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In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King

Chapter Eight: Conservation of Karitane

page 103

Chapter Eight: Conservation of Karitane

Karitane is one of the older coastal settlements in the South Island, being associated with whaling in the 1830s. The area is known as Te Awakoeo (stream of the small paua) and there is evidence of a fortified Maori pa. Dominant features are the Waikouaiti River, Blueskin Bay and the peninsula. Seacliff is up the long, twisty, hill road, five kilometres to the south of Karitane.

A year after he commenced his tenure at Seacliff, Truby and Bella bought land on the Karitane peninsula, and three years later built a holiday house. Firstly, he had to solve the problems of nature and the regular incursion of the sea, which threatened to isolate the peninsula, Mary King tells of her father's Canute-like exploits:

By act of God the peninsula was several times doomed to become an island; but by the tireless energy of Dr. King and his helpers it page 104 remained a peninsula. A storm would arise in the night, and suddenly the waves would sweep through the marram grasses, swirl down the sandy road and out into the river. It seemed as if all his work would be demolished in an hour. With lantern in hand, Dr. King would arouse every villager out of his bed, and with wheel barrows, carts, shovels and every available vehicle, set to work to beat the waves at their game.'1

That King would seek to mobilise the people of Karitane is interesting enough: that they would turn out in the middle of the night speaks volumes for his determination and powers of motivation.

In 1902 King gave a lecture on Seaside Planting to describe his Karitane conservation efforts. The government duly published it in Tree Culture in New Zealand. 2 King's description of his work is illuminating, and worth reading in full:

The area dealt with at Karitane consisted of two entirely distinct parts: (1) a sand isthmus about 4 chains wide and 8 chains long, connecting the Karitane peninsula with the mainland, and (2) the peninsula itself.

In the early days of the colony some half-dozen whalers had their huts erected on the isthmus, and the sand was securely held against wind and sea by a natural growth of flax and native grasses. Later the huts were abandoned, and cattle soon destroyed the vegetation both of the isthmus and the neighbouring sandhills along the coast of the mainland.

Up to this time the peninsula, which rises steeply to a terrace about thirty or forty feet above sea-level, had been quite free from drifting sand, and was closely covered with a luxuriant growth of grass and clover. Now the sand commenced to drift along the beach and across the isthmus, some finding its way into the estuary and contributing to the shoaling and ruining of the port; and another portion travelling up the slopes of the peninsula, killing all the vegetation in its path except a gorse bush here and there. Sometimes the ground was so deeply covered with sand that a dray could be driven over the remains of the page 105 fences, and at others, the bare earth, devoid of any sign of plant life, was exposed. The isthmus became so much lowered that from time to time it was submerged during high tides, and the river threatened to resume its ancient course straight through the neck, which would have completed the ruin of the port.

At this stage, in 1899, the matter was taken in hand by the Karitane District Improvement Society. The isthmus was fenced, and manuka scrub was lashed to the bases of the posts which skirted high-water mark, in order to accumulate a sand barrier. The scrub was maintained at about a foot or more above sand level, and as the sand rose other layers were added from time to time.

A second similar line of scrub defence, parallel to and a quarter of a chain back from the first line, was erected later. In the meantime, marram grass had been planted; and a clay embankment and roadway, protected by the scrub and a fringe of marram, was carried across the isthmus from the mainland to the peninsula.

At the present time an uninterrupted sand dune stands as an effective barrier to all further sea encroachments. This dune, eight chains long by over a quarter of a chain wide, and averaging from six to seven feet high at the crest, is densely covered with marram grass, the leaves of which carry the wind shelter two feet higher. This sand ridge is increasing in height at the rate of fully two feet a year, and it has raised the level of the ocean beach in an inclined plane stretching several chains down to low-water mark.

Three things have been accomplished - (1) some thousands of tons of drift sand, in transit to shoal the estuary and prevent plant growth on the land, have been arrested, bound together and laid down in the desired position as a sea wall sheltering a permanent roadway. (2) A wind barrier has been formed 8 feet high. This now shelters plantations of Olearias, Box-thorns, Pines, Cypress, Willows and Cabbage-trees, which are making good growth to the north of the roadway. Clover has sprung up wherever the sand is not occupied by marram grass or shrubs — all this taking place where only a few years ago sea wreckage was page 106 strewn at every specially high tide. (3) The portion of the peninsula which has been rendered for the time being valueless by drifting sand has clothed itself with the most luxuriant covering of grass and clover wherever we have not planted shrubs and trees.

The peninsula, some 43 acres in extent, rises abruptly from the sea to a height in places of 130 feet; and the problem before us was how to clothe it with shelter most expeditiously and economically. The Domain Board had practically no funds, and certainly nothing to expend in experimenting.

The property immediately adjoining the isthmus belonged to myself, and I decided to give a fair trial to the methods which had been found effective on the islands and sea coast of Scotland. Fortunately ample data were available in a series of essays on the subject, published in the Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society.

With these before us, screens of palings, manuka scrub, etc., were erected round the margin of the terrace, and, under cover of these shelters, belts of Conifers, Gums and the harder deciduous trees, with some native evergreens such as Ngaio and Cabbage-tree were planted. These now form dense established thickets, in which the Blue-gums reach 20 feet in height, Pinis Insignis 16 feet, Silver Birch and Rowans 8 feet, etc.

The success of these plantations could not have been greater, but the initial cost of providing a shelter rendered them expensive. There can be no doubt that shelter is the first consideration for seaside planting, and that no form of shelter quite equals a 'dead fence' of palings or scrub if it be desired to raise a belt of trees to a given height in a minimum of time.

We find it of inestimable advantage to work the whole of the soil thoroughly beforehand, and where this is feasible we never resort to pit-planting. Trenching by hand is, of course, out of the question on the score of expense, and is unnecessary (in this district at least) because special ploughing and cultivating prove equally effective.

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We plough shallow in the summer, clean well with cultivator and harrows, plough deeply with a digger-plough in the autumn, crop with potatoes the following spring where suitable, and realise a profit. Where too exposed for potatoes, we sow down crimson clover or annual red clover.

Once shelter has been established, a wide range of trees and shrubs will flourish at the seaside as well as, or even better than, inland. The baneful influence of the sea breezes laden with salt ceases when we moderate the rate of the air currents to a certain degree, and diminishes as the trees grow taller on account of acclimitisation and the increased toughness and strength of the leaves and twigs of mature plants. If ground space, time and expense were of no importance, the ideal seaside shelter would commence with marram or lyme grass on the low-lying sands, and rise gently up the slopes through graded Veronicas, Flax, Senecios, Olearias and Pittosporums to plantations of loftier Conifers, Gums and deciduous trees.

In experimenting with screen formations at Karitane we lost much time and were put to considerable expense, in places, by the more or less complete failure of the majority of the plants relied on at Home. Sea-buckthorn, Tamarisk, Snowberry and Dogwood are universally recommended as pioneers by all Home authorities; yet, with the exception of Tamarisk, none of these plants have made as much headway in fully exposed situations here in three years as some other shrubs have done in a single season. Even the Tamarisk has proved capricious, and has done well only under comparatively favourable conditions. None of our evergreen Oaks have made and sustained more than a few inches of growth per annum, and the same applies to the English Maple. In this district these trees are useless as pioneers. Gorse, broom and briar, in spite of their thriving cannot be recommended, on account of their coming under the Noxious Weeds Act.

New Zealand Flax has proved one of the hardiest and best shelter plants of moderate height. For rapidly-effective temporary shelter, page 108 Lupins are unequalled, but they are comparatively short-lived, though the Lupin will keep on re-sowing itself. The Lupin does not rob the ground to so great a distance as the Mallow, will flourish in almost pure sand and has the further advantage of storing up additional organic matter in the soil. It must be borne in mind that when the windward side of the screen is composed of Mallow or Lupin planted close up to permanent shrubs, the latter are left bare on the death of the former for a number of feet above ground level, and are then apt to suffer severely from the effects of wind whistling through them. In spite of these objections, no shelter has proved more useful than Lupin and Mallow when used judiciously. A fringe of either or both, placed a sufficient distance away from other shrubs, is invaluable.

If limited to one kind of plant for the rapid and economical formation of a dense permanent shelter screen up to 12 feet, I should choose Veronica Elliptica. Cuttings can be propagated by the thousand with a minimum of trouble, and the young plants need no protection or shelter of any kind when placed in their permanent positions. Stray plants of this Veronica form an indigenous growth here almost to the water's edge, on the cliffs fully exposed to the south-west wind laden with sea-spray. Other hardy Veronicas such as Arborea and Colensoimajor also do well here.

The hardier Senecios and Olearias have proved not only indifferent to wind, but are found to be more healthy and vigorous when exposed. Like the Veronicas, well-rooted cuttings may be planted out directly into exposed situations without being sheltered.

Among exotic shrubs, the Escallonia Macanthra has proved one of the hardiest and best, but propagation is much more troublesome than in the case of the foregoing plants, and is less easy to establish.

The best of the Pittosporums (P. Ralphi) and the best of the Coprosmas (C. Lucida) make rapid growth, and are thoroughly hardy and reliable.

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Nothing we have tried with the exception of Olearia Traversii, outstrips the Cabbage-tree in rapidity of growth, and the extreme case of propagation by seed renders it one of the best trees for extensive planting at the seaside.

Goat-willow and Box-thorn have both proved very hardy, quick-growing and satisfactory. The Broadleaf, on account of its hardiness and permanence, is one of the most desirable seaside shrubs. We consider it a good pioneer to plant on the windward side of any shrubs of doubtful permanency. The Broadleaf can be relied upon for ultimate shelter and continuous steady growth.

The Ngaio, which is so valuable in the north, has proved almost a failure, owing to the severe cutting-back of young plants by frost, and the ravages of aphides in summer, though there are some good adult specimens in the district. When it is added that adult trees here are much infested by borers, many of them dying from this cause, it will be realised that the Ngaio is of doubtful value in this locality.

The Pohutakawa is killed outright in cold winters, and the Taupata and Karaka are too much cut by frost to make any satisfactory progress as pioneers.

Of lofty evergreen trees, the Pinus Muricata and hardier Gums promise to serve our purpose best. Some of the hardier wattles are expected to form good shelter quickly. Cupressus Macrocarpa and Pinus Insignis grow fairly satisfactorily, but are more cut by the sea breezes than Pinus Muricata.

This tends to indicate that King had growing confidence in his ability to understand nature, to interact with it, to influence it, if not to dominate it. The report cannot be dismissed as plagiarism, showing instead a clear understanding of natural processes and how to work within them. He was never afraid to seek the public stage and tell people about his work.

King's property, later named Kingscliff, was built as a holiday house, while the Kings continued to live at the asylum. He would page 110
Kingscliff, the house at Karitane.

Kingscliff, the house at Karitane.

later use it as a therapeutic outreach for his 'recoverables', as well as encouraging his more trustworthy cases to walk from Seacliff to Karitane and picnic there under attendant supervision.

The house, which still exists today, is visible across the estuary from Karitane. An imposing two-storey building with white weatherboards, it nestles against a grove of trees. Its original construction reinforces a commendable aspect of Truby's character:

Set in beautiful grounds of trees and flowerbeds, the house was not only pleasing to the eye, but extremely interesting. It had been built round a tree, which grew up through the livingroom, spreading its shady branches over the roof. Dr King was eccentric: he would rather live with the tree than commit the sin of cutting down so fine a specimen. That he would have to live with its inevitable inhabitants, spiders and grubs, didn't worry him; he was the first conservationist. The new owners had no qualms about removing the tree to make a more conventional but still charming livingroom.3

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The garden covered at least an acre, and incorporated a rhododendron dell, one of his gardening trademarks, together with a grove of hazelnuts, a daffodil garden for Bella, various flowering shrubs, roses and a large stand of gum trees. In her oral history recollections,4 Mary tells of Truby frequently renting the house out, and the Kings camping under the gum trees in a tent, with access to the bathroom in the house. It is unclear whether they camped by choice or because Truby forgot he'd already tenanted the house.

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1 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 108.

2  Truby King, lecture in Tree Culture in New Zealand, 1902.

3 McLagan. Stethoscope and Saddlebags.

4 Mary King White, oral history, ATL AB879, 1992.