Over a million visitors make a beeline for Hamilton Gardens each year. Ops manager, Gus Flower says most visitors are not gardening enthusiasts or plant nuts and that’s the way it should be.
“Rather than being a botanical garden showcasing collections of plants, our gardens tell a story of history and cultural diversity through garden design,” he explains. People come to see the famous Paradise Garden Collection, to be wowed by the Landscape Garden Collection and Productive Garden Collection. “Along the way they’ll hopefully pick up a small piece of inspiration, or take home a greater understanding of sustainability,” adds Gus.
Hamilton Gardens holds the esteemed Qualmark Gold Sustainable Tourism Business Award. Visit any day of the week (incredibly it’s free, at least for now) and you’ll most likely be in the company of visitors from overseas. They arrive in buses with their cameras and generally spend a half day enjoying the spectacle of the Garden Collections and refuelling in the cafe. For those who stay longer, there is plenty more to enjoy on the outskirts of the visitor hotspots. New developments are constantly in play. This spring sees the opening of the brand new Mansfield Garden, a recreation of the early 20th century NZ garden described in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’.
Of course, Hamilton Gardens is a whole lot more than an award-winning tourist attraction. It is a beautiful place for Hamiltonians to chill out, walk the dog, take the kids for a breath of fresh air and connect with nature. It contributes to the vibrancy of its city as a popular event venue hosting a diverse range of functions, including well-attended public events. Hamilton gardens is, perhaps most importantly, a special a place for the people of Waikato.
Increasingly, research is highlighting the concept of ‘urban ecology’ and the importance of nature in cities. Not just because we need to take care of the unique biodiversity that remains in our built up areas, but also to reconnect people to the environment.
Hamilton Gardens works closely with Waikato Regional Council and others in sustaining the wildlife corridors that run through the city, which are home to native birds, glow worms, butterflies and a cherished local bat population.
Planting schemes at Hamilton Gardens are designed to extend the menu for native birds and also butterflies. Gus and his team are currently trying to encourage 4 species of native butterflies into the gardens. “For the caterpillars of the Red and Yellow Admirals we’ve planted nettles
in outlying areas not used by the public,” he says. Clover sustains the caterpillars of the Common Blue, while native Meuhlenbeckia is the favourite food source for the Common Copper butterfly larvae.
Tui now nest all year round in the gardens. “Landcare Research surveys have shown a massive increase in Tui numbers,” says Gus. Native planting is supported by stringent action against pest predators - wild cats, mustelids, rats, magpies and possums - as well as environmental weeds.
Garden escapees cause major problems in pockets of native bush within a city environment. Gus is proud to report that huge strides have been made in this area, most notably via the increase use of compost mulch, which is all made on site from garden waste. Hamilton Gardens produces between 700 and 800 cubic metres of mulch each year. “The quality of our compost is guaranteed, because we know exactly what is going into it,” he explains. The use of thick mulch has significantly reduced the need for weed sprays.
In another project to tackle weeds Hamilton Gardens has teamed up with Waikato Regional Council and Landcare Research to trial the three species of beetles that feed on a Tradescantia (aka wandering willie). The hope is that plantings of the native groundcover, parataniwha (Elatostema) will one day out number this major invader of the native forest floor.
Gus reckons that the students of Wintec have “the best classroom going” with the horticulture school located inside Hamilton Gardens right next to the huge Victorian vegetable garden and permaculture garden. Students get to buddy up with Hamilton Gardens’ staff whose passion for gardening can be infectious.
Hamilton Gardens is also a well used resource for local school children, who visit the gardens for a hands on lessons with staff. The broad scope of Hamilton Gardens is such that school visit topics extend beyond gardening to arts, culture and sciences. Children love the chickens in the sustainable vegetable garden while their parents find inspiration and take home ideas for their own backyard.
As well as exploring the gardens of the world, visitors can trip back in time to pre-European Waikato. The striking Te Parapara Garden, a joint project between Nga Mana Toopu and Hamilton City Council, showcases how food was grown and stored when the Waikato River was lined with many Māori gardens. The focus of this garden is a traditional kumara patch with stunning symmetry. Each year invited members of the public get to enjoy a special kumara harvest in the garden. Te Parapara was originally the name of the pre-European Māori settlement in what is now the centre of Hamilton Gardens.
Gus says that because Hamilton Gardens is not a botanical garden they are able to keep signage to a minimum so people can just relax and soak in the surroundings. If you want to find something out, such as the name of a plant, there is always a gardener to ask. His gardeners are trained in customer service, and happy to chat. “Gardeners love to talk about their gardens,” says Gus, adding that each distinct garden has its own gardener, so there is a real sense of ownership. “We all learn from each other, with lots of different points of view within the team!”
Gus believes that Hamilton Gardens facilitates learning at a very accessible, almost subconscious, level. For visiting tourists and locals, and gardening staff too there is always something new to learn about the history of gardens and about our relationship with plants in an easy relaxed way.
Find out more about Hamilton Gardens at hamiltongardens.co.nz
Roof detail at the entrance to the Japanese garden
Indian Char Bagh Garden
Italian Renaissance Garden
Te Parapara Garden