Tickets on sale now

How Taranaki's historic cemetery became a tourist draw

In Taranaki, a group of volunteer gardeners has found a novel solution to the problem of too many plants and nowhere to put them.

They've adopted the historic Te Henui Cemetery and – armed with buckets, spades, cuttings, bulbs and other bits and bobs, including the blessing of the New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) – they've transformed this public space into a delightful old-fashioned flower garden. 

When the cemetery was listed in the annual Taranaki Garden Festival, out-of-towners were amazed. "Because of its heritage, I think people expected it to be small and colonial with maybe a handful of old roses," says Susan, one of the volunteers. 

Te Henui Cemetery is New Plymouth's oldest public cemetery. The first graves were dug here in 1861, after the Taranaki Provincial Council, as it was known in the day, ringfenced 24 acres for a public burial ground on the fringe of the growing city centre.

The town, of course, grew around it and now the cemetery sits smack-bang in the middle in the city.

By the 1950s, most of the original plots were full, with any empty plots pre-sold to relatives of the interred, so new burials became a rarity. Like other cemeteries of its era, Te Henui ended up verging on derelict, with little attention given to it other than mowing the lawns. 

Fortuitously, in the 1980s, the cemetery was restored under the visionary guidance of legendary local parks director Alan Jellyman.

Jellyman was no council number cruncher; he was a passionate plantsman who saw an opportunity to create a gem of a public park. It's thanks to his council crew that the cemetery came to boast a wide variety of beautiful and special trees, including magnolias, cherries, crabapples and maples, rather than the bog standard low-maintenance specimens we associate with so many modern public landscapes.

With New Plymouth Boys' High on one side and Girls' High on the other, and the popular Te Henui Walkway running along its riverside boundary, the cemetery never lacks for visitors, from dog walkers to sightseeing tourists and hormonal teenagers.

But the people who spend the most time here are the cemetery's volunteer gardeners (who only wanted to be known by their given names). Susan, her husband Rob, Nick, and Mary average 300-400 hours a month between them, while others pop in as time allows. They all wear badges "so we don't scare away any visitors who might think we're just a bunch of strange people out in our old clothes," jokes Susan. 

Susan loves gardening and her own property – a fifth of an acre – is jam-packed with plants. "My husband had banned me from digging up any more lawn or his vege patch, so I started looking elsewhere for space."

She found it, quite by accident, 10 years ago. "Our son went to Boys' High and was doing an art project on a headstone so as a nosy mother I went to Te Henui Cemetery see whose old grave it came from."

While wandering around she noticed that, while the main road through the cemetery was fairly well planted, the further you went back, the more room there was. Some plots had been gardened by relatives, but many, many more were begging to be planted on the sly. "I'm usually a rule follower," Susan jokes, "but we started off with surplus plants in a random back corner and then worked our way forward." 

Originally, she says, there was "room for everything". "It was quite exciting, jamming in whatever we were donated and seeing it all come into flower in spring."

Another volunteer, Mary, regularly walked her pet dog through the cemetery. "I started pulling out a few weeds as I went, then I started chatting to the other gardeners, and then three years ago I joined them," she recalls. "My husband died seven years ago and we used to work so well in our garden together. It's not the same doing all the hard tasks on your own. At the cemetery, even when you're not working on the same plot, it's nice to have the company of others digging and pulling weeds nearby." 

Mary admits that since starting at the cemetery, she's made her home garden less intensive, with fewer annuals and more mulch, to free up her time for Te Henui. 

And if she spots something unusual or intriguing at the garden centre, she's more inclined to take it to the cemetery and ask Susan to find an appropriate spot to tuck it into.

It was Mary's idea to mass plant crowd-pleasing tulips and she's also a fan of tall perfumed perennial phlox. "My mother used to grow the most magnificent phlox but they've gone by the wayside, so it's a thrill to find them and see the enjoyment they bring. Visitors often say, 'Oh, I haven't seen that for years!'" 

Mary has a soft spot for irises, campanulas and lovable rogues such as Russell lupins. She explains, "One of the neat things about gardening here is that very enthusiastic plants, such as Japanese anemones, that you'd be wary of planting at home are perfect for our little concrete-locked plots."

"We're lucky," Susan adds, "that when the cemetery began, New Plymouth was only a moderately wealthy city. Whereas the rich could afford to concrete over their whole plots, most of our plots only have concrete edges and a headstone, so they make perfect garden beds."

Self-seeders are actively encouraged to take root in any cracks in the concrete. The white lacy blooms of Orlaya grandiflora are a delight in spring, while false valerian (Centranthus ruber) seeds so freely that it's in flower from September until the end of May. While the gardeners actively scatter the seed of one season's 'Blue Admiral' lupins to ensure the next, the Velcro-sticky seeds of tall blue Chinese forget-me-nots (Cynoglossum amabile) happily hitch a ride to anyone who brushes past.

Plant donations are always gratefully accepted, even of things the volunteer gardeners might not personally like, such as the red hot pokers that Rob dismisses as "tanker track plants". Familiarity might have bred contempt for these old farm driveway stalwarts, but in winter their flaming orange-red torches light up many a dull corner. 

Perhaps this everything-is-welcome policy is the secret to the cemetery's success, because beauty abounds in its biodiversity. "I don't think people would come to look at it week after week if it was all massed natives."

Instead, there are hellebores in early winter, followed by a show of deciduous magnolias in August. In spring there are self-sown cottage annuals and masses of blossoms and bulbs, with cannas, alstroemerias, dahlias and dozens of swan plants to attract monarch butterflies (and families with small children) throughout summer. 

There are sometimes issues with light green fingers picking the tulips or plundering blooms to lay on graves, "but we're given many more plants than we lose."

The council, says Susan, has always been appreciative and supportive of their efforts. NPDC head arborist Josh Paice has implemented a regular maintenance programme to lift, shape and limb up trunks to keep the mature and majestic trees looking their best.

"It has made such a big difference and regular visitors have also noticed the improvements. We're very fortunate that Alan Jellyman had the foresight to plant all the trees and the state of them now is a credit to the arborists' skills and attention."

Volunteering to care for such a large public space might sound like a grave responsibility, but it's neither a duty nor a chore for Susan, Rob, Nick and Mary. It's a pleasure.

How Taranaki's historic cemetery became a tourist draw