Hamilton: Up the garden path

By Danielle Wright

From flowers to knitted veges, Hamilton is a garden city, writes Danielle Wright.

Waikato Museum's knitted vegetable garden is a hit with the kids.
Waikato Museum's knitted vegetable garden is a hit with the kids.

Hamilton has had many slogans over the years, including "Hamilton: where it's all happening", "Hamilton: more than you expect" and "Fountain City," despite having few fountains. Not surprisingly, none were very successful.

Since 2004, Hamiltonians have said, "No more slogans". But, they still got lumbered with the sarcastic "Hamiltron: City of the Future".

It's our first overnighter to "The Tron" and we try to think up better slogans as we tread through autumn leaves at Hamilton Gardens, once full of mud, seagulls and blackberries in its guise as a 1950s rubbish dump. It started life as a public garden in 1960 with 1.6ha of the Hamilton East town belt.

Since then, it's been almost continuously developed and is now full of themed gardens, with a focus on garden design rather than botanical science. It's divided into five garden collections: paradise, fantasy, cultivar, productive and landscape.

Normally gardens are not top of any kids' holiday to-do list, but after picking up the kids' trail activity sheet from the front desk, we let them lead the way as they complete the activities and look for bingo items.

They choose the productive garden collection first where we come across Te Parapara, a traditional Maori garden.

There's one memorable pou whenua with a tiki carrying four baby tiki and the kids tick off their first item.

Next up is the sustainable backyard garden with its raised beds for natural irrigation, beehives and liquid composting methods. It smells like old socks drying on a radiator. But it must be good, as nearby in the kitchen garden are giant pumpkins with people's names carved into them and lots of pretty butterflies.

The herb garden completes this collection and contains all those plants we've bought as essential oils, as well as herbs used in cosmetics and perfumes. There are also culinary and medicinal herbs. How handy this garden would be in my backyard.

We follow the kids past a forest of bay trees - with a bed of thyme growing at their roots - and come to the Tudor garden (part of a growing fantasy series) where unicorns on top of peppermint-striped poles overlook knot gardens.

It's here that my British husband remembers plants from his childhood - he tells me one has seeds that can be broken and rubbed on to someone's skin to make them itch. It's amazing what you learn at boarding school.

There's also holly, which makes him the most nostalgic because its red berries are out at Christmas as some of the only colour to be seen in an otherwise white landscape - plants can be a portal down memory lane.

Through a charming camellia hedge, we find the paradise garden collection and an open-walled cottage. We rest here, while white doves perch on lichen-covered roof tiles overhead. The English flower garden is representative of the "gardens of a golden afternoon", a style said to be so high maintenance that only the wealthy with full-time gardeners could afford them.

Each garden we pass through creates a different feeling within us - there's the quietude of the Japanese Garden of Contemplation, or a sense of smallness in the Indian Char Bagh Garden.

Then there's the symmetry of the Italian Renaissance garden, laid out according to mathematical principles, and the American Modernist garden with its surrealist-inspired paddling pool and toddlers splashing in front of Marilyn Monroe pop art.

English poet Alfred Austin wrote: "Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are." He'd have a hard time figuring out Hamiltonians from the diversity on display here. There are so many gardens left unexplored, but, with the Pumpkin Harvest Festival on in the grounds, we head instead to the bouncy castle.

Then it's across town to the Waikato Museum, where we visit the knitted garden in the Planet Warriors section. The knitted vegetable patch was so popular as an exhibition that it's still here four years later and the museum guide says, somewhat bewildered, "It just keeps growing".

The kids take wicker baskets and pull up carrots, pick strawberries and dig for potatoes. If only supermarkets could be this much fun. There's also a garden shed with lots of primary-coloured tools and a yellow watering can with a face painted on the front.

Back at the hotel, we look at the Hamilton Gardens pamphlet, with images so different from our own photos - the beauty of the garden designs is that the living backdrops are ever-changing. It's no wonder it's the Waikato's most-visited tourist destination. What a pity "Garden City" was taken further south, it would have been the perfect slogan for a city more beautiful than its reputation.

Happy Days in H-Town

Novotel Hamilton Tainui, 7 Alma St: Very family-friendly. Our kids loved the electronic toaster with the "a bit more" button for when the toast isn't quite done. The hotel overlooks the trees lining the river, so you never feel like you're staying in the centre of town.

Waikato Museum, 1 Grantham St: open seven days 10am-4.30pm. Free entry, admission charges apply to some exhibitions, The Exscite Science Gallery is lots of fun and the Roman Machines Exhibition (on until 4 May, 2014) gives an interactive insight into the Romans' blind ambition, "which drove progress, but also engineered their demise".

Hamilton Gardens: open daily from 7am-6pm. Free.

Danielle Wright was a guest of Hamilton and Waikato Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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