Remembering Lawrie Metcalf – Plantsman

Lawrie Metcalf passed away on 18 August 2017. 

Cover of A garden centuryLawrie Metcalf had a long association with the Christchurch Botanic Gardens as the Assistant Curator from 1955 – 68 and the Assistant Director from 1968 -1977. It was important to him to demonstrate how gardeners could incorporate natives into their garden and create a garden that truly reflected New Zealand, something uniquely our own.

We can thank Lawrie for the native plant display in the Botanic Garden which was created to showcase what can be done with our native plants. Just like walking through a piece of bush this garden is the ideal place to take tourists to see native plants in a natural setting and an is an inspiration for the home gardener wanting to incorporate natives into their garden. He created displays that not only looked magnificent but also educated the visitor, placing the gardens on a solid scientific footing he also collected plants from throughout the country.

Cover of A Photographic Guide to Trees of New Zealand Cover of A photographic guide to alpine plants of new zealand Cover of A photographic guide to ferns of New Zealand

As the botanist with the Canterbury Museum he collected live plants and herbarium specimens on expeditions to alpine areas in the South Island expanding scientific understanding of what grew there. Lawrie expanded the international seed exchange programme to send native plant seeds to hundreds of botanic gardens, receiving seeds from around the world to trial at the botanic gardens. Later moving to Invercargill, as Director of Parks and Recreation for the Invercargill City Council, he continued his work establishing a sub-antarctic collection at Queens Park.

Lawrie was born in Christchurch and while at school Dr L.W. McCaskill (1900–1985) got him interested in growing native plants. He undertook his horticultural training and has gone on to greatly inspire young horticulturalists many of whom went on to hold senior positions. In his semi-retirement he ran a nursery in Nelson with his wife Lena and continued to publish books.

Cover of The cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses Cover of The propagation of New Zealand Native Plants

Lawrie had a crucial role in the registration of cultivars of New Zealand native plants, dedicating 55 years to the task during which he published an international register of over 800 hebes.

He was president of the Canterbury Botanical Society and was awarded the Cockayne Gold Medal, The Loder Cup, Ian Galloway Outstanding Achievement Award, Veitch Memorial Medal and the Companion of the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) for services to horticulture and conservation. In addition his work was acknowledged earlier this year with the naming of the herbarium at the Botanic Gardens the Lawrie Metcalf Herbarium by the Christchurch City Council.

Cover of The cultivation of New Zealand trees and shrubsLawrie used his love of photography in his many books the most well-known of which is The cultivation of New Zealand trees and shrubs, originally published in 1972. This book gave Kiwis the knowledge of how to identify, grow and care for natives with confidence and was written in a way anyone could understand.

The landscaping trend towards natives shows no sign of abating and Metcalf’s books on native plants, trees and shrubs, alpines, grasses, ground covers, ferns and hebes, all written in a practical style and imparting a wealth of scientific knowledge,  will continue to inspire New Zealand gardeners and horticulturalists for years to come.

Further reading

Mahi māra – Gardening – A labour of love

What a dismal day it was here in Ōtautahi the other Sunday. Raining and cold. I really did not feel like going outside and working in the māra. However, the day was clearing and I had my Pirita to sow.

Seeds
Pirita/green mistletoe seeds

In an effort to boost diversity and bring native birds back into the city, Christchurch City Council have launched a Citizen Science Project. The Backyard Mistletoe Project is a city wide project that encourages people to sow native mistletoe in their backyards. 9000 Pirita seeds have been harvested from Banks Peninsula and distributed to 450 eager Christchurch gardeners.

Each gardener has registered with CCC and has committed to sowing and monitoring 20 seeds. With a success rate of 5% we will be lucky if one plant germinates from 20 seeds.

My friend Sally and I registered. She collected our seeds from the Botanic Gardens. They had to be sown the following day. So out into the cold, wet garden I traipsed looking for bare branches of appropriate host trees to sow these tiny taonga.

Buddy
Unhelpful gardening pal

Meanwhile, my devoted little gardening pal Buddy Boy elected to remain inside. Curled up tight, asleep on the bed.

Although seed sowing registration has now closed, anyone interested can still register online to follow the projects progress.

More information

Celebrating our native plants

One of the ways we celebrate our New Zealand environment is in our garden landscapes. I love the way New Zealand architects and landscapers have moved towards putting our houses firmly into their natural environment.

Getting the same effect in your own small un-architect-designed garden can be a bit more of a challenge. Landscaping with native plants is its own special skill.

The easy bit is getting the plants go grow. Choosing plants native to your own little bit of the New Zealand ecosystem guarantees plants that will flourish. Our own Christchurch City Council has published a wonderful series outlining the plants native to your bit of Otautahi.

Putting it together to create an harmonious whole demands creativity and a bit of understanding of the native ecosystem. Fortunately there are lots of books to help you out with ideas and information. We have a booklist If you want to landscape with New Zealand native plants to make it easy for you. Isobel Gabites lead the way in 1998 with a book which used natural plant associations to create designs for gardens. Many books since then have gone on to offer inspiring examples and essential planting information to help create the desired effect.

Think you need a lot of space for a native garden? Think again. What about this little beauty planted by the CCC gardeners outside the City Rebuild building on Lichfield Street (just behind the Lichfield Street carpark). It only measures around 3×7 metres and looks like a mini forest.

CCC native garden by City Rebuild in Lichfield St
CCC native garden by City Rebuild in Lichfield St

Growing local: take a leaf from New Zealand books

"Growing gardens for free" book coverI have a tiny, tiny garden, most of which is devoted to growing food. However, when we bought our small property, I was determined to have some native plantings as well. Now, nearly five years later, home-grown cabbage trees, pittosporum, kowhai and flaxes fill a corner too shady for vege, and we’ve squeezed a line of corokia in alongside the drive, thanks to the advice of Trees for Canterbury. I was struck (sorry for the pun) by how easy it is to grow many native plants, either from seed or from cuttings, and Growing gardens for free by New Zealand author Geoff Bryant is now my propagation bible.

A healthy population of insects now make their undisturbed homes in my microscopic little patch of native bush and last year, for the first time since I moved in, I saw waxeyes and fantails. (At first all I encountered in the initially lawn-filled garden were sparrows and blackbirds.) It’s such a little planting but I was amazed by how quickly even this had a noticeable effect on my garden’s ecology. Imagine if we all just planted a little corner of natives: we could create a green corridor for so many creatures across out garden city. If you’re keen and seeking like minds, there are many individuals and organisations working towards greening Christchurch/Otautahi, and you can find out about them on CINCH, our community information database.

The library has many good books on planting native plants in your garden – why not celebrate New Zealand book month by leafing (sorry again!) through a few?