Saturday, February 19, 2011

The experimental history of Riversdale Reserve

Riversdale Reserve, Avondale, today is made of from three parts: part of lot 19, all of 20 and part of 21 of a subdivision of one of the original Crown Grant allotments, No. 11 on Rosebank Peninsula. The late Murray Becroft came up to me at Henderson library about three years ago, and said, “There was an agricultural experimental station on Riversdale Reserve, once.” Land and horticultural historian John Adam, working on a research project commissioned by the Avondale-Waterview Historical Society confirmed that there was indeed such a trial area, deep in the heart of Rosebank: 103-121 Riversdale Road.

Riversdale is a name which appeared in records for Avondale’s history back in the last days of our district being known as the Whau; John Buchanan, member of the local Road Board, suggested it as a name instead of the by-then unwanted older one. Probably because of his Riversdale homestead, off St Georges Road, probably because of his plans to start up a tannery soon after also known as Riversdale. His suggestion came to nought, though.

Then, in April 1885, John Bollard put most of his Avondale farm up for auction in a subdivision of 68 lots (Deed Whau 59, LINZ), ranging in size from just over a quarter acre fronting Rosebank Road to 3¼ acres closer to the Whau River. Carving through the subdivision were roads named Wharf (now Ash) and Canal, showing that he was still optimistic that the Whau Canal idea was alive. Another road, Wicklow (Wairau) was named after his place of birth. To the west, the boundary of his subdivision was called Riversdale Road, originally part of a set of lines marked on earlier deeds for the area and labelled then “wharf road” (Deeds index 20D/425, LINZ) (again, in the hopes of the completion of the canal scheme). The name “Riversdale” would have come, therefore, from Bollard’s subdivision – although, curiously, Riversdale Road itself was still not properly dedicated as at 1919. One reason for this may have been that the sales for Bollard’s estate were slow. Slow enough for him to sell a large chunk of his property to the Avondale Jockey Club at the turn of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, the north-west side of Riversdale Road had a complicated history. Part of Allotment 11, which was subdivided sometime between 1859 and 1867, Doctor Thomas Aickin eventually ended up as owner of the land extending from Lot 20 (the site of the Riversdale experimental station) down to the river. The rest belonged to Oliver A Rayson, until around 1871. (Deeds Index, 10A/173, LINZ) Aickin’s land along the road weren’t sold off until 1895 (Deeds Index 13A/787), while those which Rayson once owned were subdivided only from 1903. (10A/173) At some point before 1919, local orchardist and market gardener Edwin James Cairn obtained title to land which included Lots 19 and 20 (former Aickin land).

“One of the best orchards is to be found on the banks of the river, and the owner, Mr Cairn, deserves credit for the clean and tidy appearance of the trees, which consist of almost every variety from the mellow peach to the luscious persimmon. Mr Cairn has always been most successful in carrying off a number of prizes at the annual show.”
(Auckland Star, 28 August 1903)

Lot 21, the former Rayson land, ended up by at least 1930 in the hands of Auckland farmer Harry McLeod. The McLeod family were to retain ownership down to the 1990s.

Lot 20, more or less, became known as “Lot 1 of 16/20 of 11, DP 13292”, and seems to have had just as much of a patchwork history as the rest of that side of Riversdale. In 1919, DP 13292 noted that the occupier of the land was an “F Howson”. By 1927, it was owned (according to the Council valuation fieldsheets, ACC 213/145f) by Percival Gardner, retired, who sold it in 1929 to another retiree, Frederick Thomas Martin, for £1300 – a good sum for the just over 4 acre farmlet. Martin apparent lived somewhere along Wicklow (Wairau) Avenue. His tenant on the Riversdale property by the following year was gardener George Booker Barrister, who took out a lease for a three year period from 21 April 1930.

The market garden was in full swing by 1933, and Council valuers noted “old shed here” in 1934. In the 1940s, it was described as “Market garden, level”, with implement shed and tool room. No one actually lived there. Martin had died by 1936, but his estate retained ownership until 1949 when the government purchased the farmlet for £700 and designated it as meant for future state housing purposes.

Perhaps because that 4 acre sliver was all that was on offer in the vicinity to the Crown, it was decided to lease the site out to another government department, Agriculture. The use of the land as a trial area seems to have started by 1952, although officially things didn’t start until 1953. The following comes from successive annual volumes of the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, as part of the reports made to the Minister for Agriculture by the Director-General of the department.

H-29 p. 75



"A number of imported American and Australian varieties of kumaras are being grown in rows alongside the New Zealand standard varieties New Zealand No 1 and New Zealand No. 2 at Avondale and Gisborne. To date there has been little to indicate superiority of imported material over imported types."

H-29, p. 108

"On a recommendation of an inter-departmental committee set up to consider the utilisation of organic wastes, an area of some 4 acres was leased at Avondale, Auckland, and experiments under semi-commercial conditions are now being laid down to assess the value of using municipal compost in vegetable growing as compared with standard fertilisers. Opportunity will be taken to study the nutritional level of this compost, and its effectiveness in improving soil structure.

"The experiments will last at least six years and as this is the first work of this nature to be carried out on a somewhat controversial subject, the results will be awaited with interest. If it can be proved that composted town wastes are of real value and compare favourably in cost with standard manorial treatments, a worth-while avenue will be opened for waste disposal.

"Other work to be done at Avondale includes trials with different varieties of tomatoes and kumaras.

"T.C.A. 90 was proved to be most successful in eradicating twitch, with which the area was heavily infested when first taken over."

H-29 p. 138

"At Avondale long-term trials were laid down in April 1953 to compare the effects on vegetable crops of mature compost manufactured from city garbage, pulverised town waste (not composted), Waikato peat, and sawdust. These materials are applied on their own, and with varying amounts of artificial fertilisers added, and the plots will be compared with similar plots manured solely with artificial fertilisers. Cropping is as nearly as possible on commercial lines and detailed records are being kept. Other vegetable experimental work is also being carried out at Avondale, the total trial area being approximately 4 acres."

H-29 p. 97

"A number of trials with vegetables are being undertaken on a 4-acres section leased from the Crown.

"The main experiments, in a long-term vegetable trial conducted under semi-commercial conditions, are designed to evaluate the worth of mature compost manufactured from city garbage, Waikato peat, and Pinus radiata sawdust as soil conditioners and sources of plant nutrients.

"The commercial value of 5 kumara varieties, selected from a number of varieties grown in previous years, is being assessed.

"Four commonly grown commercial varieties of pole bean are being grown to compare yield and resistance to rust (Uromyces appendiculatus).

"A number of therapeutants are being tried to control carrot rust fly (Psila rosae), and various commercial weedicides are being compared to control weeds in carrots.

"Semi-permanent improvements to the area included laying 350 ft. of 1 in. water piping, the construction of compost storage bins, and the erection of fencing and a gate."

H-29 p. 103

"At Avondale the long-term compost trials continued. Various insecticides are being tested for control of carrot rust fly (Psila rosae) and four varieties of carrot are being grown to test their resistance to the rust fly.

"In a comparison of weedicides for carrot crops CIPC at 4lb. per acre applied at pre-emergence gave reasonable control of weeds except Amaranthus spp., but a proprietary petroleum-based material applied at the recommended time (two- to three-leaf stage of growth) was not as successful, as weeds had become too firmly established.

"Growing pole beans for late crops in the Auckland district has been hazardous owing to attacks of bean rust (Uromyces appendiculatus), and trials of different varieties of pole beans demonstrated the superiority of Westralia to resistance to rust.

"In the past year five varieties of kumaras were grown to provide propagating material for release to commercial gardeners and nurserymen. The trial area provided over ½ ton of seed kumaras in 10 lb. lots to thirty producers. The demand for Owairaka Red exceeded the supply available.

"Produce harvested from the various trials was sold to the Avondale Mental Hospital."

H-29 pp. 68-69

"Two separate compost experiments were started in April 1953. In the first, mature compost produced by the Auckland City Council at the Point England works is compared with a standard fertiliser mixture containing 35 per cent blood and bone, 35 per cent superphosphate, 10 per cent mixture of potash, 10 per cent dried blood, and a mixture of sulphate of ammonia and nitrate of soda are adjusted each year so that the amount of sodium added in the fertiliser mixture corresponds with the amount of sodium added in the mature compost.

"There are nine treatments in all, based on the actual amounts of the major plant nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium applied and designed to give valid comparisons between them. Each set of nine treatments is replicated five times.

"In the second experiment a number of organic manures are compared in nine treatments, with and without added fertilisers, to give a series of comparisons based on the actual amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium applied. The organic manures are pulverised city garbage (unmatured), matured compost as in the last trial, Waikato peat and pine sawdust. There are six replications in this trial.

"In both experiments the organic materials and two-thirds of the fertiliser are put on in autumn, and the remaining third of the fertiliser is put on in spring.

"Two crops are grown each year, the indicator plants being cabbage, beetroot, winter spinach, potatoes, silver beet, onions and carrots. The produce from each plot is carefully graded and recorded, and an attempt will be made to interpret the results on a monetary basis. Physical and chemical examination of the soil in the various plots is also carried out. The effect of the treatments can only be assessed after a minimum period of six years, after which the results will be considered by the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Utilisation of Organic Wastes.

"Five varieties of kumara were again produced for distribution to commercial kumara growers. About 1½ tons of tubers were supplied to more than thirty applicants in 1956. The varieties were: Owairaka Red, for which there has been greatest demand; Gisborne Red, because of its apparent earliness; and Tauranga Red, New Zealand Pink, and Owairaka Pink.

"An experiment to control carrot rust fly is being conducted in cooperation with the Plant Diseases Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Following the results of previous work, this experiment is investigating the period of effectiveness of lindane and dieldrin as seed dressings.

"In a trial of rock melon varieties, the most promising varieties from last season’s trial are being grown again to get sound information for making varietal recommendations to growers.

"Another trial in progress is to assess the worth of weedicides in nursery stock."

H-29 p. 112

"Long-term trials, started in April 1953, to assess the relative worth of mature compost made from city garbage, pulverised waste, Waikato peat, and pine sawdust, compared with artificial fertilisers on vegetable crops were continued in 1957.

"Carrots – Chantenay Red Core were sown in spring 1956 and satisfactory crops were harvested from all treatments at the end of February 1957. Treatment of seed with 80 per cent lindane w.p. (2 per cent of seed weight) before sowing prevented attack from carrot rust fly.

"Cabbage -- Savoy Best of All followed the carrot crop in autumn 1957 and again yields were satisfactory from all treatments. Superlative (approved seed) swedes were sown in spring 1957 but were not harvested until February 1958, when again crops were satisfactory.

"Rock Melon Variety Trial – Varieties which showed merit as a commercial crop in Auckland were Californian Cream, Early Hackensack, Hale’s Best, Sydney Market, and Yates’ Surprise.

"Cabbage Variety Trial – Of four selections of Savoy cabbage tested C.R.D. Best of All proved the most likely as a commercial proposition. Other varieties tried were Omega C.R.D. No. 56, Omega-Commercial Strain No. 59, and Sutton’s Rearguard No. 60.

"Distribution of Kumara Tubers for Propagation – Five varieties of kumara were again produced for distribution to commercial growers. Slightly in excess of half a ton of tubers was sold to about 25 applicants. Since the scheme began in 1955, 2½ tons of tubers have been distributed. The demand fell in 1957 and as a result no distribution will be made in 1958, but nucleus stocks of all varieties are being held at the trial area."

H-29 p. 152

"Two long-term trials were started in 1953 to compare composts and other readily available organic materials with artificial fertilisers in the growing of various vegetable crops. The results were consistent for all crops grown during the six-year period, namely, that the addition of fertilisers to the organic materials resulted in increased yields.

"Other trials carried out in the area during 1959 were on cauliflower varieties and mosaic diseases of lettuce.

"A trial showed that tagetes had no beneficial effect on the growth of roses by inhibiting eelworm when grown together."

H-29 p. 117

"The long-term compost vs. commercial fertilisers trial in growing vegetables, begun in 1953, was terminated in autumn 1961. A report was submitted to the Inter-Departmental Committee on Utilisation of Organic Waste toward the end of 1961."

H-29 p. 48

"Trials on weed control, varieties, therapeutants and plant management were carried out on vegetable crops and nursery stock.

"Stocks of kumaras were raised and distributed to nurserymen and growers."

H-29 p. 52

"Trial work was continued on problems of disease and weed control, plant management and plant selection in vegetable crops and nursery stock under Auckland conditions."

H-29 p. 38

"Long-term trials on kumara propagation, spacing, nutrition, weed control and crop quality continued on the Avondale trial area. Other trials included vegetable varieties, economics of soil sterilising for late outdoor tomato crops, anemone cultural techniques, control of silver leaf disease, and propagation techniques for roses."

H-29 p. 47

"Work on kumaras included propagation techniques, plant spacing, nutrition and crop quality trials. Other work included vegetable variety trials and assessment of levels of halo blight in bean seed from Blenheim commercial areas.

"Also investigated were cultural practices and effects of plant diseases on anemones, and rose propagation techniques."

H-29 p. 45

"Long-term trials covering spacing, nutrition, weed control, and crop quality of kumaras were completed. The results provided information on which to base better advice to commercial growers.

"Three varieties of raspberries are being tested for Auckland conditions.

"Samples of commercial bean seed lines grown in Blenheim were again grown to check the efficiency of field inspection for halo blight.

"With the completion of the kumara trials the area will be closed down."

H-29 p. 48

"This area was closed on the completion of the kumara trials during the year. Now that the Pukekohe research area is being developed, the usefulness of the Avondale area has diminished. With the spread of housing in Avondale this area has also become less representative of commercial vegetable-growing land."

John Adam thinks that while the Department of Agriculture left the land, it was a short while later occupied by the Ministry of Works, conducting soil experiments. I’ve yet to find the reports on this myself.  What is known at this stage is that by 1976, Lot 19 beside it (owned by the Garea family), Lot 21 (owned by the McLeods) and the former test area at Lot 20 were designated as future open space under Auckland City’s District Plan Scheme of that year. Lot 20 was leased to the Garea family, possibly from the last years of Crown control, and their lease was continued by Auckland City Council from 1982, and formalised as a lease worth $2600 per annum from 1989 for both the Garea land (purchased in 1988) and the former agricultural trial site. Once part of the McLeod land was purchased in 1990, plans for developing today’s Riversdale Reserve began, and Avondale’s part in the development of late 20th century commercial horticulture was gradually forgotten under lawns and sports fields.

Sources (other than those named above):
Draft Management Plan, Riversdale Reserve, Auckland City Council (1990s)
“Riversdale Road Reserve”, ACC 266/326/32 Part 1, both courtesy Auckland Council Archives

An update (21 February 2011): Liz from Mad Bush Farm kindly gave me permission to add her image of a kumara promotional sign from Northland ...

... while in other news, I've just realised that Owairaka Red, one of the five kumara varieties trialled at Avondale, was introduced from Maori introduced strains in 1954, and today comprises around 80% of the total crop.


  1. I had to look kumara up. I'd never heard of them. Sweet potato it seems.

  2. Fascinating look into the trial history of crops. Must be me living in a rural area but considering the Kumara Growing region of Ruawai is only 20 minutes drive away I found this very very interesting. Great research thanks Lisa this was a great read!

  3. Thanks Liz.

    Have to say, Andrew, kumara isn't one of my faves in the vege field. I'll eat it along with roast potatoes and pumpkin, but the taste still seems odd to me. Probably that sweet potato bit.

  4. OMG My dad lived on that property as a child. Harry McLeod was my Grandpop. I have shivers up my
    Lynette McLeod