TOSSI - Digging for the future

By: Jackie Russell

Climbing a hillside, ominously referred to as slip gully, to smash aside mounds of kikuyu grass and dig holes in the ground is a remarkably fun way to pass a Sunday morning. Community planting days at Tāwharanui Open Sanctuary are the culmination of at least 12 to 18 months of planning, and decades of wisdom gained from trial and error.

When up to 200 volunteers unwind out of their vehicles, most travelling from Auckland city suburbs, they pick up a spade and complete a near final stage of human interaction in forest regeneration. They are keen to understand what their toil achieves, and TOSSI volunteers and Auckland Council park rangers share knowledge, while they keep the workers safe, fuelled and engaged.

Volunteers keep meticulous records of seedlings planted each year.
Volunteers keep meticulous records of seedlings planted each year.

In the years leading up to planting, sectors of the open sanctuary are selected to regenerate bush in the gullies and leave the plateaus for views and farming. Council rangers work with the farm team to retire pastureland and make any fencing changes. To maintain the genetic strength of existing flora, seed and seedlings are collected from areas within the sanctuary that have a similar aspect and demonstrate vigour. Visitors occasionally ask if they can bring a special plant to Tāwharanui, maybe to commemorate a family member, but this is not permitted. Introduced plants can bring disease, weeds and genetically inappropriate flora that could weaken or overtake naturally occurring native bush.

There are records of harvest locations, collection and sowing dates, nursery volunteers who sow the seed, germination success or failure, transference to planting bags or tubes and the final planting out season. The information helps the nursery team learn what works well and what does not, and the grand totals are a great motivation for those of us who are goal-oriented.

In the weeks leading up to a community planting day, TOSSI volunteers become logistics managers, sorting and shifting more than 5000 seedlings – ready for freighting to planting sites. Two days before the big dig, businesses, schools, community groups and individuals distribute seedlings on hillsides in preparation for planting. Mānuka and kānuka account for the bulk of hillside planting because they are tough, and we don’t plant forests. Instead, we plant to create the conditions in which forests can establish.

In 2020, Sunday community planting also included māhoe, karamu (coprosma) and tī kōuka (cabbage tree), which provide food for native birds, which then conveniently spread seed with their poo. After the work is done, TOSSI volunteers follow up with fencing to protect more vulnerable plants, some weeding and some infill planting.

Tāwharanui is not a garden and planted areas are left as much as possible to do their thing. When wandering through the remaining ancient forest at Tāwharanui, it seems incredible that anyone decided to cut native bush down. We cannot replicate that original bush, but we can do our best to provide a habitat for the birds and maybe in my grandchildren’s lifetime, today’s planting sites will have mature trees in them, too. Volunteers are welcome year-round.


Jackie Russell, TOSSI


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