Sunday, May 26, 2024

Q&A: Micheline Newton

(Auckland Botanic Gardens)

Micheline Newton
Originally from England, Micheline Newton has now firmly set down roots at Auckland Botanic Gardens. A former nurse with a degree in tourism, the visitor services manager devotes her time to nursing (in a way!) the garden’s plants while guiding its guests, as she explained to EastLife.

What makes Auckland Botanic Gardens a ‘must visit’? Why is it needed?

A visit to Auckland Botanic Gardens is ideal for wellbeing on a variety of levels. We layer information and vary activities so there’s something for everyone. Whether visiting for its aesthetic value or seeking advice on plants and gardening, we can ensure people have a great experience. It’s also a great choice for a family day out while regular events provide even more reasons for people to come and see what makes it so special.

In general, botanic gardens not only play a huge role in health and wellbeing but also in conservation and research. For that reason, the work we do here is extremely important.

How much has changed since you began working at Auckland Botanic Gardens and is there more change to come?

I started here in 2005, following the opening of the Potter Children’s Garden and Huakaiwaka visitor centre. Prior to that, most visitors were avid gardeners aged over 65 and the plants were the sole focus – we hadn’t been paying enough attention to the people. Since then, we’ve put in a lot of effort to raise its profile as a family venue, so there are even more reasons to visit, including events such as Sculpture in the Gardens.

Looking ahead, we are replacing two large glasshouses with a new one and we’re also hoping to add a new, co-designed Maori garden.

How involved is curator/manager, Jack Hobbs, these days? How inspirational is he?

Jack is extremely hands-on and remains passionate about connecting people with plants and gardens. He has instilled the value of responding to research and understanding how to remain relevant to visitors, delivering purposeful outcomes for our community. With the financial support of [community group] Friends of the Gardens, he has encouraged us to attend conferences and explore gardens around the world to develop our skills and knowledge. You will still find him walking the gardens with his camera, capturing their beauty and sharing it with the team. His passion is infectious.

Did you have any garden experience prior to taking on your current role? How hands-on are you now? Do you have a garden at home?

I’ve always loved gardens and parks. My dad was an avid gardener and he turned one of our cider apple orchards into a vegetable garden. My brothers and I spent many years helping him maintain these. I love gardens, but my fingers were not as green as my dad’s.

These days, I don’t work in a gardening position. However, as I’m surrounded by expert gardeners, I can’t help but pick up tips and I even speak about plants using Latin plant names. Five years ago, I bought four acres of bare land near Te Kauwhata. I’ve since planted around 5000 natives and I’m introducing exotics too. I certainly wouldn’t put my garden on public show, but I love it.

How beneficial has your nursing and tourism background been?

I developed so many transferable skills from nursing. The same principles apply: love, care, attention, with the right people/plants, the right conditions and the right place all needed for both people and plants to thrive. We often say that we’re working in the ‘wellbeing industry’, which has been most apparent considering the challenges of the past few years.

Following my degree, I worked in the domestic tourism sector and loved getting to know what makes NZ special – its flora. This also gave me an appreciation for all that is required when creating a great visitor experience.

Hamilton Gardens is set to charge ‘out of towners’. Any plans to do likewise?

There are no plans to charge visitors at Auckland Botanic Gardens. There may be charges for some event activities but not for garden entry. Hamilton Gardens has a single-entry facility for their amazing themed gardens, so they can ringfence these areas for paid entry, but there will still be some free access for everyone.

Why was Sculpture in the Gardens postponed? Any other major events planned for this spring and summer?

Following the pandemic, two other large, outdoor sculpture exhibitions are now set to run during the same summer, 2023-24. Artists spend a lot of time and money creating their works, so having three shows on at the same time would have meant more competition for artworks, sponsorship and patronage. Moving our exhibition to next summer was definitely the most sensible decision.

Our spring blossoms are always a great drawcard and the Friends of the Gardens will still hold an indoor sculpture exhibition, called Holding Ground, this summer. It will feature work by new artists and many who have been involved with Sculpture in the Gardens in the past. There will be guided walks to showcase our amazing permanent collection of outdoor works. Details for these and other events, including workshops, are on our website.

If you could grow any plant imaginable, what and why?

I am fascinated by a plant called Psychotria elata (Hot Lips). Found in Central and South America, it has evolved to attract pollinators such as hummingbirds and butterflies. You only see the bracts in the shape of lips for a short while before they open to reveal the flowers. I’m a Rolling Stones’ fan and the bracts remind me of Mick Jagger’s lips!
If you could be Prime Minister for a day, what would you do first and why?

I’d declare a public holiday to encourage everyone to enjoy New Zealand’s gardens due to the wellbeing and understanding of the value of plants they offer.

If you could invite any three people to dinner, who and why?

David Attenborough must be the first – what a life he’s led! His knowledge and stories would keep everyone fascinated and entertained. I’d also invite Paul McCartney – I would love to know more about the inspiration behind his music and he could lead a singsong around the piano after dinner. Finally, Oprah Winfrey – she has met so many people and would offer great stories and insights.

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