The third collection to explore at Hamilton Gardens was the Productive Gardens, representing different aspects of the relationship between people and plants. The area that is now the centre of Hamilton Gardens was once a Māori settlement known as Te Parapara. The garden of the same name was once home to Haanui, a famous Ngati Wairere chief, and the site was particularly renowned for sacred rituals associated with the harvesting of food crops. Te Parapara Garden is divided into two sections. The first surrounds the path from the main piazza and comprises wild food plants from the forest and grassland. This is separated from the cultivated garden by an intricately carved waharoa or gateway. The designs are based on ancient carvings from a house called Te Urutomokia, built for Potatau Te Wherowhero who became the first Māori King in 1858.
Beyond the gateway is an area for cultivated food plants, surrounded by a palisade fence with forty carved posts.
Six varieties of Kumara are grown in the garden and produce from the annual harvest is distributed to charities.
The path surrounding the fenced garden is edged with more food plants as well as beautifully adorned traditional Māori storehouses.
With the goal of producing enough to feed a family of four, the Sustainable Backyard Garden shows some of the ways in which the typical suburban backyard can be transformed into a productive and edible landscape.
There are some quirky sculptures to be found; a stone bench with some unusual inlays, a wild wiry scarecrow and a delightfully decorative adobe pizza oven.
Complete with hens, bees and a worm farm, the garden is managed and maintained by volunteers from the Hamilton Permaculture Trust.
The concept of herb gardens is a fairly recent one. In medieval times, all plants were believed to have medicinal value and all were referred to as a ‘herb’. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the word ‘vegetables’ was used to describe food plants and ‘herb’ was the name for practical plants. The Herb Garden at Hamilton follows the formula of early 20th century horticulturalist and garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, with a framework of paving and four rectangular plots containing herbs defined by purpose – culinary, medicinal, cosmetic and perfume.
Like the herb garden, the adjacent Kitchen Garden is divided into four raised beds, though on a much larger scale.
The features are of a classic 18th/19th century garden used to supply the households of large European estates, with rows of crops mixed with displays of colourful flowers.
The walls of the garden not only create an atmosphere of mystery and security, they also hold the daytime heat. Research has shown that the amount of heat reflected close to a sunny brick wall can equal seven degrees latitude. As in northern Europe, the fruit trees are trained and espaliered against the wall, the result being that these fruits often ripen before others in the region.
There aren’t many gardens with a lovely bronze scarecrow. The Strawman was created by English sculptor, Lloyd le Blanc, and was installed in 2016.
All surplus produce from the Kitchen Garden is donated to Kaivolution, a local food rescue project that aims to stop edible food being thrown away. This is food, good enough to eat but not good enough to sell or is excess to producer requirements, that is diverted to those in need.
Having explored the Hamilton Gardens Paradise Collection, we moved on to the Fantasy Collection where imagination and fantasy are integral to the garden design. Three of these are found along paths leading from Time Court. Bronze characters from Alice in Wonderland are assembled atop a plinth, a plaque quotes: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. Lewis Carroll.”
We entered the Surrealist Garden along a disconcerting black & white tiled passageway that led to a fireplace with nothing on the mantlepiece except a pair of egg shaped ornaments.
Surrealist art came to the fore in the 1920s and 30s when artists and writers became fascinated with the mysterious world of dreams and the subconscious mind. In garden design, this was illustrated through distortion of scale, strange forms of topiary & sculptures and elements behaving in an unexpected manner.
Everything in this garden is five times the normal scale
and the lawn edging curves up at the corners like a sheet of paper.
Instead of a dozen white roses, a dozen white noses are dotted throughout the thick foliage bordering the lawn.
I thought I was seeing thing when I saw the ‘branches’ of these trees moving. The ivy covered shapes, known as ‘trons’, appear slightly sinister as their hydraulically controlled arms move when least expected.
The Tudor Garden reflects the fascination 16th century English aristocracy had with geometric patterns and symbolism. A stone pavilion, based on the one at Montacute House in Somerset, overlooks intricate knot gardens that were traditionally outdoor settings for fantasy plays or ‘masques’.
Mythical beasts on green and white striped poles each hold a flag of the Tudor Rose as well as a sculptural crest of some of the notorious personalities of the day. Although some of the shields can’t be seen from the angle of the photo, royalty are represented by the unicorn (Mary, Queen of Scots), the griffin (King Henry VIII) and the dragon (Queen Elizabeth I).
Lord Chancellors of the aforementioned royalty make an appearance with the Centaur (Sir Thomas More) and Satyr (Sir Francis Bacon).
Two favourites of Queen Elizabeth I, both described as a ‘privateer’, are upheld by the sea serpent (Sir Walter Raleigh) and the Phoenix (Sir Francis Drake). The most endearing is the lovable Bottom from Midsummer Night’s Dream holding the shield of Sir William Shakespeare.
Chinese and Japanese imports flowed into Europe in the 18th century and created a fashion craze that became known as ‘Chinoiserie’. Garden design became an expression of the Western fantasy of Oriental art. This Chinoiserie Garden is quite simple. Once through the Bottle Gate and along the path to the Perfume Garden,
there are Chinoiserie seats and a Chinese Pavilion overlooking a sweeping lawn.
The pavilion is modelled on the ‘Chinese House’ at Stowe Landscape Gardens in England which was built in 1738. Like the original, the roof is copper and the colourful decoration gives it a theatrical touch.
Planting in the Tropical Garden has been designed so that the hardier plants offer protection to those more susceptible to Waikato winters. Exotic plants such as bromeliads and orchids sprinkle colour amongst the lush greenery and a trickling stream adds to the tranquil tropical atmosphere.
The next three Fantasy gardens led from Braithwaite Court where a Huddleston airship, full of gardening gadgets, is tethered. The airship is more than ornamental, it glides through the night delivering plants and pruning hard-to-reach hedges.
Essentially a form of outdoor conceptual art, the Concept Garden has been inspired by the square boxes of a legend on a map. Nine types of New Zealand landscape are symbolised in the blocks; pasture is represented by the grass, native bush by Muehlenbeckia astonii, urban areas by White Carpet roses, horticultural by citrus trees, tussock grassland by Carex buchananii, coniferous forest by Pinus mugo, scrubland by Leptospermum scoparium, wetland by Apodasmia and water bodies by the central pool.
Two Māori whakataukī, or proverbs, appear in the garden. He peke tangata, apa he peke titoki, is inscribed on the white wall, meaning ‘the human family lives on while the branch of the titoki falls and decays’. Perhaps a suggestion that as the population grows, it is at the expense of natural environments. The other whakataukī is inscribed on a steel pipe, which will gradually rust away; the interpretation of this message is, ‘but in the end, nature is going to win’.
A change in attitude toward the formality of garden design came about with the Picturesque Garden movement in England during the 18th century. Gardens retained a natural look, some deliberately wild and overgrown, and often had a sequence of features representing a fantasy story or classical legend. The Picturesque Garden at Hamilton makes reference to the story of The Magic Flute, written by Mozart in 1791, along with Masonic symbolism found in the story. We entered through a cave guarded by a pair of sphinxes
and passed the figure of Papageno
before reaching the Woodland Temple of the Queen of the Night.
The number three is significant to the Freemasons, as evinced by the three guardian angels, three portals to enter the temple and, through the dark passage, three temptresses represented in relief sculpture on the wall.
A table of food and wine awaited in a meadow
and the entrance to the cave where Tamino faced his last test is flanked by a brazier and bowl, symbolising fire and water. Opening a door at the end of the path, we wondered what could possibly top that experience.
We weren’t disappointed. One of the foremost pioneers in modern literature, New Zealand born Katherine Mansfield wrote her short story, The Garden Party in 1922. Inspired by an event that took place in Wellington in 1907, the architecture, food and design detail of the Edwardian period has been recreated in the Mansfield Garden. Circular gravel driveways with a pond or fountain in the centre were a common theme
and the Model T Ford was a status symbol of the time.
The lawn tennis court is the setting of the party
and workmen erected a marquee against the karaka hedge, specifically mentioned in the story, on the far side of the court.
The banquet table is laden with mouth-watering fare. Fifteen kinds of sandwiches with the crusts cut off are suggested in the story, although only two were specified; cream cheese with lemon curd and egg & olive. ‘Godber’s famous cream puffs’ were also on the menu, a nod to James Godber, a very successful baker, confectioner and caterer in Wellington at the turn of the century. The delectable spread is actually made from concrete and resin to withstand the elements.
Yet another detail from the story is the placement of the ‘very small band’ in another corner of the tennis court.
Having read Katherine Mansfield’s short stories since our trip, this fantasy garden lacked nothing. Sadly, she died with tuberculosis in 1923 at the age of 34.
I am always on the lookout for beautiful gardens to visit on our travels and was very excited to discover Hamilton Gardens is only an hour drive from Matamata, perfect for a day trip. The world class gardens are situated alongside the Waikato River, an area that was once a thriving Maori settlement and home to Ngaati Wairere chief Haanui. Sadly, after European settlement, the land was used for other purposes including a rifle range, sand quarry, go-cart track and finally the city’s main rubbish dump. In the 1950s, the Hamilton Beautifying Society lobbied for a public garden and, with most development occurring since 1980, the gardens now occupy 54 hectares.
Passing by the Events Centre, we were drawn to a huge wood carving depicting real and imagined life in the gardens. The intricate carving was created from a single camphor laurel tree which grew on the river bank, far too big to capture in one photograph.
At Hamilton Gardens, the emphasis is on different types of garden design rather than plant collections, exploring the history, context and meaning of gardens. The individual gardens are presented in three separate themes – Paradise Gardens, Fantasy Gardens and Productive Gardens – too much to cover in one post so I will start with the Paradise Collection. Each garden radiates from a central court, in this case it is Cloud Court featuring statues of Egyptian gods Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky and Sobek, the crocodilian ‘Lord of the Waters’.
We started in the Japanese Contemplation Garden, entering into a karesansui, or dry landscape garden, of the Muromachi era from the 14th to 16th century. Often called ‘Zen gardens’ because they are found in Zen temple complexes in Japan, these are designed for quiet contemplation and study.
Beyond the pavilion, a pool surrounded by Japanese Maple trees infuses a serenity felt by even the smallest inhabitants.
The traditional gardens of the Arts and Crafts period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the inspiration behind the English Flower Garden. Walls and hedges create a series of outdoor rooms, each with a different planting theme, that are linked by pathways terminating at an arbor, fountain or seat.
It is easy to see why the gardens of this era are often referred to as ‘the gardens of a golden afternoon’.
The art of Chinese gardening dates back to the Han period, at least 2,000 years ago and this influential art form has been called the ‘mother of gardens’. The Chinese Scholars’ Garden represents a traditional Chinese garden from the Sung Dynasty, 10th to 12th century, when a social class of mandarins, scholars and the landed gentry created and maintained these distinctive gardens.
The winding path led to a blooming Wisteria bridge and would eventually reach a pavilion with views of the Waikato River.
Instead, we retraced our steps, past the giant bronze half turtle-half dragon, the Celestial Yuan of Taihu, symbolically protecting the garden from floods.
The 20th century brought the minimalist design of the Modernist Garden, particularly on the U.S. western seaboard and northern Europe in the 1930s. Elements such as swimming pools, barbecues and outdoor eating areas dominated with little ornamentation or formality. Not really my idea of a garden.
In stark contrast, the colourful Indian Char Bagh Garden was stunning. The symbolic four-quartered garden was designed for the Mughal aristocracy and spread throughout the Muslim world between the 8th and 18th centuries. The Mughal emperors, descendants of Genghis Khan, expanded their empire eastwards from Persia into northern India from the 13th century onwards. The design was adapted to local conditions but the basics of geometric layout and a focus on water and irrigation remained integral. In harsh climates, the subtle trickle of water combined with floral perfumes made for a sumptuous living Persian carpet.
Beyond the pavilion, some were making the most of this glorious day on the Waikato River.
We retreated through the decorative entranceway
and made our way to the Italian Renaissance Garden. Many of the elements of earlier Medieval gardens have been retained such as high surrounding walls, square beds and arched trellis work.
The Renaissance designers introduced a strong central axis linking different compartments of the garden and included antique sculptures. A perfect example is the copy of the original 5th century Capitoline wolf with Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who, as babies, were thrown into the Tiber River, which carried them to Platine where they were suckled by a she-wolf and then raised by a shepherd.
I could imagine enjoying a beverage on the vine covered terrace but there was much more to see.