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Visit to Chinese Scholar’s Garden at the award-winning Hamilton Gardens, 2014

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Hamilton Gardens - Garden of Year“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…..”

As usual Shakespeare had the last word and last Sunday found myself and some friends in Hamilton to see the world-renowned gardens there. We had been tipped off that the Gardens had just won an International Award and we guessed that the gardens would be in tip-top condition – we were right!

Hamilton’s International Garden of the Year accolade was part of the 2014 Garden Tourism Awards at the ‘Gardens without Limits Conference’ in Metz, France.  The Hamilton Gardens’ concept of tracing the Story of Gardens through different civilisations and time is considered internationally unique. This unusual concept was recognised by the Committee and Award Juror, Michel Gauthier commented on the Maori Te Parapara Garden and the international garden themes which ‘were a stand-out feature of Hamilton’. Hamilton mayor, Julie Hardaker said it was fantastic news, especially as the Gardens are just about to begin another major development.   “It puts Hamilton on the World Gardens stage” said Gardens director, Dr Peter Sergel who commented that “many local individuals and organisations had contributed to the creation of the gardens and this award was well-deserved recognition.”

For us, the weather was dour at first and we kept our coats on as we strolled around the gardens, but gradually the sun came grudgingly out and we took off the warm clothes to enjoy the first of the summer weather.

We stopped at the café for a sandwich and then moved on to be confronted by a courtyard guarded by two Egyptian figures. (They are there to guard the entrance to the world gardens).

The courtyard is surrounded by high hedges in which there are doors. Thus each garden is a secret garden, which suddenly comes into view showing its unique beauty in size and style and totally hidden from the other gardens.  

Entrance to the Chinese Scholar's Garden, with its pair of lions (on left the female, with paw on a cub, and, right, the amle with paw on the world.
Entrance to the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, with its pair of lions (on left the female, with paw on a cub, and, right, the male with paw on the world).

The first door we went through gave onto the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, and being a member of the NZ/China Friendship Society we were keen to see this garden, which reflects the typical Asian requirement of calm water, beautiful ‘zig-zag’ bridges (to thwart evil spirits!), exquisitely-carved ‘bamboo’ windows in a white painted wall inviting one to explore further.   A lot is left to the imagination in a Chinese garden, like an unfinished sentence.   The viewer is not meant to see the whole of the garden at once, and it has a stylised illusion of natural scenery such as distant mountains, cliffs, valleys and mysterious caves and dreamy landscapes of legend.  Goldfish swim lazily in the water and a Chinese pavilion stands on the hilltop. Walls divide each space, which offer surprises and mysteries as in a Chinese puzzle. There are many symbols and plants representing wealth, good fortune in love and long life and a bronze turtle stands guard. Named the Celestial Yuan of Taihu, a figure from Wuxi legend, the turtle was sent by the Dragon King to save the people of Wuxi. It stands on its rock overlooking the great river Waikato symbolically protecting the garden from floods. The naming of features is very important in a Chinese garden and the Chinese Scholar’s Garden is ‘Yichang-Yuan’ which means ‘Garden of Retreat in Flowing Happiness’. This echoes a famous garden in Wuxi, China.  

Celestial Yuan of Taihu, a giant turtle sent by the Dragon King to save the people of Wuxi. It is symbolically protecting the Chinese Scholar's Garden from floods and providing the cerebral /spiritual linkage to the river Waikato [donated by the people of Wuxi and the Municipal People’s Association for Friendship]
Celestial Yuan of Taihu, a giant turtle sent by the Dragon King to save the people of Wuxi.

Individual garden trusts were formed with co-operation from the countries which inspired the creation of each garden and these continue today with the trusts still being involved with the Gardens. They have included; the Chinese, Indian, Maori, Japanese and Italian Garden Trusts.

The Chinese Garden Trust was formed in 1986 to raise funds and oversee the development of the Chinese garden as a joint project between Hamilton City Council and Hamilton’s Sister City, Wuxi, as well as the NZ Chinese Association and the NZ China Friendship Society (Hamilton branch). Work officially commenced with the planting of a Magnolia in the Blossom Court by the Mayor of Wuxi, Mr Wu Donghua on 5 July 1986. The main garden took approximately three years to develop at a cost of $250,000, with much of the work being undertaken by people working on the Project Employment Programme, a Government-subsidised scheme. It was opened by Hamilton Mayor, Ross Jansen in 1989, and the Taihu rock was presented by Mr Lei Huanwen, President of the Wuxi Municipal People’s Association for Friendship in March 1991. The Garden was formally opened by Mayor of Wuxi, Mr Wang Hong-min and Margaret Evans in February 1992.

We left the Chinese garden and chose another door to enter, this time to the beautiful ‘Japanese Garden of Contemplation’.  This Zen garden exactly replicates the Japanese concept of a place to be at peace in, with a terrace from where one can survey a calm pool complete with beautiful rocks and fish. On the other side was a Kare Sansui, a dry landscape of gravel carefully raked to give the effect of water flowing, complete with rocks and mosses and low bushes.

The Italian Renaissance Garden, viewed from a terrace
The Italian Renaissance Garden, viewed from a terrace

The next door we entered was the more elaborate Italian Renaissance garden, typically built to display the richness of its owner, with curved walkways over which grew beautiful climbers, squared-off flower beds were planted in bright colours and careful arrangements, below intricate buildings in which to lounge on a ‘hot day in Florence’.

A typically English garden is included in this group of gardens, with walls against which are wide herbaceous borders with flowers in a mass of colours. A small lake and traditional English flowers delight the eye.

Indian Char Bagh Garden: a ‘Kursi-cum-char-bagh’ (riverside garden) based on the 15 - 16th century gardens of the Mughal Emperors
Indian Char Bagh Garden: a ‘Kursi-cum-char-bagh’ (riverside garden) based on the 15 – 16th century gardens of the Mughal Emperors

The Indian Char Bagh Garden is very similar to the Italian Renaissance Garden with an exquisite pavilion also providing succour to keep cool on hot summer days under a roof painted in delightful colours with spectacular tiled floor. On one side it overlooks laid-out flower beds with a great richness of colour and on the other side, again the great river Waikato.

All the above gardens are grouped under the name, Paradise Garden Collection, one of many ideas originally conceived by Dr Peter Sergel, the present Director of the gardens. The story of the gardens goes back as far as 1864 when Hamilton East was first surveyed to provide a cemetery and rifle range reserve, with the first burial being recorded in the Hamilton East Cemetery. By 1907, Bateson’s Nursery had been established and in 1951, Section 27 of the town belt became the official Municipal Nursery. July 1960 saw the original Gardens being officially opened and it started life as a public park with the Rogers Rose Garden opening some years later with a visit from H.M. Queen Elizabeth. Since then it has become the Waikato region’s most popular visitor attraction with approximately one million visitors each year.

In the 1970s, the Paradise Garden Collection site-to-be was a bleak city rubbish dump covered in blackberries with seagulls scavenging the contents. Dr Sergel’s vision was to provide an internationally unique concept: that gardens are not simply something to look at, but must have their own story, reflecting their origin, development over time and their own cultures and uses. More than 30 years later, Dr Sergel’s sketchbook designs are almost identical to the themed gardens we see today, but he is quick to acknowledge the involvement of many others in what has sprung from the original rubbish dump. Trusts were formed to support specific garden developments and labour provided by ‘Taskforce Green’ and Pre-Employment programmes, which subsidised the wages of young workers whilst they developed their skills.

The ground is a public park owned by Hamilton City Council and is predominantly funded by rates. Entry to the Gardens is free but recently the Gardens have begun to sell exclusive product from the Gardens including marmalade and lemon curd that was made with ‘assistance’ from the chickens in the Sustainable Garden, and from Seville oranges picked in the Italian Renaissance Garden. They are sold in the Information Centre. There are 17 paid gardeners, but 60 volunteers also look after the Information Centre throughout the year.

Storage house and kumara (sweet potato) beds, Te Parapara Maori garden
Storage house and kumara (sweet potato) beds, Te Parapara Maori garden

There were many other gardens there, too many to visit in one day, promising a treat for a further visit, but each garden we visited was spectacular in its own way and scrupulously weeded. The Te Parapara Garden reflects its Maori flavour with dozens of carvings of ancestors in wood with eyes portrayed in bright paua shells and we saw many kumara plots (puke) mounded up to provide much produce for the coming year.

The land set aside for the Rogers Rose garden was quite large and certainly was needed to display the hundreds of exquisite varieties, from climbing roses and old-fashioned roses to the latest produce from Sam McGredy and other well-known rose growers. Sam McGredy cultivated a beautiful rose, named Rose Hamilton after the Hamilton Gardens. At the recent 2014 X-site Pacific Rose Bowl Festival the gardens displayed roses from throughout New Zealand – see their Facebook site for photos of the winning roses www.facebook.com/hamiltongardensNZ  

We saw the Herb Garden and Kitchen Garden, giving plenty of opportunity to make notes for further plant purchases and the vegetable plots planted in every variety of fruit tree and vegetable. But perhaps my most cherished garden, after the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, was the lowly home-grown Sustainable Garden that opened in 2001 with small vegetable plots and flowers, where lots of ideas were shared on how to get the most out of your backyard. Hints on compost making, seaweed fertilisers and companion planting gave many really good ideas that the average gardener could take home and use to advantage in his own garden. Being an avid gardener myself, I brought home many ideas that are already being put into practice.

The Hamilton Gardens have plans for five new gardens within four years. These include the Tudor Garden (opening on 29 January 2015), Concept Garden, Surrealist Garden, Picturesque Garden and a Mansfield Garden. What future pleasures to look forward to!

My ‘story’ above gives mainly my impressions based on a brief and incomplete visit to Hamilton Gardens.  For a complete list of the component ‘gardens’, click HERE.

For more information on the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, click HERE

For a video of Hamilton Gardens(including footage of Dr Peter Siegel) by the Garden Gurus…

Visit Hamilton Garden’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/hamiltongardensNZ

Teri France