8 November 2018

Wintergarden Blooms Again

Since the late 1800s, the Auckland Wintergardens have enthralled with dazzling displays of tropical and seasonal botanical wonders.


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Yet sadly the Wintergarden nursery, the park’s engine room, has long been forgotten.

That’s about to change with the arrival of two enormous high-tech green-houses that will be completed and ready by March 2019.

Designed by Arch Office in New Zealand and constructed in the Netherlands, the new buildings have the most advanced plant production features available anywhere in the world. They are a radical step up for the nursery and its dedicated professional team of workers, who have coped admirably with what was available. Now they have the opportunity to showcase a much greater diversity of plants without the risks posed by antiquated technology.

Tucked away at the heart of the Domain, team leader, botanist Frenchman Jonathan Corvisy and landscape architect Tracy Finlayson are in charge of a 15-strong group who work from a rumpty cluster of small sheds and pretty but outmoded heritage glasshouses.

“It’s well overdue,” explains Tracey of the upgrade. “A lot of the old glasshouses were dangerous and not up to building code. We haven’t had any major renewal for years.”

The prettiest glasshouse of all was imported to New Zealand from England in the late 1880s and features intricate Victorian cut-out metal floors for water drainage and delicate ornamentation suspended from the iron roof structure. The most recent glass house was built in the 1990s though is decidedly worse for wear.

Tracy says: “People forget about the nursery. We’re the paddling feet of the beautiful swan that’s gliding along the surface of the lake. We’re the engine room of the Wintergardens.”

Johnathan says: “It’s exciting news for Aucklanders. This is the longest running nursery on one site in New Zealand. We are a heritage feature in ourselves. We’ve had seven years of consultation on this. And we’ve gone to the best in the world. It will be interesting because we will have heritage glasshouses very close to very modern, high-tech glasshouses.”

Although the public won’t be permitted inside the glass houses, the new structures will no longer be hidden away.

“You’ll be able to look up from the park and see us working as the glasshouses sit around one to two metres high off the ground.”

But for visitors, the most obvious change the new technology facilitates, says Tracy, is the diversity, which is really what botanical gardens are all about.

“There’s a lot of stuff we used to grow that we haven’t been able to grow for years because facilities wouldn’t allow it. With concrete, metal and glass surfaces rather than sand, soil, scoria and wood, the new facilities make it much easier to keep pests and diseases under control. We can bring back some of the plants that haven’t been on show for some time.”

With less diseases, they can also cut back on chemical use. “We’re very minimal as it is, but we’ll be able to cut it down even further.”

They’ll use integrated pest management techniques too. This is where you make use of beneficial insects and organisms.

Jonathan explains, “We use nature against nature."

"It’s where you let predators lose in your glass houses and they keep pests under control. Things like Intarsia wasps, hover flies and ladybirds. When ladybirds are in the larval stage, they are great for aphids.” 

He encourages people to do this in their own gardens.

“You’re never going to be pest-free. But you can have everything in balance. You have to provide an environment for those beneficial predator insects. It means having little bushes where they can hide. Build your own little hotels for insects with moss and wood. Don’t have a monoculture. That’s not a good thing."

“You need to provide several different plants for diversity because there are different stages in an insect’s life cycle where they will prey on other insects. Try to have a mix of plants to attract different birds and insects – then you’ll create a balance. Native planting is good to have in your garden to attract birds.”

Plants that produce nectar and pollen are desirable.

Computer-controlled climate systems will optimise the environment for plant production in the new glass houses which also enables diversity. Eventually everything will be automated and Jonathan and Tracy will control the technology from their Ipads. They’ll receive notifications if anything goes wrong. “We’ll have much better control over the plants and their environment,” says Jonathan.

Rain collection will also be enhanced. With masses of roof area, they’ll collect a lot of their own water. Most will be used to irrigate the two heritage trees in the Wintergardens, but it will also cut down on their town supply.

Floor and tube irrigation will save hours of person power watering to free up staff to grow more technical species and spend more time on maintenance, particularly for some of the more specialist production of plants you don’t normally see around New Zealand.

Even though the old glasshouses are crammed to the hilt with plants from buildings that disappeared, the good news is, it’s all taking place without interrupting the normal displays.

Says Jonathan: “We’re still open to the public and we still have tropical ferns and season plants happening a couple of months in advance because it’s warmer in there.” There’s a lot of work ahead of them. But they’re excited about this ambitious programme and having the best diversity of planting in New Zealand.

If home gardeners want to be more environmentally friendly like the Wintergarden nursery, Jonathan has the following tips:

Re-use resources:

  • make your own compost in your garden to recycle all the organic waste from cooking, food, gardening. To avoid rats and mice avoid putting meat in it and use a couple of compost bins you can close. When the compost is ready, add in your soil before transferring to your plants as a source of nutrition
  • collect rain water in an adapted water collection tank, then use this water during dry periods of the year

Timing:

  • plant new plants during autumn/winter period to minimise the watering and it will increase your chance of success
  • water your garden in the evening or early morning to allow the water to penetrate the soil properly, as cooler water won’t evaporate and plants are open, ready to feed 
  • remove weeds regularly by hand or with manual tools to make the job easier and avoid using chemicals

Other:

  • use endemic plants - they will be perfectly adapted to their environment/weather/soil and stronger to disease and will require less care, so more chance of success  
  • use mulch around your plants to retain the moisture and reduce weeds
  • use organic fertiliser like sheep pallet etc; they will release plants food for a longer period and increase the bacteria’s life and make the soil healthier
  • use tougher grass varieties and not mowing the lawn too short to reduce the proliferation of moss/weeds
  • tolerate weeds;  it is part of nature as well
  • use natural pest control/ disease product to fight unwanted insects or disease
  • use trees/plants/flowers that attract bees, beneficial insects, birds to support our ecosystem

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