Picture this: Hamilton's mysterious new garden

From Waikato Times reported by Ellen O'Dwyer and images by Christel Yardley

A cool, dark cave marks the entranceway to Hamilton's new Picturesque Garden. It points to the mystery associated with the garden, which opens on Monday 4 November 2019 at 3.30pm.

The cave takes visitors to a winding path beside a hill dotted with intriguing statues: a grey stone serpent, a half man-half bird, and a four column temple decorated with stars. On the other side of the path, below layers of ferns, the dark green flowing ribbon of the Waikato River.

The garden is designed after the 18th century picturesque style and based on Mozart's opera the Magic Flute. Mozart was a mason and The Magic Flute contains masonic symbolism, telling the story of a hero's journey and his initiation into the secret society. 

 

Lion heads, sphinxes and gothic ruins pop up throughout the garden - all mason iconography typically found in 18th century backyards, Hamilton Gardens director Peter Sergel said. Sergel is not a mason but was interested in the secrecy of masonic symbolism in gardens. At the time, people created ancient-looking caves in their gardens, even commissioning hermits to come and live in the grottos.

"The style was a reaction against formal geometric gardens and there was an appreciation for wild mountains and landscapes. I hope people can see its a completely different type of garden, you come through the Mansfield which is neat and tidy with lots of flowers."

He points to a swallows' nest hidden in the corner of one weathered ruin. The grass is purposely long, designed to brush at visitors' ankles. But there's an effort to looking effortless: around seven varieties of grass were used to achieve the length and softness.

"This garden is typically restful and naturalistic and that's enhanced being next to the river," Sergel said.

Gardener Bernard Breen has been tending to the Picturesque Garden for some time. The first part of the garden's journey contains plants significant to the masons: fig and olive trees, pomegranates and sharp fan-like palm trees. 

The second part features almost entirely native plants, he said.

"It's trying to capture that 'return to nature' feel of the European picturesque style, but in a Kiwi way."

The twisting hands of a towering Kanuka and deep burgundy of Rewarewa reach out over the river. Gardeners worked for hours clearing the riverbank of blackberry bushes and building it back up with natives, Breen said.

The design is in contrast to the manicured structure of the Indian Char Bagh​ or Tudor Garden.

"The challenge for us will be keeping that wilderness without letting foreign weeds in."

Sergel said the entire operation - from design, planning and construction - took around three years and involved dozens of people. The total cost was $900,000, with $60,000 being donated by the New Zealand Freemasons Foundation.

It's a mammoth effort, but Hamilton Gardens is internationally unique for being more than a collection of botanical plants, Sergel said.

"You don't have to just like plants, there's other things to look at too. We are telling the story of gardens over 4000 years. And telling the story of gardens tells the story of civilisation."

 

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