It’s Tuesday morning at Te Puna Quarry Park, near Tauranga, and 91-year-old Shirley Sparks is organising and motivating the work day volunteers, just as she has done for the past 25 years.
And it’s thanks to Shirley’s vision and tenacity that what was once an old, overgrown quarry is now a beautiful public park. Her dream for the 32ha site was kickstarted in 1992 when she heard the local council might re-open the quarry, which had closed in 1979 after almost 70 years of use. “We didn’t want the incessant blasting and all the heavy traffic back,” says Shirley, who has lived in Te Puna for 67 years. “I thought there was something better that could be done with the land.”
She rallied enough like-minded people that in 1993 the Te Puna Quarry Park Society was formed. The first newsletter went out in 1996 and a year after that the first work day took place – almost 30 people turned up to clear gorse, wattle, buddleia and hakea and plenty of dumped rubbish from what is now the visitor carpark. Te Puna Quarry Park was officially opened 21 years ago on March 18 by Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie Boyes.
“I didn’t envisage what we have now,” says Shirley, who was awarded a QSM in 2005 and is now patron of the Quarry Park Society. “It’s taken on a life of its own in a very positive way. When we started a lot of people said we were mad trying to create something on such hellish land, but there were enough who said, ‘let’s give it a go’.”
One of those optimists was her neighbour Jo Dawkins, a former nursery woman and past-president of the International Plant Propagators Society, who has also been with the project from the start. Her energy is legendary and at 84 Jo shows no signs of slowing down, working at least 2 days at the park every week.
“In the beginning we had no money so everything was donated – plants, gear, time,” Jo says. “The first tree we planted was the pohutukawa beside the carpark. It was a symbol that we’d started.
“This isn’t a botanic park, so visitors shouldn’t expect plants to be labelled, but we have done our best to make it botanically interesting.”
One of the society’s first steps was to commission a master plan, which still largely guides work. It divides the park, which climbs several rocky terraces and essentially has no top soil, into ‘rooms’, including a heritage rose garden, butterfly garden, sensory garden, herb garden, and grouped plantings including orchids, bromeliads, fuchsias, Japanese maples, nikau, cabbage trees (featuring more than 10 varieties), magnolias, New Zealand, South African and Australian native plants.
A large, steep area on the eastern side of the park has over the past 13 years been cleared of pines and replanted with natives. Volunteers have put in tracks and signs and try to stay ahead of weeds, including wild kiwifruit, Taiwanese cherry and asparagus fern, as the regenerating bush grows.
As well as pest plants, volunteers have also battled rats, possums, mustelids, rabbits and feral goats. Unfortunately, rabbits have made a comeback and gardeners have resorted to wire mesh cages to protect plants until numbers are reduced.
On the positive side, bird life has flourished and tui, kereru, fantails, waxeyes, grey warblers and California quail are regularly sighted.
As well as the garden trails, the park also has many artworks – from a large stone dragon to musical chimes made from recycled materials, from a mosaic life-size couple to wooden carvings by local Māori. “My catchphrase is that the park is a community project in the environmental arts,” Shirley says, “and the sculpture has been a big part of that.”
The park committee, which includes some long-serving members, keeps busy and recent projects include a building which is hired out for functions, terraced seating for the amphitheatre, irrigation systems using a water supply in the park, and new tracks and signs.
Shirley says the greatest pleasure of the project has been the way volunteers just keep turning up – and all ages are welcome. “Sometimes people come with skills, sometimes not. It’s the being willing that counts. And it keeps us fit. It’s our gym and we’re achieving something worthwhile at the same time.”
Te Puna Quarry Park is open every day during daylight hours, free admission but donations welcome. It is signposted off SH2, 15km north of Tauranga.
To find out more about Tuesday morning or Thursday afternoon work days phone Jo Dawkins, 07 579 1233. She would also like to hear from people who can volunteer at weekends.
This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.