Journalist Denise Irvine wrote in the Waikato Times that one of the many magic things about Hamilton Gardens is that “you never know who you will meet there”. On the day she visited there was a Scottish clan chief, a newlywed couple still in their finery and a Taiwanese teenager doing star jumps for her Facebook page. Add to that on any day garden-lovers (naturally), kids embarking on a Tudor treasure hunt, the odd opera singer, the Soweto Gospel Choir and a group of women moving chooks.
The gardens have a chameleon quality. They not only change colours each season, they also attract a variety of people, many of whom wouldn’t know a primrose from a pohutukawa. More than a million visitors pass through the gates each year, not just for the pleasure of the panorama but for the fantasy and mystery and sheer Wikipaedic volume of fascinating facts. Who knew, for example, that the herb woad was used in ancient times to dye bodies blue? Or that plants that looked like the symptoms of an illness could cure it? Who also knew that “night soil”, or people’s poo to put it bluntly, was used to fertilise veges in Victorian times?
The genius behind the gardens is Peter Sergel who decided from the outset – more than 30 years ago – that he was done with tidy lawns, neat borders and regimented flower beds. Instead he has created the botanical equivalent of Te Papa, where plants are the centrepiece for a history of the world. In two hours you can visit India, Italy, England and Japan, stopping off in California to lounge by a pool with Marilyn Monroe. You can also travel back in time to when Maori cultivated food crops on the same site or to Tudor England, when intricate knot gardens were heavily guarded by centaurs, sea serpents and satyrs.
The gardens are grouped in five collections: Paradise, Productive,
Fantasy, Cultivar and Landscape, joined by an intricate maze of paths and portals. Paradise includes the Chinese Scholar Garden, where the paths are deliberately designed to slow you down. Next door are the English Country Garden, the Japanese Garden of Contemplation and the American Modernist, where a mosaic mural of Miss Marilyn Monroe oversees a sun-soaked deck and pool. But the priceless gems in this collection are the Italian and Indian gardens, the backdrops for thousands of romantic proposals and successive nuptials. The Italian Renaissance Garden features patterns of nature based on the view that numbers and proportions are divined; the Indian Char Bagh Garden is laid out like a giant Persian carpet. Both gardens overlook the river and are the setting for summer concerts where the cicadas provide a brilliant back-up chorus.
The Productive Collection sounds pedestrian but it is anything but. “Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye”, wrote Shakespeare in Love’s Labours Lost. And in the Kitchen Garden and Sustainable Backyard, lettuces, globe artichokes, tomatoes, turnips and herbs look as pretty as beds of roses. This is also where kids can search for bugs, bees and other critters or watch the chicken tractor take chooks from bed to bed to do the housekeeping. There are no slackers in the Sustainable Garden. Bees and worms work hard, water is recycled and the people who work there do it for love, not money. Testament to their success is in the yield; veges ripen here before any others in the region. Visitors are frequently surprised by the size (50 hectares) and splendour of Hamilton Gardens. “More than you expect,” wrote one traveller which, strangely, was Hamilton’s (much-maligned) advertising slogan some time back. But the world has noticed. Last year the gardens were named Garden of the Year at the prestigious International Garden Tourism Awards in Metz, France. US garden-tourism guru Richard Benfield says they rank in the top five destination gardens in the world and added one word: “Wow”.
Hungerford Crescent, (07) 838 6782, hamiltongardens.co.nz
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP; The Maori Garden with kumara pits; the Italian Garden; visitors chill out in the Japanese Garden; vibrant colours of India; the succulent gully.