I’d driven through or around Hamilton (and heard the jokes) several times, but the very first time I stopped in the city proper was to collect some supplies for a road- and camping trip. The weather had taken a turn for the worse the previous evening and so we also took advantage of the cover of a multi-storey carpark to give our tent a good shake and pat down, and within minutes, a couple and a family separately approached to see if we wanted a feed and a bed for the night. The weather soon cleared, and we made our way to Hamilton Gardens to discover that not only are these city’s citizens ridiculously welcoming, but they know a thing or two about horticulture, too. And what a beautiful backstory that Aotearoa’s most spectacular cultivated green space sprouts from the site of a former garbage dump on the banks of the Waikato River.
FROM THE ASHES
Hamilton Gardens stand on what was originally a pā, later a British military post and then a Victorian rifle range, but by the mid-20th century the only sign of life upon what was, by then, a rubbish tip, was the occasional blackberry shrub and seagulls circling overhead. Thanks to lobbying by the Hamilton Beautifying Society, four hectares of the space was first set aside by the council for horticultural development, and from the 1980s, the gardens that we now know and love really started to take shape. And, boy, how they’ve blossomed.
Today, Hamilton Gardens carpet 54 hectares that are split into five ‘collections’: Landscape, Cultivar, Fantasy, Productive, and Paradise. Within each section blooms themed gardens such as an Italian Renaissance, the Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Te Parapara Garden, the Tropical Garden and a Sustainable Backyard.
Rather than a being a traditional city botanic garden that showcases collections of flowers and plants, the Hamilton Gardens are akin to a living, naturally evolving museum that honours the art of agriculture and its 4,000-year history from every civilisation from across the world. Each slice of paradise is adorned with fascinating info-panels and now there’s even a free app to further enhance the experience by acting as personal, virtual tour guide.
In 2014, the Waikato Region’s most visited attraction was named the International Garden of the Year at the Garden Tourism Awards in France, joining previous esteemed winners such as Italy’s Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle in Merano, and the Botanic Gardens of Singapore. Already looking forward, Hamilton Gardens’ director, Peter Sergel, who had led their development over the previous four decades, implied the best was still to come, with the team “constantly improving the way we do things”.
Two years later, the gardens bagged the council the top gong at the McGredy Winder SOLGM Local Government Excellence Awards in Wellington, imploring then Hamilton mayor, Julie Hardaker, to praise the community and fundraisers for their efforts in transforming the site “from a rubbish dump to the best garden in the world”.
GARDENS AND GIVING
The Picturesque Garden opened late last year, the newest addition to the Fantasy Collection, inspired by the English 18th century movement of the same name. A fern-rich Eden intended “to appeal not only to the eyes, but to the heart and mind”, part of its charm is its natural, overgrown state, entered though a stone statute-strewn path through a cool, dark cave. Sergel describes the style as a “reaction against formal geometric gardens” with an “appreciation for wild mountains and landscapes”.
Te Parapara is New Zealand’s only traditional Māori productive garden, allowing visitors to learn about traditional indigenous plants, practices, and food preparation and storage techniques. Also part of the Productive Collection, the Sustainable Backyard highlights how we can transform our city gardens into private sanctuaries replete with chooks, composts, worm farms and fruit trees.
Within the Paradise Collection, the serene Chinese Scholar’s Garden awaits, inspired by 2,000 years of Far Eastern heritage, incorporate traditional architecture and sculptures, bamboo forest, and the Wisteria Bridge over a still lake. Another stand-out feature is the vibrant Victorian Flower Garden, part of the Cultivar Collection, that comprises a garden and greenhouses that, rather than emulate nature, seek to ‘display the skill of the gardener’ by way of exotic plant displays and perfectly manicured lawns.
But the mission of the gardens stretches even further beyond aesthetics and education, the charitable organisation serves a practical purpose too. Hamilton Gardens also promotes and partners with heaps of local good causes such as the Hamilton Garden Arts Festival, the University of Waikato and Kaivolution, a Waikato charity that provides fresh food to locals in need. The gardens’ donations, says Kaivolution co-ordinator, Simon Gascoigne, has not only helped “thousands of grateful people and family” but helped in the “very important task of minimising food waste”.