ROBIN Pagan’s love of his life continues, despite the downsizing of his territory.
Last Friday was Mr Pagan’s last day as the parks and reserves manager at the Invercargill City Council.
He was only 15 when he began as a horticulture apprentice in January 1966.
“In the 60s there were so many options… apprenticeships, Lincoln College as it was known then, or the freezing works… however, I came to town to do some interviews and was fortunate to get a job at the Invercargill City Council at Queens Park.”
More than five decades later, the teenager from Winton who had “always liked growing plants” is continuing his love of horticulture, albeit on a smaller scale – in the backyard of his Invercargill home.
When he began at Queens Park, there were 10 people in training, he said.
Although the number of people being trained now was greatly reduced, Mr Pagan said it was time for organisations such as the council to “get smart again and start training [young people] again”.
His zest and enjoyment for the craft was evident in that although it was a five-year apprenticeship, he completed it in four years working many hours of overtime and completing the necessary exams.
“The first day I was working in the nursery, then over my apprenticeship I learnt every activity involving plants, including mowing lawns, growing plants and flowers, in the winter gardens and every department.”
Back then, his favourite place was the nursery, which is where he demonstrated not only his passion for the job, but also initiative.
That was when he started experimenting with growing plants in containers, beginning with old-fashioned biscuit tins, he said.
Right from the start, he was always looking at different ways to do things.
“Some of the guys who had been there 10 years were content to do the same thing”, but for him, the challenge was to find a better or different way.
So it was only natural when a position came up in the administration side of the industry that he apply.
“I moved from the horticultural side to admin… under Laurie Metcalf, who was the director of Invercargill’s parks and reserves, as the deputy director.”
That was “30-odd years ago, and there was a lot of competition”, he said.
In those days there was a parks and reserves staff of about 100.
“In the late 60s-early 70s, staff peaked at the park at 110.”
That was before council amalgamated Otatara, Bluff and Kennington with Invercargill in 1989, and by that time the number of staff had almost halved.
“We got smarter in what we were doing… in particular by using machinery instead of being labour intensive.”
Continually learning about plants and the industry has taken Mr Pagan around the world, sometimes with work, at other times sojourning during his holidays.
He has visited major gardens including Kew Gardens in England, the Keukenhof Tulip Festival in the Netherlands and the botanical gardens at Cape Town, South Africa. Closer to home, he has also travelled to the Subantarctic Islands to gather specimens for the development of the Queens Park Subantarctic Island Gardens. However, “there is still a lot more to see”, he said.
Mr Pagan is very strong in his view that the parks and reserves are for the benefit of the community and the people.
As manager of parks and reserves for the past 26 years, he has seen not only Queens Park and its uses evolve, but also Donovan Park, Anderson Park and the Sandy Point Domain.
About 50-odd sport and recreational groups and organisations and a huge number of people used the Sandy Point Domain regularly, he said.
“It’s a very large coastal area [2000ha] with unique vegetation including large areas of exotic forest which is regularly used by [a huge variety] of recreational users.”
Anderson Park had remained popular throughout the decades, he said, especially the grounds and the playground with its vintage equipment which gets a high usage.
As for Donovan Park, the rural-type park, it had transitioned to a multi-use outdoor rural venue which was now home to the Southland A&P Show and was used for equestrian events, he said.
And of course the jewel in Invercargill’s crown, Queens Park, which has been awarded Garden National Significance five-star rating annually since 2006, has continued to evolve and develop, with Disc Golf one of the newest sports now a part of the landscape.
“As traditional sports are declining, new and informal recreation activities are coming along,” he said.
Asked what some of his proudest contributions to parks and reserves has been and the Japanese Garden, the Stumpery and the regular plantings in Queens Park come straight to mind.
“We were told it would take months, but we put the Japanese Garden together in two weeks with the landscape gardener.”
As for the Victorian-inspired tangle of dead but sculptural massive trees roots, called The Stumpery: “It was Frank’s [Wells] idea… we embraced it and made it happen.”
Mr Pagan’s bucket list for parks and reserve would be endless.
“It would never finish,” he said. “There are projects still to complete, such as the Chinese Gardens; continuing to develop the play areas, such as introducing informal play areas.”
Although “retiring” is still fresh… with Mr Pagan saying he was still writing his “retirement list out”, he was keen to focus on his own garden.
“I can now do more things in my own garden.”
After all, there are the ornamental flowering plants, the vegetable garden, the hot house and fruit trees to attend to – kind of like a small version of Queens Park in a way.