New Zealand Plants and their Story
by Choice or by Compromise
199A Cockayne Road, Ngaio, Wellington
It's uplifting to design
with plants that you feel passionate about but the reality is that
design with native plants, especially in an institutional context
is about placing plants in very unnatural settings with an expectation
that they will perform all year round, always and forever. Somehow
the designer needs to retain the original emotion in the face of
all the compromises that must be made.
Te Ara Whanui was the
first kura kaupapa or Maori immersion primary school to be built
in the Hutt Valley. I was exceptionally lucky that architect Fiona
Christefler involved me at the very beginning of the site planning
The school had a strong
vision; they wanted a green environment, a strong indigenous identity,
an educational resource and a recreational resource. The pupils
were to be organised in whanau groups and the buildings were to
be designed within that structure so that a group of classrooms
were clustered around a central courtyard.
However the site came
with problems. Originally a swamp and only 1.4 kilometres from the
Petone foreshore it was drained recently enough to be remembered
by one long-time local who had to ride her horse to school and had
to navigate around the swamp. There is a very high water table and
this varies according to the tides. The site forms a long rectangle
running east-west exposed to both the northerly and the southerly
but liable to heavy frosts in winter, i.e., a great combination
of salt, wind and water. It was formerly the site of a manual training
I developed a set of
objectives. I'll concentrate on planting rather than discuss the
hard landscape but the overall theme was to create a landscape that
enhanced the buildings and defined the character of the school.
- Provide planting
that enhanced the identity of the site and school
- Planting to be primarily
- Provide educational
opportunities for students
- Create a low maintenance
- Create a safe environment
- Create a landscape
that allows good supervision of students
- Create a strong focus
meeting place for school
- Create a unique identity
for each whanau courtyard. Use planting to screen, shade and soften
From this I developed
a planting concept.
Dominant tree species
were pohutukawa, ti-kouka, ngaio, and karaka. They were selected
for their ability to establish themselves quickly and their tolerance
to the environmental conditions of the site.
These were to be used
as specimen trees in lawn areas and as a grove along the main frontage
to the school. I wanted to exploit the strong upright form of the
cabbage tree and the pyramidal form of the karaka to emphasize entry
points, allow views through from the street and provide shade on
the lawn which would be used as a gathering point for formal entry
into the school marae.
Trees to whanau courtyards
provided a strong identity to each space. Trees included totara,
titoki, kowhai and puka.
Specimen trees for education
and ecology included miro, puriri, tawa, kauri, hinau, kahikatea,
totara, rata and kamahi.
Northern Boundary Planting
It was intended to incorporate
a wide variety of smaller-scale trees and shrubs to act as a buffer
between the school and neighbouring houses, a visual backdrop and
a teaching resource. Trees and shrubs in this area are to include
the following species; akeake, kanuka, kohuhu, tarata, houpara,
mahoe, kapuka harakeke, wharangi, raurekau, hebe species including
koromiko, toetoe, taupata, kawakawa, ramarama, olearia species,
rangiora, as well as a range of grasses and tussocks.
As this planting matured,
it would create a range of microclimates that sustain in turn a
greater range of plants, e.g., dry shade, damp shade, and frost-free
There was also a range
of small plant beds adjacent to buildings around the central courtyard,
courtesy of the architect. Some were shaded, some were sheltered
and some were well-drained but they were an opportunity for using
larger range of species.
It all looked great on
paper. So where is the compromise? Compromises are part of the normal
process of designing; specific to the site, the school and the client
Some weeks after I had
finished the concept and the school had accepted it, engineers discovered
that after the original school was demolished, a building platform
of 1 metre deep compacted base-course had been placed on the front
third of the site. The architect was ecstatic but I was less so.
The good news: the front of the site had 50 mm topsoil and the rear
of site received some hardfill and some topsoil. Soil tests (the
3 metre deep hole) revealed the base-course sitting over an impermeable
layer of clay sitting on the original swamp. Not ideal planting
conditions and the plant species and planting techniques had to
be adapted to suit. I really wanted specimen trees at the front
of the school for scale and shade and visual presence and these
were limited because of the sheer cost and effort of establishing
Design and plants
The school wanted an
extensive range of plants but I knew that a botanical zoo would
be an inappropriate long-term solution for the site. Such planting
is hard to establish, expensive to implement and takes experience
to maintain. I wanted a compromise between residential and institutional
design and I wanted to use native plants. I also knew that any planting
had to be robust and hardwearing, the sort of planting that could
survive 80 plus kids confined within a courtyard at lunchtime.
There had to be some
compromise so that we could use a range of plants that were suited
to the site, hardy and robust, and yet could be fitted into a total
design. Despite the practicalities I still needed to consider the
plant qualities of form, line, colour, texture, size.
There are two important
points here, both concerning design with native plants.
First, it's a common
misconception that all native plants are hardy and any plant will
grow anywhere. As you all know, in a natural situation, revegetation
occurs over a period of time so that the larger trees grow only
once a fertile, sheltered environment has been established. In an
ideal world we would plant to establish initial cover, put in larger
shrubs in 1 or 2 years time and come back in 10 years time to look
at planting the large trees. Or we would use fillers to provide
bulk and protection for the long term planting and to minimise weed
growth. But in a design like this you only get one bite of the cherry,
one budget, and one chance to plant. So we design for the long term,
spacing plants according to their size at maturity, then squashing
them up a little to get quick cover then spreading them out because
the initial design costs too much.
There is also another
common belief or rather the idealisation of native planting, the
beauty of the bush, verdant nature etc. Well, it isn't always like
that. Nature close up can look less than ideal. It's a jungle out
there. Plants get eaten, wind burnt, etiolated and suppressed. In
the bush, plants on the exposed fringe areas get rougher treatment
than most. And planting in this sort of ornamental situation is
almost all on the fringes. Again there are a limited number of plant
species available that will thrive in such exposed conditions.
There is often criticism
that large-scale design with native plants looks bland and monotonous
but it is a challenge to create long edges or strands of planting
that are vigorous, healthy and look good all year round.
So I make no apology
for using indigenous but not endemic plant species in this highly
modified environment with the additional stress of robust use and
a requirement for plants that look good all year round. We ended
up using 118 species some as bulk planting and others in small groups.
There are very few one-offs. We did use some cultivars for colour
and variety and availability, mainly in Coprosma and Hebe
species and just one or two yellow and red flax (not together).
Budget and Building
Money always comes in
a one-off amount. You cannot save it or stage planting and while
maintenance generally is allowed for, it is not a long period, three
months in this case. So we compromised by planting densely and spending
money on quality topsoil and initial establishment. Even so we had
to cut out a lot of planting and limit plant densities to meet the
As in any project there
are delays and changes. On a job this size with over 4,000 plants
I was lucky that we had a good lead-in time, most plants were available
and there were very few substitutions. This isn't always the case
and as the demand for using native plants grows, there can be supply
problems; this year Chionochloa flavicans was in high demand,
and big numbers were wanted. Towards the end of the season it was
impossible to get and even more difficult to substitute for.
But there were difficulties
and as time dragged on some plants that the contractor had waiting,
particularly hebes and ngaio, came perilously close to being root-bound.
It's not unique to native plants but some species do not respond
to being bagged up for a long time.
The main contractor stockpiled
and screened the site topsoil and towards the end of the job the
'best' topsoil tended to disappear as more building room was required.
There are only so many places you can store large piles of soil.
There was no money left to import topsoil but an awful amount of
site non-topsoil (it's brown, it's there, it's soil) to be disposed
of and a preference to leave it on site. I'm not sure if it's a
compromise or just facing the realities of life but I do know that
some plants got a slower start in Te Ara Whanui than I had anticipated.
And this turned out to be critical for their survival.
School environment and
Once the concept had
been approved, the school passed on some specific requirements for
harakeke, medicinal plants and berry plants for birds. We managed
to include most of these in the design including miro, puriri, tawhero,
koromiko although I felt the initial environment was too harsh for
tawa. There were more problems with the ferns (kaponga, pikopiko,
and herekia) and I suggested that they might be better as a second
stage planting once a more favourable microclimate had been established.
I note too that there are problems in establishing a common language
and it took some research to establish just what genus and species
this particular pikopiko was meant to be.
We reserved one area
for planting on the opening day so that families or individuals
could sponsor a plant and actually plant it. A great idea and the
contractor was very obliging but as you can imagine, some plants
got a better start in life than others did.
One and a half years
Looking back: is it a
success? I don't expect the planting to look complete even now but
certainly the school has no regrets that they chose to commit a
large chunk of budget to green landscape.
And yes, the planting
does show signs of wear and tear although this was entirely predictable.
The planting was done in early autumn with good quality stock, an
adaptable contractor and almost ideal timing. Unfortunately the
grass had not had time to establish and was roped off. The kids
were desperate for places to play and the gardens looked like fun.
However time has passed, planting has grown and developed a stronger
presence and the level of damage has decreased.
Some plants have survived
but look less than healthy. The kawakawa or are too exposed but
will improve as the surrounding planting grows to provide shade.
Napuka planted close to the buildings has suffered some mildew damage
but I'm told that this is common in the Hutt Valley this year and
will be less evident as the plants mature.
The karaka on the front
lawn are yellowed and seem to be struggling but they were large
specimens at 1.9m and may yet sit for another year before they take
off. Some of the larger trees don't take kindly to transplanting
and sit for 1-2 years before taking off.
Good soil and fertiliser
does assist initial growth and this is evident in areas around the
school that received site rather than imported topsoil. As I said
before, time is a luxury in a school situation and early establishment
and growth is critical to survival.
Some plants were unsuited
to site conditions. There have been localised site conditions that
have caused plant failure. Most evident are wet patches where water
ponds. We have lost some rangiora but as a trade off have found
ideal locations for harakeke. The Cortaderia richardii never
thrived and maybe the larger species would have been hardier.
The plant bed preparation,
especially around buildings, was worthwhile These are high-pressure
areas and the plants have established well and are growing vigorously.
The Clematis paniculata is in flower as we speak and the
Tecomanthe speciosa has almost covered its support. Even
the lancewoods that dropped all their leaves initially have reasserted
themselves and grown.
In the longer plant borders
the flaxes, tussocks and grasses are shooting away. Growth has been
so strong that control is needed although maintenance can be too
There has been a trade
off in the design with deliberate decision that strong vigorous
planting was ultimately more important than ecological planting,
provenance, natural succession and use of endemic species. The vegetation
is a source of pride. This school looks different and the landscape,
both hard and soft, complements the architecture.
Thanks to Te Ara Whanui
Kura Kaupapa, Maori o Nga Kohanga Reo, Kairangi for their consent
to photograph and talk about the school.