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.
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.