Adults at the site of Hamilton Gardens in the Victorian era

A Rich History of Hamilton Gardens (Pre-Colonial to 1950)

From Indigenous Cultivation to Colonial Dispossession

Hamilton Gardens is located alongside an attractive stretch of the Waikato River, merging old landscape features with creative development and design.

The original gardens at the site of Hamilton Gardens go back hundreds of years, when it was cultivated by the gardeners of Ngaati Wairere. The site was covered in mara kai, growing kuumara and other crops in a settlement called Te Parapara.

When the colonial government invaded the Waikato in the 1860s, the land was taken as part of the confiscations that dispossessed the people of Waikato-Tainui. The land came under the ownership of the Hamilton Council and over the next 100 years, it was used for multiple purposes including a rifle range, a sand quarry, a dog dosing area, a go-cart track, and briefly as the city’s rubbish dump.

From Landfill to Paradise: The Rise of Hamilton Gardens (1950-Present)

A Community Effort: Transforming the Barren Landscape

In the 1950s, the Hamilton Beautifying Society lobbied for a public garden on the site, starting a process that led to the creation of Hamilton Gardens. The Rose Gardens were opened in the 1970s and the first enclosed gardens were built in the 1980s.

The area had been used as a rifle range by Victorian era residents, and in the 20th century became a sand quarry and then the city's rubbish dump. Covered in weeds and blackberry bushes with seagulls circling above, it would've been hard to imagine the transformation ahead. With minimal budgets, volunteers and community groups have dedicated thousands of hours and resources to develop the barren 54-hectare site into a free public park.

There are now 18 enclosed themed gardens, connected by planted courtyards and walkways. And there is more to come. Three more gardens are under development and a further 17 are planned before the collection is complete.

The Visionary: Doctor Peter Sergel and His Legacy

The vision of Hamilton Gardens belongs largely to one person, Dr Peter Sergel whose name should be well known to the city, for he has truly made a lasting contribution. Originally a landscape architect, he was asked to design a concept plan for the park as one of his first tasks after joining the council in 1979.

Peter quickly became the driving force behind the gardens. He had a vision of a series of connected closed gardens representing the most famous and most important garden types. He researched and designed all but one of the themed gardens.

In 1995, Peter was made Director of Hamilton Gardens, a post he held until his retirement in 2020.

Peter structured the gardens into three categories, Paradise, Fantasy and Productive gardens.

  • Paradise Gardens represented idealised styles of garden, the attempt to create a paradise on earth. These gardens often evoke a sense of tranquillity or order and structure.
  • Fantasy Gardens illustrate how fantasy and imagination have been used in garden design. These gardens are meant to fire the imaginations of visitors.
  • The Productive Gardens show how people have grown plants for food, medicine, and other purposes and how important our relationship with these plants is and has always been.

Underpinning all this is Peter’s underlying idea to tell the story of civilisations through gardens. This totally unique concept is quite unlike any other public garden in the world.

Each garden is a point in the history of human civilisation and each garden represents an idea or a pivotal moment in the evolution of human cultures, ideas, and beliefs.

Today, the award-winning Hamilton and is the Waikato's most popular visitor attraction with over one million visitors every year.

Supporting the local community

Giving Back Through Partnerships and Opportunities

Over the past forty years Hamilton Gardens has been transformed into a world class garden, not through a massive Council budget but through a sustained community effort. Our community is essential to our existence, so we give back in a number of ways.

  • All New Zealand Charitable organisations receive a 66% discount on the venue hire rates at Hamilton Gardens
  • Local gardening groups or other local specialist groups receive a generous discount on Guided Tours
  • We provide the Friends of Hamilton Gardens with a special Christmas shopping day once a year when they receive additional discount off their purchases in our Gift Shop
  • Hamilton Gardens is a major sponsor of the annual Hamilton Arts Festival
  • We are active members of Botanic Gardens of New Zealand (BGANZ) and Hamilton and Waikato Tourism
  • We also provide work experience opportunities to local students at Wintec and The University of Waikato
  • All surplus produce from the Kitchen Garden is given to Kaivolution, a local charity that provides fresh food to local people in need.
A group of people at Hamilton Gardens A tiger at the Hamilton Zoo playing with a pumpkin grown in the Kitchen Garden at Hamilton Gardens Surplus produce from the Kitchen Garden donated to Kaivolution

Left: The Garden's Secrets book launch. Top right: A tiger at Hamilton Zoo enjoying a pumpkin from the Kitchen Garden. Bottom right: Fresh food from the Kitchen Garden being donated to a local food charity. 

Friends of Hamilton Gardens

The Friends of Hamilton Gardens Inc. is a New Zealand registered charity, registered number CC23690. The Friends organisation was formed in 1988 to support the growth and further development of the Hamilton Gardens world class visitor attraction, and to provide a key focus for community involvement. 

The Friends play a key role in raising awareness and promoting the use and enjoyment of Hamilton Gardens by holding regular events and by engaging with the community, national and international visitors.

The Friends have been influential supporters and funders of Hamilton Gardens and have contributed to the development and improvement of the Gardens by raising approximately 3.5 million dollars. In addition, the volunteers have staffed the information centre over the past 30 years providing an estimated contribution from the Friends of between $8 -10 million.

In 2023, thanks to The Friends, in excess of $130,000 was donated to The Gardens. $120,000 for the development of the Medieval Garden and $10,000 for School kits.  They approved an annual Scholarship of $2000 for the professional development of the Hamilton Gardens staff.  They were honoured to support the publishing of Peter Sergel’s new book – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Hamilton Gardens. 

Since 2020 they have raised funds for features in the Mansfield, Surrealist, Concept, and Picturesque Gardens, the Hamilton Club Summerhouse, and the Ancient Egyptian Garden. Their key focus at the moment is the Medieval Garden, Baroque Garden and the Pasifika Garden. 

If you're interested in supporting or becoming a member visit the Friends of Gardens page to find out more. 

Committed to Sustainability

Hamilton Gardens is proud to partner with the New Zealand Tourism Sustainability Commitment which aims to see every New Zealand tourism business committed to sustainability by 2025. We have an ambitious goal to be an industry leader in sustainable management of our site.

Energy Use and Carbon Neutrality: A Roadmap to 2030

Hamilton Gardens has an ambitious plan to become totally carbon neutral by 2030. An external audit of our current carbon footprint is currently underway, but an initial estimate suggests that we’re using around 122 tonnes of carbon each year.

A work in progress:

  • Good progress has already been made replacing hand-held equipment with electrical devices and a vehicle replacement programme is being developed.
  • All our lighting in our public toilets are on sensors and we’ve installed LED lights throughout The Pavilion
  • We are also investigating solar panels on our maintenance barns, possibly installing two small turbines on a small stream running through the Gardens and avoiding the need to heat our display houses.

The main challenges remaining are the gas ovens in the Café and the lack of a viable bio-diesel option for our mowers.

Waste Management: Minimising Impact and Promoting Recycling

Hamilton Gardens is proud to provide glass, plastic and paper/cardboard recycling bins so all our venue hirers can separate their waste at their events. All aluminium cans from our rubbish bins are recycled as well as the metal blades from our lawn mowers. 

Any food waste from our staff goes into our worm farm. All garden waste goes into our mulching operation which last year produced over 1,000 cubic meters of high-quality mulch.

We’re currently working with on-site event organisers to reduce their waste. The most successful of these has been Gourmet in the Gardens, a dining event held every Sunday evening over summer. They recycle all their waste and all plates/utensils are washed and reused.

Protecting Natural Features: Fostering Biodiversity and Habitat Restoration

The remnant bush on the steep riverbanks below the Hamilton East Cemetery is one of the district’s significant original Waikato seed sources. This stretch of riverbank, referred to as Echo Bank Bush, is managed as an important natural feature of Hamilton Gardens. Management of this flora will follow the policy in the Riverside Reserves Management Plan.

This includes control and removal of all exotic plants, additional planting using only eco-sourced species propagated from local plants, management of the bush so it becomes a self-sustaining unit and public access confined to paths and boardwalks to avoid damage. The on-site plant nursery specialises in locally eco-sourced plants for use through Hamilton’s parks and gullies.

Hamilton Gardens as an important natural link in the river wildlife corridor through the city. Annual planting programmes aim to increase the diversity of fruit, seed and nectar plants to provide a continuity of seasonal food supply for birds. Vegetation overhanging ponds and the lake and river margins are particularly effective in encouraging insects for birds and bats, as well as providing a refuge for waterfowl and fish. A lot of our planting is done with food for native birds in mind.

Notable natural fauna within the gardens includes a local long-tailed bat population and several ‘bat roosts’ have been installed for them. Trees that need to be removed (usually for safety reasons) are assessed for the presence of bats before they are felled. Some of the more isolated riverbanks are home to glow worms, and the ponds and lake have long fin eels living in them. Recently more planting such as nettles has been undertaken to encourage native butterflies.

The new long-term plan for Hamilton Gardens includes a proposal to plant another four hectares in native bush and to double the length of the bush walks.

Controlling Pests: Balancing Conservation and Plant Protection

Control of pest species, such as rabbits, wild cats, mustelids, rats, magpies and possums, is an ongoing challenge for Hamilton Gardens. Pest control is fortified around biodiversity hotspots and increased during certain times, such as when Tui are nesting. Control of pests is planned as part of a wider strategy for riverside reserves based on the Pest Management Strategy prepared by the Waikato Regional Council. Hamilton Gardens has been working with Landcare, Waikato University and other organisations on new pest control and monitoring systems like GoodNature Co2 rodent and possum traps and Project Ohiti.

The use of residual chemicals is being reduced through the gradual introduction of a more integrated pest management strategy aiming to increase reliance on biological control. However, in Hamilton’s warm humid climate, collections such as the massed hybrid rose display and rhododendron borders mean that some chemical control will be required for the foreseeable future.

To minimise negative effects, preference is given to non-toxic substances where there is no effective form of cultural or biological control. Evaluation of alternatives to inorganic, residual chemical pest control will be continued.