden is lying in a hammock with a book and a coffee, you can still provide excellent food sources for native birds by just planting a few key plants.  Plant them, mulch around them and leave them alone. Many of these plants will have the added benefit of ensuring that other useful plants will arrive in your garden for free via bird poo. I could write a book about best/favourite plants and many others have, but here I'm going to limit myself to my top ten plants.  You are big girls and boys so I'll leave you to find out more about these plants and where to plant them yourselves.
1. Wineberry/makomako Aristotelia serrata 
2. A Coprosma such as Karamu Coprosma robusta
3. A flax.  Either the smaller Mountain flax  Phormium cookianum or the larger Phormium tenax.
4. A Pseudopanax such as Fivefinger Pseudopanax arboreus
5. South Island Kowhai.  Sophora microphylla
6. NZ jasmine Parsonsia heterophylla.  Because butterflies go mad for it.
7. Wirenetting bush Corokia cotoneaster
8. Muehlenbeckia astonii. My favourite plant in the entire universe.  Like a beautiful, rusty, wire-netting sculpture. Makes a fabulous hedge and don't trim it.
9. Mahoe Melicytus ramiflorus
10. Cabbage tree Cordyline australis.  Don't go on about the leaves dropping and being annoying.  Just plant it at the back of the garden where leaf fall won't be an issue.

You'll be able to pick up all these plants from Trees for Canterbury and most will be only a couple of dollars each.  Small plants are great and often establish themselves better than bigger ones, especially on hilly or exposed sites.

You can stop here and climb back into your hammock, or you can...

D) Go mad
Learn lots about the indigenous eco-systems of Christchurch and Canterbury and plant masses of appropriate plants on your property.  Then volunteer your time and energy for one of the many community planting schemes.

That is it. Easy. And in just a few years time Christchurch could be a fantastic real New Zealand garden city.

For years I have potted up surplus native plants to give to friends.  I have a few plants left to destash.  If you would like them for your garden and are able to collect them, then please just email me on .


  1. Actually, planting native plants in your garden will do little to attract native birds. The problem is the vast open spaces on the Canterbury plains. Until farmers also plant bird corridors, there will be no native birds outside the city to spread into the city. The Banks Peninsula tui project is great - we need more of this. It doesn't have to be native plants in your garden either - nectar loving birds will be just as happy with introduced species if they are the right species.
    On the Canterbury Plains, what is happening is the opposite of what the birds need - all the shelter belts being ripped out so that dairy farmers can irrigate their pastures intensively using those long line irrigators you can see from the highway. :(

  2. Oh Catherine. You are of course absolutely right re the Canterbury plains. My post was originally twice as long and was about exactly this issue. When I re-read my post I nearly slit my wrists.
    My point is that we have to do whatever we can within our powers and with a very long-term goal. What we do in our own gardens can only add to what is happening in Travis Wetland, Styx Mill, Quail Island, Banks Peninsula and all the other restoration projects.
    I was there when the people proposing the Maungatautari reserve were considered nutters and the same with Karori. I live in hope re corridors across the Canterbury Plains as without hope, vision, dreams and plans, what is left?

  3. As a garden dsigner it can be very hard to encourage clients to have wildlife plants - commercial clients however are getting more intune with wildlife gardens. Nice article thanks

  4. When we purchased our house in Christchurch several years ago, the first thing we did was rip out the 25 rose bushes. We then planted lots of flaxes, cabbage trees and other beautiful and easy growing native NZ plants. They grew well, we loved them, and then we decided to sell.
    The first thing the new owners did was rip out what we had done...
    Ah well, we moved to Australia and now have new plants and plenty of new and interesting birds and other wildlife to enjoy here.

    I completely agree with your feelings about Chch as the "garden city". Never made sense to me either.

  5. Thanks to all the people who have given my plant collection new homes. I hope you enjoy them and pass on their off-spring to other gardeners. All my plants are now gone.