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by Claire Nolan
I recently took a trip to the Prison Garden on Matai Moana Mount Crawford.
After a winding trip up the hill to the car park, we doubled back to the mulch mound, and the somewhat hidden entrance to the garden. This is one of the best views in Wellington – Mount Crawford is 163m high.
We were met by Patty Zais, a garden volunteer, who gave an initial talk and then took us on a tour.
Trustees of the Garden Milan Magan and Jeff Zais told us:
“The Miramar Prison Garden is a half hectare space across the road from the now closed Mount Crawford Prison. The greenhouse and surrounding gardens are the centre of what used to be an extensive garden and farm tended by prisoners for 100 years.
“The community garden was established in 2013 shortly after the Prison closed. It provides a creative space for a group of 60 plus families and 130 individuals including children and we regularly host visitors who wander through daily. Each member has a plot to grow produce.”
Patty Zais said:
“It’s a deeply spiritual place for me. It involves deep connection with the soil, plants and history. When I am up there, I feel at peace. When I talk to visitors, I feel humbled by the stories they share. They talk of their joys and struggles. They share their heart up there and I feel honoured to hear those stories.”
Kate Curtis, another garden volunteer, loves the trees.
“If entering the Garden from the popular walking track to Shelly Bay, visitors pass through a small grove of Western Red cedars, their footfalls quietened by a thick carpet of needles. They are estimated to be around 75 years old. Tall pines planted in 1907 also surround the garden providing some shelter.”
Starting just below the prison site is one of Wellington’s most pristine freshwater streams. It meanders through the regenerating bush of the Centennial reserve. It is home to the Kourā crayfish, Tuna longfin and shortfin eels. And the giant bush dragonfly. This is a little-known area of Wellington with an exciting and precious ecosystem. It must be protected.
The continuing efforts of the Predator-free Peninsula team mean there are no possums or rats to steal precious produce, and the gardens make use of a ready supply of manure from the cows and horses on the farm next door.
The Pollinator Garden contains the ruined foundations of the Prison Superintendent’s House. Now home to a healthy colony of bees, the honey is Pohutukawa creamy and pale enough for each member to get a jar.
The Spiral Garden contains a dug earth sculpture in the shape of a spiral, created by guerrilla gardener John Overton in early 2013 – a reflection of human spirituality and the sacredness of the space.
The soil isn’t very deep and underneath it’s Greywacke (rotten rock). There is a lot of clay. In the winter it’s spongy and soggy. Compost has significantly improved the soil. The site is unusually sheltered for the area and is also sunny and relatively level.
Foragers can find nasturtium flowers and seeds, onion weed, radish pods, plantain, dandelion leaves, parsley, Kawa Kawa, Renga Renga – all edible – as well as potatoes, hops, artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, feijoas, spinach, flax, pumpkins, puha, and herbs.
The retaining wall beside the stairs leading up to the spiral garden from the Puriri Garden is made from pieces of broken concrete from the exercise yard of the Wellington Women’s Prison which was at Mt Cook.
The area could become a fantastic tourist attraction, not only for its history but also as a heritage park, with four Pā sites of great significance, one of then 600 years old.
But the recent application by the Wellington Company and the Port Nicholson Block Trust to build around 700 houses on the site is very worrying to the garden community. When geotechnical engineers carried out drilling within the garden, concern that the historic garden might be lost became very real.
Thankfully the fast-tracking was declined. However, until the future of the wider area surrounding the garden has been determined, anxiety remains.
This application will now go out to the public for consultation and requires a resource consent from the council to proceed. The public’s opposition to the housing development created a surge of visitors to the garden and many new members.
But this article is about the garden, the volunteers, their passion and what can be grown there, as well as the connections people make and balm for the soul. Nature and gardening bring people together and both are healing.
I had a wonderful afternoon and encourage everyone to visit and enjoy this enchanted garden.