Kate Hillier took the Ellerslie Flower Show to Christchurch where she ended up running an emergency Civil Defence base during the February 2011 earthquake. Now she's brought the show back to Auckland under a new name; the New Zealand Flower and Garden Show.
1 You were setting up the Ellerslie Flower Show at Hagley Park in Christchurch when the February 2011 earthquake happened. What was that like?
Terrifying; within seconds we were knee deep in liquefaction. Huge trees were falling. People began flooding in because the radio was saying, "Go to the Civil Defence site at Hagley Park" but no one knew where it was. Two of us had radios to communicate with when all the phones had crashed so we became the civil defence. Injured people were being stretchered in so we set up a triage and sent the seriously wounded to hospital. I had 400 neurosurgeons turn up from a conference at one of the hotels but at that point I didn't need doctors, I needed medication for people with cancer, strokes, diabetes and asthma. A doctor who worked at a 24-hour clinic nearby broke in and came back with his jacket full of medicine, a bit like a used watch salesman. It started raining and we ended up with thousands of people sleeping in our marquees. We handed over to Civil Defence at about 9pm. A few weeks later I did all the flowers for the memorial service.
2 Why did the flower show have to leave Christchurch?
We kept going for three years after the quake but people were too scared to go there and there was nowhere to stay. We were packing up our final show in 2014 when flooding trashed the whole site. That was probably the death knell. To be honest, the city has got other priorities with the rebuild.
3 Do you think it's sad for Christchurch to lose the show?
It's very sad. Lots of people really wanted to keep it. One reason we've renamed it the New Zealand Flower and Garden Show is so we can move it round the country. We're in Waitakere for three years but I'd love to take it back to Christchurch and also Hamilton and Wellington so we don't have to rely on one industry group and one visitor group the whole time. We hoped to hold it at Bastion Pt last year but it got too hard getting permission from Heritage NZ so this is the first show since 2014. I can't wait to get it back on the calendar as an annual display.
4 Your family are famous in Britain for owning the Hilliers chain of nurseries and winning a record 72 consecutive golds at the Chelsea Flower Show. How did Hilliers become "By appointment to the Queen"?
My grandfather Sir Harold Hillier became good friends with the Queen Mum through the Chelsea Flower Show which the royals would tour each year. A lot of the royals love gardening and he was very knowledgeable. He set up an arboretum and tried to collect two of every plant species, like a Noah's ark for plants. There are hundreds of thousands of rare species in there. When he got dementia we gifted the arboretum to Hampshire County.
5 Were you expected to take over the firm, started by your great-great-grandfather Edwin Hillier and now the third in the UK?
It was very much an old boys' brigade so when grandad died the business was split between the men, not the women, who were expected to be wives and mums. Dad's realised that's a bit old-fashioned now. I studied business at college but worked in one of our garden centres one holidays and enjoyed it so much I never left.
6 Your grandad created famous plant breeds like the Aztec Pearl. Did he name any after you?
No; much to my disappointment. There's a Sir Harold Hillier magnolia and Mum's got a dwarf elm named after her.
7 What else did he invent?
When he was in the home guard during the wars he came up with a way to hide the air force planes with live trees in large planter boxes that could be wheeled out on to the runways with mechanical pulleys. Hilliers used the same system to transfer mature trees to the O2 Olympic arena.
8 Did you work on any of Hilliers' gold-winning exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show?
Yes, I was going up to Chelsea from a very young age. Granny was still going strong so we'd push her round the stalls in her wheelchair. When I was older I worked on the Hillier stand for seven years. We won gold each time but it was very much a team effort. I was involved in design, plant placement and making sure the plants were horticulturally correct; for example you can't put a shade-loving plant and a sun-loving plant side by side. In the last few days I'd be literally polishing every leaf.
9 Do you have any entertaining Chelsea Flower Show stories?
Chelsea has a sell-off at the end of the show which often ends with people fighting over plants. Hilliers never takes part because we reuse a lot of our best plants. Our staff have to form a circle around our stand holding hands to stop people getting in. One year I saw two people pulling desperately on either end of a standard fuchsia. It's quite funny.
10 What's the secret to winning gold at a flower show?
You need to design very specifically to the criteria. Horticultural accuracy is a lot more important at Chelsea than the theatrical "wow" factor. Their large stands will have a budget of up to $500,000. New Zealand exhibitors have to rely a lot more on Kiwi ingenuity and beg, steal and borrow stuff. When I started running the Ellerslie Flower Show it was struggling horticulturally, so I spent a lot of time mentoring the exhibitors. The lack of horticultural diversity is becoming an issue in New Zealand. All the garden centres have exactly the same stuff and the number of nurseries is reducing as well.
11 How many people are you expecting at the Waitakere Trusts Arena this year?
Up to 70,000 over the five days. Ellerslie was getting 64,000 when it was in Auckland. This site is slightly smaller but flatter than the Botanical Gardens in Manurewa. We have between 80 to 100 exhibitors this year. It's in spring, like Chelsea, which is a good time to get your garden looking nice for Christmas. We've got a blend of theatrical gardens and ones you can actually build at home.
12 Which charities are you supporting this year?
The Breast Cancer Foundation is our official charity. We aim to raise $25,000 with a charity gala and pink ribbon walk. We also support Garden to Table which teaches school children how to grow veges. This year we have a prison garden for the first time. I'd seen the prison gardens at Chelsea as a child so I went to Paremoremo to see if we could do something similar here. Prisoners doing their welding certificates were cutting up metal bins and then welding them back together again. Now they're creating amazing garden sculptures. They don't get to install their work but their families will be able to come and see it.
• NZ Flower and Garden Show, Waitakere Trusts Arena, 29 November to 3 December.