“A park with reading material,” is how volunteer gardener Susan describes the historic Te Henui Cemetery in New Plymouth, a place where she spends many hours every week.
The tidy plantings are a far cry from how the cemetery looked even 5 years ago, Susan says. She started work there 11 years ago and for 7 years was the only volunteer. “You can imagine how much of an impact I made,” she laughs. “I decided to just do what I could and not worry about the rest.
“We’re all a bit obsessed,” Susan says of the four volunteer gardeners – Susan, Mary, Nick and Susan’s husband Rob – who turn up every day, putting an average of 300-400 hours a month. “If it’s wet I stay in bed, otherwise the exercise is too good to miss.”
There are a few casual volunteers too, while the council provides lawn-mowing, arborists and green waste removal.
Susan found the cemetery, which is in the central part of New Plymouth, by accident, wanting to know what her then-college-aged son was doing there for an art project. “Like so many people in New Plymouth, I had never been here. But it’s an absolutely fascinating place – so many stories on the headstones and so many that leave you wondering what happened.”
The first burial in the 9.7ha site dates from 1861 and by the 1950s there were only a few plots left for relatives of those already buried there. From 1984 the cemetery was planted with a wide variety of trees, courtesy of the council’s parks director Alan Jellyman, a keen plantsman.
Those trees today provide the bones for the work the volunteers do, including planting to provide colour at all times of the year, even in midwinter. “It’s not tasteful,” Susan says. “And there’s no plan. It’s supposed to be something like a granny’s garden, lots of plants and lots of colour – and if we don’t like something, out it comes.”
Volunteers scatter seeds, divide bulbs and take cuttings. They’re sometimes gifted plants by garden groups, they purchase some and the council also provides some.
“It’s easy in Taranaki to have good spring and summer colour,” Susan says, “but we’re getting there with autumn and winter now too.”
The odd swan plant has made its way into the plantings and Susan raises caterpillars over the summer, bringing them to the cemetery in chrysalis form. “We want people to change their perception of the place – this is a cemetery that’s alive with birds, bees and butterflies.”
Te Henui Cemetery has been in two Taranaki Garden Festivals and Susan was pleased to hear the volunteers had inspired visitors from another town to tackle their historic cemetery.
Burials at the cemetery include Frederic Carrington (1807–1901), a surveyor and draughtsman who chose the site for New Plymouth; Monica Brewster (1886–1973), a women’s rights advocate, and founder of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery; Lieutenant Bamber Gascoigne, his wife Annie, and their three children aged between five and one – killed during the NZ Wars in 1869; and Muriel, Kathleen and Gordon, ‘Grannie’s Darlings’. Every one a story.