Te Maimai: The creation of a New Zealand native garden from barren sand dunes

by Gillian Deane

Wetlands at Te Maimai

I have been asked to write about creating a New Zealand native garden from barren sand dunes.

I have always loved New Zealand flora. Our daughter Kristen had a degenerative condition and needed to walk each day, so we would spend time in Botanic Gardens which we both loved. Kristen was nearing the end of her life and my husband gave me the land for my birthday, as he thought it would be a project for my mind and soul when she left us.

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Te Maimai property, 25 years ago

The vista at our garden, Te Maimai, is so expansive:  it was a matter of creating different spaces, but leaving the dune’s aeolian characteristics intact. Ron Flook suggested a series of mown paths to link the different gardens. Severe wind, frosts, rabbits and pukeko all made planting challenging. I used hardy akeake (Dodonaea viscosa) which thrive in the salt-laden winds and from there we could introduce other coastal and lowland forest trees into the different areas between the dunes. Now we have flowering plants at most times of the year and berries and seeds for the birds in the winter.

Clouds over wetlands at Te maimaiBeing part of an old wetland area allowed me to plant my favourite flax and then other trees such as my husband’s favourite, Kahikatea, who did not mind having wet feet. Once there were no animals, makura (Carex secta) started to seed again and give that wetland feeling.  It has been a series of trial and error in many areas; however, we now have a number of sheltered spots to plant less hardy trees. It is exciting to see the New Zealand ‘look’ reappear after so many centuries of the absence of forest cover.

A friend lent me a wonderful book The Art Album of New Zealand Flora, by Edward and Sarah Featon, published in 1888. It was great to show Sarah’s wonderful paintings with photos of our plants in flower. Many of the paintings had never been separated from the glassine covering the pristine chromolithographs. The first I looked at was my favourite, Golden Tainui, which flowers in the Spring. Now the flax is flowering and the diligent tuis have been drinking the nectar. They do a splendid balancing act. However, by three pm they are drunk and falling off the flax stems.

We have four Queen Elizabeth Covenants on the property. A partly dug out waka discovered in one of the wetlands is housed at Te Papa.

Mist at Te Maimai

We have created gardens for every mood, from the wide views over the Tasman Sea to the sheltered glades to hide from the world in bad weather or in times of sadness.

With the commemoration of the work of the first diligent European botanists who gathered these amazing plants two hundred and fifty years ago, it is fascinating to read of new research like Te Papa’s work on the DNA of plants translocated by iwi over a period of centuries.

I look at civic plantings and wish the annuals were flax to bring the birds to town or Carex secta to give the fashionable Piet Oudolf look, if we are still trying to copy European trends.

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