In the weeds at Te Ara Awataha

Kaipatiki Project and Kainga Ora working bee at Te Ara Awataha
Kaipatiki Project and Kainga Ora working bee at Te Ara Awataha

In 500 years, Northcote could have some of the tallest trees in New Zealand.

In as little as 20, those same trees – already beginning to line the banks of Te Ara Awataha – could become significant enough to form part of a shady corridor along the community’s greenway.

But for that to happen, Northcote first needs to get stuck into the weeds and, at the same time, change the way we think about them.

“Often people want to just see all the weeds gone, either knocked down with herbicide or removed completely from the site,” says Neil Henderson, Restoration Activator at Kaipātiki Project.

“But this is a short-sighted approach and you get left with bare earth that is open to erosion and slips.”

Guided by mana whenua, Eke Panuku, Isthmus, Kāinga Ora, its Northcote Development partners and Kaipātiki Project are enacting a plan to grow and protect Te Ara Awataha. That plan includes a little creativity, a lot of volunteers and zero herbicides.

“Some weeds you just need to cut down and lay on the ground, because they form really good green compost and also stop other weeds from growing,” Neil says.

“There are ways to make the weeds actually work for you.”

Working with Kāinga Ora, Ama Training Group and local volunteers, Kaipātiki Project is doing just that.

“Piling these weeds around our plants stops the natives we put in from drying out in the summer, it feeds them a bit and it stops other weeds from growing,” Neil says.

But that approach requires a bit of patience and understanding from the community, many of whom may be more familiar with a “scorched Earth” approach when it comes to weeding.

“It might look a little scruffy for now and people may think that’s not an ideal situation, but there’s a method in the madness and in two or three years, if we keep the natives healthy, things will begin to take care of themselves,” Neil says.

“Eventually the grasses and the shrubs will grow closer together and form their own little canopy to prevent the establishment of weed seedlings. Some of the larger trees will grow and also stop certain weeds from thriving, and we can help by green mulching and bringing in a bit of wood chip from time to time.”

While some weeds will be cut and turned into compost, others will need to be removed entirely and taken off-site because of their ability to spread rhizome. Community members should expect to see plants like these heaped into tidy piles or brown wool bales from time to time, awaiting removal.

“We don’t use herbicides, and as a result we tend to need more volunteers. And that’s our forte, really, we can use lots of different people with lots of abilities and ages working in a safe environment,” Neil says.

“We like it if people can come along more than once or twice and really get to know the stream, especially if they live locally.”

Get involved

Thanks to the efforts of Kaipātiki Project and volunteers, Te Ara Awataha is thriving. Trees like pukatea are beginning to flourish as “they like their feet a bit damp”.

“At the moment these important trees are getting up to about a person high, and if you were to come back in 500 years they’ll be some of the tallest trees in New Zealand,” Neil says.

“There are other native trees like kahikatea, rimu, puriri and totara, that are meant to become very large. Even in most of our lifetimes, in the next 20 years, they’ll become significant trees along that walkway and they’ll be creating their own little micro environments. People will get shade and shelter under them, and the stream itself will respond to their roots coming down into the water to provide habitat for aquatic creatures.”

To help Te Ara Awataha reach its potential, Kaipātiki Project still needs more volunteers. To keep informed of events taking place at the greenway or get involved, visit

Setting herbicide aside

Kaipātiki Project has advocated for herbicide-free plant management for 20 years, Neil says.

“Herbicide’s always been used as an economic approach – you send some contractors in and they can spray stuff, it dies, and you keep your costs down,” he says.

“The contractors can move onto somewhere else quickly and efficiently, but unfortunately it has some drawbacks – native plants get taken out as well and, for a period of time, the site is not so safe for the public to frolic and play.

“The other side is that long-term use of herbicides actually changes the profile of the soil and you’ll often find if you go past a place where people spray all the time, that everything is dead underneath the trees.

“People seem to think that’s OK but in actual fact it’s really bad. The bare, barren ground dries the trees out in the summer time, making them more susceptible to drought – especially the smaller stuff – and there’s also scope for trees to be more subject to pathogens in the winter time if it rains when they’re being weakened this way over summer.”

In just a few years, Neil says the Kaipātiki Project approach is already providing results in the upper reaches of Te Ara Awataha.

“Having birds coming back, kereru landing just a couple feet away and being really comfortable with your presence, these are the sort things that are really important,” he says.

“Further down the stream, near the school’s edge, we’ve had a huge amount of watercress turn up, and everyone who knows about it loves it. Since they daylighted the stream, a little crop of the imported type turned up the first year. Two years down the track and it’s right through now.”

Neil says anyone harvesting watercress from the stream should make sure it’s cooked well before they eat it – as with anything from urban environments – but that he had it tested to ensure it was not polluted with heavy metals or herbicide residue.

“When we’re weeding there, we leave that stuff alone and we’ll remove aquatic weed plants to allow it to spread even more.

“I don’t mind if pretty much that entire stream bed is watercress,” he says with a laugh.

“The fish like it and people can harvest it, so it’s about all those little balances and, again, a good reason to keep herbicide out of the local area and encourage folk to go down to the stream edge.”