Richard Orjis at The Apron garden

Tauranga Art Gallery brought Auckland artist Richard to Orjis to the city on January 21 to give a free talk about The Apron, an installation garden for the Tauranga Garden and Artfest in November, commissioned by the gallery and the festival.

As you may recall, I visited the garden – planted on a lawn in front of Baycourt Theatre (hence the name, The Apron) – the day the festival closed and wasn’t mightily impressed but am always open to learning more and maybe having my opinion changed. Having the chance to hear an artist talk about his/her work is always valuable.

Richard walked our small group up to The Apron for his talk – being on site was a great way for us all to understand his vision, ask questions and learn more.

Richard Orjis. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The brief was wide open but he felt an area near the gallery would be good [Baycourt is a 2-minute walk from the gallery]. He wanted the garden to be “authentic”, make people think about the everyday and communicate something a traditional garden designer wouldn’t necessarily think about.

He believes the project should be considered land art or environmental art rather than gardening, but for ease of description I will call it a garden here.

Richard has used what most people would think of as weeds (he calls them wildflowers) and describes them as “international citizens that are robust and hardy, part of an ecosystem that’s too complex for scientists to understand”.

“They provide food and habitat in the most unpromising places – the side of the road, empty lots – and establish quickly, much faster than our native plants can.”

Wild verbena. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He has a “genuine love” of pastures and meadows and wanted to develop something that was in the context of Tauranga – seeds were all sourced locally – and the age in which we live.

Richard chose to have subtle paths mown through the garden, liking the idea of not using any hard landscaping, partly because it is a temporary site.

“There’s a feeling that urban is bad and rural good, and people in a city romanticise about living in the country when the reality of rural life is quite different – the traditional chocolate box meadow we all know has been created by agriculture, not nature.

“The Apron offers a comparison of urban gardens right in the middle of town – this looks unkempt and messy but it changes fortnightly as it grows.

A bumblebee feeds on red clover. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“There are so many lessons from a garden – nothing will stay the same, no matter how much you trim and prune. The idea of controlling a plant or garden is pointless.”

It’s not a struggle, he says, to consider a garden as art, although the ones we’re used to seeing in traditional art are frozen in time – paintings, sculpture, video etc.

“With the garden we have here we’re working with the elements and have to let go that sense of freezing.” Richard mentioned the founder of the Arts and Crafts  movement, William Morris, as having a looser idea of what a garden might be.

Plants in The Apron include Verbena bonariensis (several common names), red clover, barley, rye, Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Anthriscus sylvestris (cow parsley, Queen Anne’s lace), Sinapis arvensis (wild mustard), Leucanthemum vulgare (oxeye daisy) and Oenothera biennis (evening primrose).

“There were things I was not permitted to use because of their weed status,” Richard said, “and at times it got really tense in our discussions with the Tauranga City Council. I love wild carrot and wild fennel but wasn’t permitted to use them. The irony is that there are a couple of things in here that weren’t planted – they’ve blown in and established themselves.

Several chicory plants have self-established in the garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“We can have wildness even in the most built-up areas by letting things go and trusting in the intelligence of nature, a stance that might be interesting for urban planners to pick up. It’s a cheaper option for councils to leave certain areas to their own devices but the city’s residents have to get behind it and signage is key to letting people know what’s going on.”

The gallery is taking school groups through The Apron in February, something that Richard considered, thinking about the height of young children when he was planning the planting.

He’s thrilled with the many seed heads, saying that although people might dismiss the garden as dead and dying, it’s providing food to wildlife and is full of movement thanks to our constant winds.

A mustard seed-head. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He’s also enjoyed the change of colour in the garden since flowering began – first it was the yellow of mustard and white daisies, moving into reds and now purple is dominant, thanks to wild verbena.

Richard has undertaken “plant projects” before, including creating a garden of native and exotic medicinal plants, and constructing a scaffolding bridge between two large Moreton Bay figs so people could experience the canopy.

“You can create art just by the way you mow your lawn.” Read about Richard’s 2011 grass art project.

He is taking up an arts residency in Malaysia at the end of this month and will be looking at green spaces there, planning a publication that will also include a photo record of The Apron.

Richard has a garden at his home that he says is closely planted so weeds aren’t a problem. “It looks wild, but it’s structured,” he said.

The Apron will be mowed at the end of February and the Baycourt lawn reinstated.

Dying or full of life? Messy or a welcome relief from a strictly controlled garden? Photo: Sandra Simpson



A butterfly life

We’ve nurtured three monarch butterfly caterpillars through their final bulking up and into the chrysalis stage and it’s been fascinating watching it all – one of them attached itself to the handle of a teapot in the kitchen so we got an up-close view of proceedings.

We moved the caterpillars inside because of wasp predation which doesn’t seem to be the complete extermination it was last year, as a few caterpillars have been making it through to chrysalis without our help. Wasp predation should finish at about the end of February.

To find out more about monarch butterflies, visit the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust website.

Eggs on a swan plant leaf. Hatching will be 4-8 days, depending on temperatures. The egg will turn grey when it’s ready to hatch and a black dot (head) will be visible. Females lay up to 400 eggs at the rate of about 40 a day. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A tiny, very hungry, caterpillar … Photo: Sandra Simpson

… turns into a large, very hungry caterpillar. In 2-3 weeks it grows to 2700 times its birth weight! To accommodate this growth it moults 5 times. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Now we follow the story through photos of a single caterpillar …

When the caterpillar weighs about 1.5g it sets off to find somewhere to hang its chrysalis – in this case the handle of a teapot! Rear ‘protolegs’ attach to a silk ‘mat’ it’s secreted and the caterpillar begins turning itself inside out to form the chrysalis, with plenty of wriggling involved. The process took no more than 10 minutes. Photo: Sandra Simpson

With a final wriggle the chrysalis is complete and the black bit left sticking out the top (we wondered what was going to happen to it) falls off – excess skin. The chrysalis kept wriggling for a little bit. Within 2 days what’s left of the caterpillar becomes a pupa. No one yet knows what the beautiful gold spots are for. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It takes about 10 days for hatching – just before the butterfly emerges the chrysalis turns black (still with gold markings) and the butterfly inside becomes visible. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The newly hatched butterfly (a male) rests quietly near what’s left of the papery chrysalis. When it emerges it has an abdomen full of fluid that pumps into its wings before it can fly. During summer monarchs live for 60-70 days. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Many thanks to the University of Waikato’s monarch butterfly life cycle page for extra information. This overview page about monarch butterflies is also worth reading.

Shedloads of style

Something that seems to be ‘on-trend’ is having a smart little building or caravan in your garden – less a shed than a day room. Here are some I’ve seen over the past few months …

This sweet little caravan was set up in a Katikati-area garden for Tauranga’s Garden and Artfest. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The interior had homely touches without being cluttered. The crisp green-and-white colour scheme is a winner too. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The same property also had a cute ‘working’ shed. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This property owner has painted her garage cum storage shed barn red and decorated the walls with old implements. Looking surprisingly good against the wall is Top Shelf. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Lynda Hallinan’s ‘shepherd’s hut’ at Foggydale Farm. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Lynda has written about her property and says this about the hut: … our shepherd’s hut – aka the bric-a-brac shack, a repository for my junk-shop finds – has had four paint jobs. It started slate grey with a skirt of snow-white chrysanthemums then morphed into a cheery cherry with beds of beetroot-red zinnias before an ill-advised autumnal experiment in electric orange. As winter gave way to spring, the tangerine tones clashed so badly with my candy-pink star wars magnolias that it was hastily repainted a tasteful shade of sage green.

A peek into the hut’s interior (green and white!). Wouldn’t it be lovely to have somewhere to nap in between tending the beds? Photo: Sandra Simpson

This pavilion at the Hunua property called Addenbrooke can lift its skirts, be hitched to a vehicle and head off. Kind of a café de wheels without the café! Photo: Sandra Simpson

The large Addenbrooke garden is open to visit, by arrangement.

Plant People: Springheel Jack

When a place of settlement experiences a period of rapid and prolonged growth – as Tauranga has done since about 1990 – folk memory can be pushed to one side and, worse, lost.

The names of people and exploits from the past mean nothing to newcomers who are busy trying to establish themselves in their new home, and with the passing of the generations the stories vanish.

I had heard mention of Springheel Jack (1902-65), but no more than that and it wasn’t until researching the life of Frank Sydenham that I traced more of the story of Michael Hodgkins, nephew of the artist Frances Hodgkins, who lived much of his life in Tauranga.

People who knew Frank said Hodgkins called around from time to time to read his books but wasn’t allowed in the house because of his smell – I heard from a long-time Tauranga resident last week that Frank called on his mother occasionally but she wouldn’t let him smoke his pipe in the house because of the smell!

“Unwashed, clad in ragged clothes, with unkempt shoulder-length hair, ‘sun-blackened skin’ and piercing blue eyes, [Hodgkins] walked great distances in search of botanical specimens, once going to the top of the Kaimai range to see a flower bud open as the sun rose. He said he did not like treading on plants and that he could hear weeds scream as they were pulled out.”

The quote is from an entry for Springheel Jack in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which appears on Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. The entry was written by Alister Matheson, who himself had a fascinating life story tied up with a family garden, and historian Jinty Rorke. Hodgkins was, by all accounts, a talented artist himself although seemingly only made pencil drawings and sketches.

“Specimens held by the Auckland Institute and Museum and the DSIR’s Botany Division herbarium in Christchurch show that Hodgkins collaborated closely over a long period with these institutions and with Canterbury Agricultural College. He identified plants for the Department of Agriculture, assisted the police to identify the first Cannabis sativa plants in the Tauranga area and had a good knowledge of New Zealand orchids. As well as writing newspaper articles on botany, he gave radio talks in his ‘mild, patient and cultivated voice’.”

Reading elsewhere, it seems that although Hodgkins was a generous teacher, his outbursts at the children who baited him resulted in him being banned from visiting schools.

Artist John McLean has painted a series called The Springheel Jack, see one of the paintings here.  “… the series is based on an eccentric, ascetic figure from McLean’s Tauranga boyhood … Renowned as a naturalist, he was a distinctive character with long grey hair – in an era of short back and sides – invariably shirtless in an old pinstripe suit, with horny toenails protruding from his sand shoes. He shared his knowledge with interested children and dispensed nature specimens from a sack.”

After his death it was discovered that Hodgkins had several of his aunt’s works in his hut by a salt marsh!

His small headstone, placed by the Tauranga Historical Society in 2009, describes him as “Solitary Gentleman, Botanist and Lover of Nature, Helpful to Young and Old”.

Our native plants: Bushman’s mattress

Lygodium articulatum or mangemange is a creeping fern, the woody stems of which, according to John Dawson and Rob Lucas in their book Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest, are technically fronds.

These twining growths head up for the light and often reach the forest canopy, while the true stems remain low.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Leaves are shiny and green – the leaflets that fork many times are fertile, while the ones that fork 2 to 3 times are sterile. Leaves can be anywhere along the vines but there’s often a mass up out of sight.

Bushman’s mattress is found from North Cape to the Bay of Plenty in the North Island, but take care not to confuse the common name with the shrub Muehlenbeckia complexa, sometimes called mattress plant.

Lygodium articulatum vines – not hanging down but scrambling up. All photos taken at Puketoki Reserve, Whakamarama, near Tauranga. Well worth a walk through. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The NZ Plant Conservation Network entry for Lygodium articulatum explains its common name: “These interwoven tangles make an excellent mattress and many a tramper has used these when caught out in the northern forests for the night. The only problem is that they are also a favoured home of tree weta, as many-a-tramper-caught-out-in-the-northern-forest-for-the-night comes to appreciate!”

Early writers recorded Maori using the vines in a variety of ways – to bind thatch securely on roofs; lashing in storehouse construction; to construct fish traps and eelpots; naturally curved stems, hardened by fire, as fish hooks; and to tie the necks of sacks used for soaking fermenting corn (after maize was introduced to New Zealand Maori developed a method of preserving it by soaking cobs in running water for 6 weeks to 3 months – the resulting (stinky) kānga pirau was made into porridge).

Photo: Sandra Simpson

From an article at the Oratia Native Plant Nursery website: “Mangemange is the only New Zealand species in the genus, but about 30 or 40 related species occur throughout the tropics and some such as mangemange grow into the temperate zone. Many have been declared noxious weeds overseas, where they have been taken out of their natural environment and introduced into other parts of the world without their natural predators.”