Why green-fingered gardeners need to visit New Zealand

Hamilton Gardens, a free-to-enter public park - Boy_Anupong

From the tip of the wooden jetty I soaked up the verdant scene: majestic tree ferns, grass-like restios and deeply lobed monster leaves of the rice paper plant, all backlit by the warming, morning sun. The contrasting foliage shapes, an array of golden greens, were doubled and gently fractured by the pond’s rippling surface. Opposite, at eye level, water sparkled over mossy rocks before cascading into the pool below, along with unfamiliar birdsong.

As my wife Cathy and I explored further I chuckled to myself. This 10-acre rolling garden felt familiarly British (in layout, lawns and form), yet it contained a wider range of vegetation than I’d ever seen in one garden, the result of a rich blend of warm coastal climate, fertile soil and a garden-maker’s keen eye for plants. 

From herbaceous perennials to tender cacti, everything thrives outdoors around here. I was in Ayrlies Garden, a half-hour drive east of Auckland. But more importantly, I had finally made it to New Zealand, a lifelong ambition of mine. 

Joe admiring the greenery Credit: SYSTEM

In my early 20s I travelled a lot, spending a year landscape gardening in Australia before crewing on a yacht from Australia to Bali via Papua New Guinea. My one regret was not making it over to New Zealand – and hearing that it was voted as Telegraph Travel readers’ favourite country once again in 2017 simply amplified this desire. 

I’ve planted many New Zealand natives in my own London garden and used them in many of my designs. Tightly knitted evergreens such as hebe, pittosporum and olearia, and architectural accent plants including astelia, pseudopanax and phormiums often punctuate my planting plans. (It may sound like I’m just showing off with all the Latin but there’s good reason: the common names are far more confusing and – trust me – they’re all great garden plants.) 

10 beautiful gardens you must visit in your lifetime

I’ve also employed many Kiwis over the years. They seem to have a natural affinity with the landscape and are always confident with plants.

Well, this mature garden at Ayrlies had given me a glimpse of just why that is the case.

Auckland is a verdant city, with abundant trees planted in front gardens for everyone to enjoy. I loved the big-leafed magnolias in Cornwall Park, their enormous exposed buttress roots forming natural climbing frames for children. Lining Mission Bay were native pohutukawa trees, commonly called the New Zealand Christmas tree for their long-lasting display of brilliant red flowers. By the end of our three weeks I’d spotted a few in full festive regalia.

On our last morning in Auckland we popped into Mount Eden garden, a 5.5-acre gem, tucked behind a desirable residential area. The footpath leads steeply up the volcanic mount to reveal fine views across the city and the garden itself embraces an eclectic mix of global introductions, including many acid-loving rhododendrons and azaleas. It was here that I had my first sighting of the slender silver fern, the national symbol of New Zealand, and the nikau, which is the only native New Zealand palm and has a signature ringed trunk and upturned fronds.

Church of the Good Shepherd on Lake Tekapo Credit: © DPK-PHOTO / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

En route to Rotorua, 150 miles (240km) to the south-east, we stopped at Hamilton Gardens, a free-to-enter public park that includes an Italian renaissance garden, as well as Japanese, Indian, and English versions. Suddenly, my inner garden snob surfaced: I’d come to see authenticity, not a theme park of world gardens! But as we pootled around in the sun I loosened up. It’s a free park, after all, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. What’s more, the standard of gardening and design was high and the range of plants enviable.

In contrast to fragrant Hamilton, the first thing one detects in Rotorua is the smell of the sulphur emanating from the local geothermal lake. Here we “tramped” along the trails at the nearby Waimangu volcanic valley and took a boat trip on Lake Rotomahana. This area is particularly fascinating as the volcano last erupted in 1886, forming New Zealand’s newest and deepest lake, one which is surrounded by a wildlife refuge. 

The flora started from scratch after that eruption and is now in its secondary stage (which means masses of tree ferns, small-leaved trees and grasses). The steaming prehistoric scene of the lush flora and marbled rocks in a range of oxidised reds, yellows and white is truly memorable.

My favourite New Zealand native plants | Joe Swift

From Rotorua we headed north towards the Coromandel peninsula, tramping at the Karangahake gorge around and through a disused gold mine. The gorge itself is awesome (surely the most overused word in New Zealand, but here used in its truest sense), the yellow mimosa blossom puts on a fine display and the fresh fragrance of wild honeysuckle and privet filled our route. 

Images of abandoned engineering parts gradually being reclaimed by nature quickly filled my camera’s memory card; the unplanned, atmospheric compositions of huge, rusty, old machinery parts, neglected train tracks and stone walling engulfed by the opportunistic greenery delivering future design inspiration.

The winding Coromandel coast road towards Whitianga has some tremendous scenery, to the extent that road signs warn of the dangers of driving and sightseeing. On a boat trip we admired the stunning natural features carved into the volcanic coastline; rocky islands grew out of the bluest water and pohutukawa trees clinging to the clifftops looked like bonsai trees from a distance. I’m a keen fisherman and a highlight of the day was hand-feeding the huge snapper that came up from the deep in this marine reserve.

Wild flowers and glacial beauty at Lake Tekapo Credit: IRMAFERREIRA

We then had 10 days “camping” on the South Island, which involved hiring a motorhome. We didn’t exactly slum it, as it contained a king-size bed, kitchen, Wi-Fi, shower, and all-important lavatory, meaning we were certified to camp “wild”; in other words, we could pitch up pretty much where we fancied (by the side of a lake or beach), make a fire (while gathering wood it’s reassuring to know that there are no dangerous snakes or spiders around), catch a trout for dinner (as I did) and move on when we chose. It was liberating, great fun and the best way to experience the island. However, after a day’s driving we did scale down our ambitions. Not only are distances deceiving on these windy roads, but we were constantly stopping to take in a series of ridiculously stunning views. 

We spent three days in the Mackenzie region, taking in the glacial lakes at Tekapo, Pukaki, Wanaka and Wakatipu. The panorama from Mount John over Lake Tekapo is wonderful, with the turquoise water and sky separated only by the craggy, snow-capped Southern Alps in the distance. And as one of only 12 International Dark Sky reserves, night becomes as exciting as day, with the finest stargazing on earth.

The flora in this region is generally tough and alpine. The visual impact comes from the sheer scale of the plants sitting in the landscape: immense drifts and swathes of just a few species. Copper-coloured carex grasses fill wide plains; craggy hillsides are smothered in bright yellow broom. 

NZ best country

After crossing the Ahuriri river we were met with an unanticipated splash of colour: lupins in hues of pinks, purples and blues carpeted the braided gravel river bed as far as the eye could see, pumping out the sweet scent of summer, with intoxicated yellow butterflies flickering among them. The lupins look perfectly at home, but are an alien invader. Introduced in the Forties to brighten up road verges, they are now colonising vast areas. Environmentalists understandably claim they’re hugely damaging, pushing out native plants and the birds that feed on them, but they have also become a seasonal attraction for visitors to the area.

Rather than drive the only road to Milford Sound in Fiordland and back again (around three days all in) we took some local advice and flew in a 12-seater for a day trip from Queenstown. Flying over the snow covered Southern Alps, my O-level geography kicked in as we looked down on textbook images of glaciated valleys, truncated spurs and dotted deposits of moraine. The iconic image of Mitre Peak rising a full 5,551ft out of the dark waters of Milford Sound certainly didn’t disappoint.

There was another sharp change of scenery as we hit the west coast north of the Alps. Vast, deserted sandy beaches lie between wild rocky outcrops which dip into the Tasman Sea; dense rainforests are set against snow-capped mountains in a superbly incongruous combination. Here the plants are fuelled by 197in of annual rainfall – although we were lucky to have blissfully dry conditions. 

Te Whanganui-A-Hei (Cathedral Cove) Marine Reserve Credit: © Andy Belcher

Jackson Bay is a little off the beaten track for most, but left me with lifelong memories of the perfect day. Under blue skies a pod of dolphins swam under the boardwalk, we tramped along a rainforest trail to explore the rock pools – and we even saw a real kiwi that day (not that any of the locals believed us).

Punakaiki was the furthest north we ventured on the South Island. The neatly layered limestone of the aptly named Pancake Rocks jut perilously into the sea and blow holes blast at high tide. Here, the flora notches up yet another level into huge, impenetrable drifts of informal topiary crafted not by hand and shears, but the perennial battering of wind and rain. Ancient podocarp conifers and silver beeches towered behind. 

I also finally spotted the nikau palms growing wild. They flourished in regal profusion, their fronds puncturing through the bush beneath to define this special landscape. It reminded me that although the natural world can be inspiring, profoundly moving and at times spectacularly exhilarating, as gardeners we should never attempt to compete with it. There will only ever be one winner.

Joe travelled as a guest of Austravel (0808 250 4889, austravel.com), which offers a 14-night holiday to New Zealand from £3,049 per person. Based on travel in November 2018.