Dunedin Botanic Garden, New Zealand

Spanning 80 acres on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island,  Dunedin Botanic Garden will be celebrating their 150th anniversary in 2013.

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Just after the new year, most staff members were still enjoying holiday when I met with Barbara Wheeler, Collections Supervisor.  She invited me to discuss my work and learn what Dunedin Botanic Gardens is doing with education. When I asked about Dunedin Botanic Garden’s perspective on permaculture, Barbara was extremely transparent:  “When we got your email we had to google permaculture!  We still are not sure we fully understand what it’s all about.”  Wheeler certainly stands in good company.  Through my research, there are many public garden professionals who are unclear about what permaculture is exactly, and how it fits into the public garden arena.   I explained permaculture, and how some public gardens are using permaculture, and Wheeler shared observations about changing attitudes in the gardens over recent decades.

“People used to grow their own food, but in last 20 years, it got so you can buy everything.  But now interest in growing food is actually rising again.  That interest in food gardening has come quite to the fore and we get questioned as to why we don’t have food gardens.”

Like so many other public gardens, Dunedin Botanic Gardens has limited resources of space, staff and funds, and despite public interest, there aren’t any plans at present to incorporate a food garden.

I asked Wheeler about education at the gardens, and she explained one of the funding hardships they have faced in recent years.  “New Zealand’s government has money to spend on environmental education through the Ministry of Education, though six years ago the funding allocated to Dunedin was pulled.  Geographically, the Auckland area was deemed to be more needy and the funding was redirected away from Dunedin.  Past programs had to be done through the curriculum, and we had an on-site education staff go out to schools to let them know what we had to offer, however we had to let that person go when funding was cut, which was an enormous loss.

However 5 kits that were developed before the funding cuts continue to run today, and are available to schools to use during their visits to the garden.  Kit themes include: Orienteering (go around garden and answer questions on certain plants).  Flower power (dress up and learn about pollination, fertilization)  Weather watch (learn how to read rainfall and thermometer readings),  Birds of the Aviary (where they’re from, why they’ve evolved as they have), Maori Uses program:  (learn about flax weaving and plants in culture).  “It’s sort of piecemeal, but it does allow us to offer something, and 8 to 12 schools still regularly book a kit every year.”

Wheeler continues, “A huge thing we want to do more of is outreach programs, whether to school children or older people.  A suburban school came to us and said, ‘We’d like to learn about the bush.  We have 80 kids.’  We decided we could give a half hour tour and seed balls.   We have to manage it quite closely – we do what we can because we’re quite keen on teaching kids about plants and caring for the environment.  The outreach we really want to do is to high schools, because kids between ages 5 and 10 are catered for with environmental education programs, but in high school, environmental education and horticulture tend to flag because math and language are prioritized.”

In fact, Dunedin Botanic Garden has been recently developing a unique relationship with a neighborhood school.  The headmaster has mandated that every class in the school visit the botanic gardens every year.  One of the teachers contacted the botanic gardens to inquire about whether there was a service project that their students could get involved in at the botanic gardens.

“Knowing how many resources are involved in setting up and running something like that, we were very reluctant to jump in without having a clear plan, which takes a lot of time, and without being sure we had the resources to execute it well.  Recently we decided yes, we can do it: they can do litter pickup.  Our gum trees shed eucalyptus leaves and bark and the students are keen to help us clean it up over a 2-hour period.”

But from Barbara Wheeler’s perspective, the botanic garden doesn’t want the students just picking up litter.  They want the students to learn something about plants while they’re there.  The concept in development is grounded in citizen science.  Intermediate level students will observe flowering times of plants in the garden, recording whether it is in flower, bud or autumn leaf at a given time of season.  This information will assist the botanic garden in developing a key record of significant plants in their collection.  The collaboration can continue indefinitely, and could be extraordinarily useful in monitoring the impact of climate change through the garden’s collections. And the potential for sharing and growing is infinite, with similar partnerships possible between schools themselves.

One of the things that has been identified in Dunedin Botanic Garden’s strategic plans is strengthening education, and hiring a full-time education staff member is a necessary step to achieve that.  Wheeler is hopeful that once their 150th anniversary is behind them, they can begin focusing more on education.

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