Aiming for excellence in adult education: blooming partnership

Russel Wedge

Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, New Zealand


In New Zealand, a unique partnership between a botanic garden - Dunedin Botanic Garden - and a tertiary institution - Otago Polytechnic - is flourishing. The Botanic Garden, concerned about the low numbers of qualified horticulturists, approached the tertiary institution to develop a 52-week-long, self-funded Diploma course specializing in the operation and management of botanic gardens. The Diploma course that successfully grew from the partnership two years ago provides an exciting innovative approach to training, through the combination of practical hands-on experience within a botanic garden, coupled with the teaching of the philosophy and management of a botanic garden by the tertiary institution.

The Botanic Garden reaps not only the exciting opportunity to train people in its operation, but also has the added advantage of having students undertake research projects based around the Garden, enabling them to be as creative as they like.

The Diploma in Botanic Garden Management course incorporates subjects ranging from the input of computer plant records to plant conservation and tourism interpretation of the Botanic Garden. The course offers students not only the opportunity to be part of a unique course, but ten students participating in the practical work-experience receive a substantial scholarship.


New Zealand has four major botanic gardens, two in the North Island - Auckland and Wellington - and two in the South Island - Christchurch and Dunedin. The Dunedin Botanic Garden was the first botanic garden to be established in New Zealand, in 1863 - two years after the discovery of gold in the hinterlands of Dunedin. The discovery of gold in 1861 and the gold rush that followed lasted for two years. After the gold rush the population of Dunedin doubled and then trebled with an influx of traders and settlers, making Dunedin New Zealand's wealthiest city.

The City of Dunedin is situated on a dormant volcano lying between the Pacific Ocean with white sandy beaches on one side, and mountains with tussock-covered tundra on the other. Dunedin has a temperate climate with mild summer days (average daily maximum 19oC) and cool winter days (average daily maximum 10oC) with periods of snow. Due to the hilly terrain of Dunedin, the Botanic Garden has a mixture of micro-climates which enable sub-tropical plants, that normally would never survive the cool climate, to grow in the open.

Dunedin has a very green image dating back to the forefathers of the city, who instructed the surveyors in 1847 to provide for parks and open spaces when laying out the town. The green belt that now surrounds the city and the Botanic Garden is due to the foresight of these city planners.

In 1848 Dunedin was surveyed, and a reserve was set aside by the Provincial Government for a Botanic Garden. The first recorded tree planting (two English oaks) was on 30 June 1863, to commemorate the marriage of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra. (The marriage had actually occurred earlier, but it took three months for the news to reach New Zealand.) Unfortunately the Botanic Garden had to be relocated to its present site due to serious flooding of the area, which practically demolished all of the work that had been done. The University of Otago now occupies the old Botanic Garden site. In 1868 the Botanic Garden was relocated (together with the two commemorative oaks), to its present site, which had previously been used by the Acclimatization Society for the introduction of plants and animals.


Looking back through New Zealand's history, it becomes apparent that Dunedin as a city has always placed great emphasis on education. The University of Otago was founded in 1869 as the first University in New Zealand, and the Otago Polytechnic School of Art was founded in the 1870s. Today Dunedin is known as the 'University City' of New Zealand, with students and related business being the main source of revenue for the city.

The Dunedin Botanic Garden placed great emphasis on training and education, and in 1885 the first horticultural apprentice was accepted within the Garden. From the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, the Dunedin Botanic Garden went through a series of major disruptions, caused principally by inconsistent sources of funding, as control of the garden passed between the Provincial Government, the Domain Board and finally to the local government, which today is the Dunedin City Council.

In 1903 David Tannock was appointed Superintendent of Reserves for the Dunedin City Council. Tannock had been educated at Glasgow Technical College and had worked at Kew Gardens in London. He brought with him knowledge, experience and vast amounts of energy. One of his passions was the training and education of staff. He encouraged all employees to become apprentices or to gain qualifications.

Tannock organised public lectures at the technical college in the evenings and on Saturday mornings, covering topics such as botany, entomology, soil science and horticulture practices. To encourage staff to learn about plants, he organised nature walks around the Botanic Garden, teaching and testing the staff's knowledge of the plants. In 1916 he developed a model cottage-garden within the Botanic Garden, and laid it out with flower beds, vegetable plots and lawns as a teaching aid for the staff and public.

Before Tannock travelled to New Zealand he had worked at Kew when the first women trainees were being employed. He was so impressed with the women trainees that, during the labour shortages in New Zealand during the First World War, he began lobbying the Council for women to be employed within the Botanic Garden. But it was not until 1924 that the first woman was employed there. Throughout the Depression years of the 1930s, there was a steady core of 6 to 8 women employed within the Garden, reaching a peak in the Second World War when the staff consisted solely of women. Today the staff of the Garden comprises 80% women. Tannock's enthusiasm for training and education continued throughout his career as Superintendent of the Botanic Garden. He initiated training and rehabilitation programmes that were offered to unemployed men and to returned servicemen after the War. His contribution to education and training within the Garden was considerable, forging the way for later successive educational programmes.

Otago Polytechnic

Otago Polytechnic was one of the first polytechnics to be established in New Zealand in the early 1970s. The first Polytechnic horticulture course was offered in central Otago, providing training in production horticulture topics such as orchards and viticulture. Today, full-time courses at the Polytechnic range from nursing, dental hygiene and tourism to engineering, fishing, computing and Maori studies.

In the early 1990s the New Zealand horticulture and gardening apprenticeship system started to be phased out. The local horticulture industry, and also the Dunedin Botanic Garden, became concerned about the shortage of trained horticulturists. The manager of the Dunedin City Council Parks and Recreation Department approached the Otago Polytechnic to establish a joint training programme, based around the resources of the Dunedin City Council, i.e. the Dunedin Botanic Garden.

From this initial communication a unique partnership started to develop between the Dunedin Botanic Garden and Otago Polytechnic, enabling the first amenity horticulture course at Otago Polytechnic to be offered at Dunedin in 1992. This one-year full-time amenity course offered students practical hands-on training within the Dunedin Botanic Garden, under the supervision of the Botanic Garden Plant Collection Curators, with theoretical training provided by Otago Polytechnic.

The full-time Certificate course in Amenity Horticulture was a success, and the partnership between the Botanic Garden and the Polytechnic developed and strengthened. It became apparent to both partners that there was an opportunity to develop horticulture training further.

Both organisations decided this was an ideal opportunity to develop a second-year full-time course based around the operations and management of a botanic garden.

The Diploma in Botanic Garden Management course was developed. The students applying for the Diploma course need to have completed a first-year Certificate course in Amenity Horticulture or its equivalent, in order to ensure that they have a sound base in horticulture practice. The Diploma in Botanic Garden Management course provides the opportunity for students to gain practical hands-on experience working in the Botanic Garden, with the theoretical knowledge of the operation and management of a botanic garden being provided by the Polytechnic. While students are on practical work experience they are under the supervision of the Botanic Garden staff, but as the course progresses, they gain more responsibility for areas within the Botanic Garden.

The contract

While the development of the Diploma course was proceeding successfully, a third factor was introduced - funding. The Botanic Garden tendered for a commercial contract on the open market. The contract was to supply five full-time gardeners for five days a week, to maintain and develop the Garden under the supervision of the Garden staff.

The Polytechnic tendered and won the contract. Here was an opportunity to fulfill a contract agreement, provide valuable training for horticulture students, secure funding for the Diploma course and supply substantial scholarships to course students.

The Diploma in Botanic Garden Management course and the commercial contract were combined. It is very important that neither the students nor the public perceive the Polytechnic as exploiting the students as unpaid labour. So ten students would be offered scholarships to undertake the practical-work component of the Diploma as qualified gardeners. Each scholarship equates to the minimum wage a qualified gardener would receive on the open market.

Course structure

The Diploma in Botanic Garden Management Course covers the full 52 weeks of the year It comprises 24 weeks of practical work experience within the Botanic Garden and 28 weeks academic tuition and theoretical work. The length of the course gives students the opportunity to experience all four seasons of the Botanic Garden's year.

The students on the Diploma course are organised into two groups, with a minimum of five students in each group. While one group of students is on practical work experience within the Garden for a particular week, the other group of five students is studying academic subjects with the Polytechnic. By structuring the Diploma Course into alternate weeks of study and practical work, students receive a high level of individual tuition because of the small class size.

The Dunedin Botanic Garden staff includes seven Plant Collection Curators, a full-time Botanical Services Officer (the only one in New Zealand to be based within a botanic garden), an Information Service Officer, a Collections Manager and a Manager Curator of the Botanic Garden. The plants within the Garden are grouped into a series of collections:

The Botanic Garden staff play a major part in the Diploma course, from participating in the selection of the students to allocating students to specific plant collections and supervising them while they work there. For the majority of the time the students are on the Diploma Course, they will be based in a single plant-collection area within the Garden.

Benefits to students working in the Botanic Garden

The students:

The academic subjects within the Diploma Course reflect the operation and management of a botanic garden. Within the Course, students are required to undertake a research project that is based around an aspect of the Garden that is of interest to them. The contents, method and assessment of their research project is negotiated between the student and the lecturer.

The other subjects covered within the Diploma in Botanic Garden Management Course include the following:

  • Botanic Gardens' Overview
  • History, function and purpose of botanic gardens; a case-study of the Dunedin Botanic Garden
  • Plant Collection Management
  • Maintenance, development and management of plant collections
  • Plant Conservation and Ecological Systems
  • Role of botanic gardens in the conservation of plants and ecological systems.
  • Property Report
  • Maintenance, management and future development of a plant collection within the Dunedin Botanic Garden.
  • Taxonomy
  • Classification and identification of a selection of plant families.
  • Plant Identification:
  • Identification of a selection of plants within the plant collections
  • Tree Management:
  • Maintenance, evaluation of, and care and protection of trees.
  • Introduction to Research:
  • Types of research, fundamental knowledge and skills to undertake research projects.
  • Meteorology:
  • Understanding, interpreting and predicting weather conditions.
  • Plant Law:
  • Legal requirements for, and restrictions on, importing and exporting plants and seeds. Also the legal requirements for collecting plants and seeds and the registering of plants within New Zealand.
  • Computer skills:
  • Use of word-processing packages and botanic garden database programs
  • Tourism and the botanic garden:
  • Botanic gardens as a tourist attraction: definitions, attractions, expectations, education and interpretation.
  • Safety in the workplace:
  • Identifying safety hazards in the workplace and the action necessary to ensure personal safety and the safety of others.
  • Communications:
  • Public speaking, preparation and presentation of visual and written material.

    Advantages of this unique arrangement to both organisations

    Both organisations are striving for the same goals:


    Dunedin City has a long-standing history of education and training, which is still a very prominent part of its life.

    The partnership that has developed between Otago Polytechnic and the Dunedin Botanic Garden is an indication of the economic and social conditions of our times. With its diverse range of plant collections, the Garden has excellent practical training opportunities. Otago Polytechnic is well resourced for providing theoretical training utilising the latest technology for students.

    The Diploma in Botanic Garden Management Course is a splendid example of two totally independent organisations working towards the same goal, and utilising the key resources that both organisations have to offer.

    I believe that by working in partnership with different organisations, and by capitalising on the strengths of both of them, resources can be effectively and efficiently utilised to the benefit of all parties, especially the students.


    Paterson, G. (1970). The History and Development of the Dunedin Botanic Garden 1863-1970. Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture.

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