The rest of us may have taken the long, wet winter off from tending our plots but at Hamilton Gardens it was not only business as usual in the public-access areas but also behind the scenes.
On a visit to speak to the Friends of Hamilton Gardens AGM in mid-September I was given a brief peek at some of the yet-to-be-unveiled gardens by the facility’s director Dr Peter Sergel and accompanied by Judy Holdsworth, a Friends committee member.
Meeting in the refurbished Visitor Centre, the first thing to note was the new timelines painted on the walls – one recounts the history of the land the gardens occupy, while the other tells the story of gardening through the ages and as depicted in Hamilton Gardens.
The earliest re-created garden at present is the Italian Renaissance (dating from about 1500), part of the Paradise Collection, but there are four proposed gardens which takes the timeline back even further – Byzantium Forecourt, Mediaeval Garden, Roman Portico and Ancient Egyptian Garden.
Out in the gardens there is a glimpse of one of the new Fantasy Gardens with tentacle-like arms (that will move) rising over a wall. Peter leads us to a door I’ve always wondered about, unlocks it and takes us into what will be the Surrealist Garden. It’s an Alice moment as suddenly everything is about five times normal size!
The giant figures, known as the Trons, range in height from 5 to 8m and will be covered in ivy which is busy climbing the base towards the arms. This garden is due to open in January 2019, but it rather depends on how quickly that ivy moves.
A new courtyard (which I wasn’t allowed to photograph, but trust me, you’ll love the steampunk installation when it opens on January 31) will offer access to the new gardens as they open – Surrealist, Concept (about land-use in New Zealand, due to open on January 31) and Katherine Mansfield.
“Every garden should be a surprise,” Peter says, “hence all the doors, courtyards and hedges. Visitors shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming next.”
The Concept Garden Peter describes as depicting something “not necessarily beautiful or useful but still with a message to it, a message which must be found by the viewer”. This garden will refer to the landscape in which it sits and uses an old whakatauki (proverb) as inspiration: He peke tangata, apa he peke titoki (the human family lives on while the branch of a titoki falls and decays).
The Mansfield Garden, due to open in October 2018, uses descriptions from her short story The Garden Party and comes complete with a colonial home (Judy’s making lace curtains for the windows), a concrete upright piano, tennis court, and a marquee full of sculptural food, as well as extensive plantings. Peter notes that this garden, taking 1907 as its year, has attracted more sponsors than any other in Hamilton Gardens’ history. Thanks to the Friends and the Waikato Veteran and Vintage Car Club, there will also be a specially built replica 1908 Ford Model T parked in the driveway.
Eventually, there will be nine Fantasy Gardens, all related to an artform. Already open are Tudor (Celtic art) and Chinoiserie while still to come are the Surrealist, Concept, Katherine Mansfield. Further in the future are Mediaeval (poetry), Augmented Reality, Baroque and Picturesque (based on the Mozart opera The Magic Flute).
It will have taken three years – and some $7.2 million – to bring the projects I saw to fruition. Major funding for the current projects comes from Hamilton City Council, the Lotteries Commission and sponsors, but a number of the crowd-pleasing details in the Gardens have been donated by the Friends, including a new scarecrow sculpture in the Kitchen Garden. Friends also work in the Visitor Centre, grow and sell plants to raise funds and the group has been working with Waikato University students on campaigns to raise awareness of Friends and increase membership.
Hamilton Gardens draws many visitors – 4000 a day over summer – and the council continues to raise the vexed question of an entry fee on a regular basis. At present entry is free so if you haven’t been before, put it on your must-do list for this summer.