Linda Herrick enjoys the philanthropy at Australia's Hunter Valley Gardens.
I'm not sure if it was the nursery rhymes blaring from the bushes or the "Grandmother's Garden", featuring bronze statues of a radiant lady surrounded by 12 angelic children, but I had to fight the giggles as we drove around Hunter Valley Gardens in New South Wales.
Laughing was an unexpected response to what is, according to its brochure, "Australia's Largest Display Garden" and winner of the NSW Hall of Fame in 2007.
Established 10 years ago by Nutrimetics multimillionaires Bill and Imelda Roche (the grandmother statue represents her), the 10ha gardens are set in the middle of the valley's wine-growing region at the foothills of the Brokenback Ranges, where temperatures fluctuate between searing heat in summer and ice-cold in winter. Obviously, water supply is crucial, so the gardens' radio-controlled irrigation system is a valiant response to an unforgiving environment.
Our guide, trundling us around on the back of a golf cart, explained the Roches' commitment to the gardens, which cost up to $80 million to establish and which support 140 staff to spruce up an attraction which receives about 230,000 visitors a year.
The Roches wanted to build a garden that would "bring joy and excitement into many lives ... for many generations to come".
They can afford it. The Australian Financial Review reported the Roches' fortune amounted to $440 million in 2012.
They want these gardens to have something for everyone. That must explain the myriad horticultural themes and plantings strictly overseen by Bill and Imelda. No move is made without their say-so.
So we have an Italian Garden, under the watchful eye of a statue of St Francis of Assisi; a Sunken Garden full of shrubs and annuals; a Rose Garden shaped like a corkscrew; a Formal Garden "influenced by the formal garden designs of France and England"; a Border Garden, a symphony of box-hedging and statues representing the four seasons; an Indian Mosaic Garden guarded by bronze elephants, with the air pungently scented by curry plants; an Oriental Garden centred on a pagoda; a Chinese Garden you enter via a Moongate ... it is as busy as a bumble bee.
The piece de resistance, possibly, was the Storybook Garden, with slightly faded figures of Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill tumbling down the hill and a Mad Hatter's Tea Party, supplemented by topiary giraffes and over-size fairy tale "books", not to mention the blaring bushes. Warning: Humpty's mad staring eyes could really freak out small children.
Mid-winter, and the HVG whites out for Snow Time in the Garden, with an ice-skating rink, tobogganing, encounters with Snow Angels. But I note, with sadness, that a disgruntled visitor ("Spudz") posted on the Time Out Sydney website that Snow Time was: "A rip-off. The snow was only 5cm deep and more slush than snow ... and the ice rink is made of plastic - no ice!" What a moaner.
Aside from the planting, the gardens have a purposeful commercial bent with a small shopping village, a pub, and classes in such things as tai chi and Chinese dancing. The gardens are the place to get married, says our guide, pointing out areas perfect for a red carpet to be rolled out, where the bride can wait as the man of her dreams is airlifted in by chopper. All very James Bond-ish.
Marketed as "One Perfect Day - One Perfect Place", its organisers offer a menu of "chapel" ceremonies (a chapel in name only, as the building, of the brutalist school of architecture, is not consecrated). The Lakes Walk Rotunda is "ideal for a fairy tale ceremony", whereas the Formal Garden awaits "traditionally elegant couples", with the bonus offer of arrival by horse.
Services, if so wished, can be topped off by a fireworks display booming above the Oriental Garden. Wedding photos? All part of the package. Just say cheese.
After all that breathless romance, it was a relief to come down to earth and talk to Sean O'Brien, manager of HVG's horticulture and maintenance operations. O'Brien supervises up to 35 horticultural staff and, he says, the women are the best employees because the men in this mining area "are so unreliable".
He wastes no time telling us that although he'd like to install a maze, Bill Roche won't let him because of snakes, especially the "very aggressive" eastern brown snake (highly venomous) and red-bellied black snake endemic to the region.
As we all lifted our feet off the ground, O'Brien smiled.
The biggest time of the year for the gardens, he went on to say, are the Christmas programmes, including the hugely popular display of one million fairy lights twinkling from the trees. Oh no. A nursery rhyme popped into my head: "Twinkle twinkle ..."
It's a never-ending cycle making a garden look good, but O'Brien had an excellent tip: "Make the edges look tidy and the middle will look after itself."
A philosophy which could apply to the HVG themselves. At the very least, they put a smile on my face.
Getting there: Air New Zealand has several daily flights to Sydney.
Where to go: Hunter Valley Gardens, Broke Road, Pokolbin, NSW 2020, are open every day of the year except Christmas Day. The nearest town is Cessnock.
Linda Herrick travelled with the assistance of Destination NSW.