Flower power

Green fin­gers are in Kate Hil­lier’s DNA. They have brought her half­way around the world and to the task of di­rect­ing the New Zealand Flower & Gar­den Show.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Clare de Lore

Kate Hil­lier is from English gar­den­ing “roy­alty”, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to take her place in the line of suc­ces­sion. To help clar­ify her thoughts and fu­ture ca­reer di­rec­tion, the 20-year-old set off in 1988 from Eng­land for a cou­ple of years’ trav­el­ling. Per­haps in­evitably, she found her­self work­ing at an Auck­land gar­den cen­tre be­fore re­turn­ing home to the Hil­lier fold to work in the fam­ily busi­ness. But New Zealand was never far from her mind, and six years later, she moved here.

Hil­lier is now firmly es­tab­lished in hor­ti­cul­ture as di­rec­tor of New Zealand’s pre­mier gar­den­ing event. The show be­gan in Auck­land at the Eller­slie Race­course in 1994, then moved to the Auck­land Botanic Gar­dens from 1998-2007. It was then sold to Christchurch City Coun­cil, which held an event called the Eller­slie In­ter­na­tional Flower Show un­til 2014.

The Eller­slie name is still owned by the Christchurch City Coun­cil, so in 2017, Hil­lier and her busi­ness part­ner es­tab­lished them­selves as the New Zealand Flower & Gar­den Show and had their first event at the Trusts Arena in West Auck­land late last year.

Hil­lier’s great-great-grand­fa­ther founded the fam­ily busi­ness as a florist and plant nurs­ery in 1864. Her grand­fa­ther, Sir Harold Hil­lier, ex­panded it in the years af­ter World War II and, in 1953, he es­tab- lished a now-world-fa­mous 72ha gar­den and ar­bore­tum near Rom­sey, gift­ing it to the Hamp­shire County Coun­cil in 1977. He was knighted for his life’s work and held other hon­ours, in­clud­ing the Vic­to­ria Medal of Hon­our, the Veitch Me­mo­rial Medal, hon­orary fel­low and vice pres­i­dent of the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety, and fel­low of the Lin­nean So­ci­ety. This year, Hil­lier Nurs­eries notched up its 73rd con­sec­u­tive gold medal at the pres­ti­gious Chelsea Flower Show in Lon­don.

This year’s New Zealand Flower and Gar­den Show is over five days from Novem­ber 28; it will fea­ture 15 large ex­hibitors and cater for up to 35,000 vis­i­tors. Hil­lier’s gar­den has in­evitably gone on the back-burner as she jug­gles busi­ness and fam­ily life with hus­band Si­mon Cook and teenagers Sam and Lily.

New Zealand needs to be quite care­ful – there is not a lot of di­ver­sity among re­tail­ers. You have to be care­ful not to dumb down the range.

Was it a strug­gle de­cid­ing where to set­tle down?

I’d fallen in love with New Zealand. When I got home to Eng­land, I had to de­cide if I wanted to turn my back on my fam­ily, my coun­try and the busi­ness and re­turn. When Palmers Gar­den Cen­tre put an ad in a mag­a­zine in Eng­land, I im­me­di­ately put my mis­giv­ings aside. I thought, “That’s my job, I am go­ing back.” I’ve been here now for 22 years; I’m mar­ried to a Kiwi and have two Kiwi chil­dren. My sis­ter moved here, too. I hadn’t met my hus­band be­fore mi­grat­ing to New Zealand and my mother al­ways said, “He’s lucky; he’s off the hook. We can’t blame him for tak­ing you away.”

Who’s run­ning Hil­lier Nurs­eries now?

My fa­ther and my un­cle man­age it now. I have 10 cousins in my gen­er­a­tion and six are in hor­ti­cul­ture, although not all with Hil­lier Nurs­eries. My chil­dren both worked at our show in Auck­land last year, but I don’t know if they will go into hor­ti­cul­ture. I didn’t want to, either, but I owed Dad money from study­ing so he said I could work to pay it off. At that point

I thought I might be a jour­nal­ist or try ho­tel man­age­ment. The genes won out.

Was it fun or hard slog grow­ing up in the Hil­lier fam­ily?

Most of the time it was fun. From about the age of five, we would go to the Chelsea Flower Show on the Mon­day, the day be­fore it opens to the pub­lic. My grand­mother was in a wheel­chair and we took turns push­ing her around. She was the grande dame of the show. At some point some­one would give us a nudge to shine the leaves in our ex­hibit or get out the dust­pan to clean up the grounds.

Would you call your­self green-fin­gered?

I do have green fin­gers – I love get­ting into the gar­den, but my gar­den, in the Auck­land sub­urb of Ti­ti­rangi, is a bit like a me­chanic’s car – a work in progress. We have a lovely place over­look­ing the bush and I love the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment of New Zealand.

In­clud­ing na­tive plant­ing?

Some peo­ple might shoot me down, but I def­i­nitely think that, while there is a place for na­tives, there is also a need for sea­son­al­ity – au­tumn colour, putting in veg­eta­bles, flow­ers and the like. New Zealand needs to be quite care­ful – there is not a lot of di­ver­sity among re­tail­ers. You see the same 20 or so plants in each store. I un­der­stand the risk fac­tor – why grow plants you might not sell? – but you have to be care­ful not to dumb down the range.

How do you en­sure that the Flower & Gar­den Show has a good mix of gar­den styles?

I come at it from a hor­ti­cul­tural point of view and as a pre­vi­ous ex­hibitor. De­sign­ers come up with their ini­tial con­cept, they write up a brief, do some draw­ings and I have a look to spot is­sues that might arise. We have fan­tas­tic de­sign­ers in New Zealand but it is quite dif­fer­ent de­sign­ing for a flower show than for a res­i­den­tial gar­den.

In what way?

There is a lot more theatre in a flower show. It is a bal­ance be­tween theatre and be­ing hor­ti­cul­tur­ally ac­cu­rate. So, when you plant, you triple your plant­ing be­cause you need that in­stant im­pact. Quite of­ten, a de­signer will have so many ideas that you have to sim­plify, and if I see, for ex­am­ple, three peo­ple do­ing a trop­i­cal gar­den, I will point that out. If they are dead set on it, I will move their po­si­tions around so they are not all be­side each other.

What are to­day’s trends in gar­den­ing?

You spot trends in a show, but of­ten a show starts the trend. This year, I can see a mod­ern sub-trop­i­cal trend com­ing through. Last year, we had a beau­ti­ful Ba­li­nese gar­den by Aus­tralian de­signer Chris­tian Jenk­ins. It was very nat­u­ral, but this year, peo­ple seem to want to demon­strate sub­trop­i­cal plant­ings in a mod­ern set­ting. Bee-friendly gar­dens are a trend, which is great from our per­spec­tive be­cause one thing peo­ple al­ways ask is, “How do we get more flow­ers?” Ob­vi­ously, any­thing that is a pol­li­na­tor will be pop­u­lar.

What do you most like in a gar­den?

Apart from sea­son­al­ity, I like gar­dens with an en­ter­tain­ment area, ef­fec­tively an ex­tra room. It’s good to be able to sit in the gar­den with a book or a glass of wine and make the gar­den part of your home, rather than some­thing to walk through to get to the front door.

When you’re able to get into a comfy spot in the gar­den, what do you read?

I read a lot and it’s all es­capism – ac­tion and de­tec­tive nov­els, but also fan­tasy such as The Lord of the Rings, and books by Ray­mond E Feist. Most re­cently, I have read a sci-fi se­ries called the Li­aden Uni­verse, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. They are bizarrely writ­ten with no ob­vi­ous time­line and no ob­vi­ous or­der in which to read them.

Your fam­ily have pro­duced two books, in­clud­ing one that is re­garded as a bi­ble among English gar­den­ers …

The so-called gar­dener’s bi­ble is The Hil­lier Man­ual of Trees & Shrubs, and it has never gone out of print. There are prob­a­bly hun­dreds of thou­sands of copies of the book in homes all over Eng­land. It was writ­ten by my grand­fa­ther 50 years ago and is al­ways be­ing up­dated. My step­mother, Jean, wrote a book called Hil­lier: the Plants, the Peo­ple, the Pas­sion.

Has any­one tried to sab­o­tage a com­peti­tor’s ex­hibit at a gar­den show you’ve been in­volved in?

I haven’t had that, but I have caught peo­ple try­ing to put in silk flow­ers. I have a quiet word with them and they take them out, be­cause they would be dis­qual­i­fied dur­ing judg­ing. Last year, one ex­hibitor com­plained about an­other ex­hibitor’s gar­den, sug­gest­ing it con­tained nox­ious weeds. We do need to know that sort of thing. But ex­hibitors are not driven by fear of miss­ing out on a medal – if there are four de­serv­ing gold-level gar­dens, they will get gold. The at­ti­tude is far from back-stab­bing. Last year, we were back in Auck­land for the first time and 24 hours be­fore open­ing, some gar­dens were well be­hind. I put a no­tice on Face­book ask­ing if any­one could give up a cou­ple of hours to help out. Some of the ex­hibitors, who were ahead, stopped what they were do­ing to lend a hand. That’s how we dis­cov­ered that Pizza Hut de­liv­ers at 3am! This is a life­style thing – you do it be­cause you love it.

This year, peo­ple seem to want to demon­strate sub­trop­i­cal plant­ings in a mod­ern set­ting, and bee-friendly gar­dens are a trend.

Fam­ily legacy: from left, the orig­i­nal Hil­lier re­tail flower shop, in 1864; the Queen Mother ac­cepts the Sir Harold Hil­lier Gar­dens on be­half of the coun­try in 1977; the Queen vis­its the Hil­lier stand at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2014.

Na­ture lover: Kate Hil­lier, above; Hil­lier on her first trip to the Blue Moun­tains in Aus­tralia, be­low right; Hil­lier and Si­mon Cook’s wed­ding at the Sir Harold Hil­lier Gar­dens, be­low left.

High­lights of 2017: top, Chris­tian Jenk­ins’ Ba­li­nese Gar­den; the Bee­keeper’s Hob­bit Hole.

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