NZ best gardens

The ultimate garden safari

New Zealand is home to some of the world’s best gardens. These mesmerising destinations offer an entirely fresh perspective during each season, so whether you’re planning your summer adventures or anticipating the unique delights of a winter garden, grab your bestie and plot a road trip (or three) to take in some gardens of international significance, writes Peta Stavelli.

Green-fingered travellers missing their own patch of paradise can take comfort from knowing that one of New Zealand’s best gardens is bound to be nearby. This country is unusually blessed with gardens in every region, which carry multi-star ratings, putting them among the best in the world. And what better way to see them all than to plan a road trip taking in them all?

For instance, did you know that Dunedin has two gardens with a six-star rating, while Auckland has three? But there’s also a swathe of five-star and four-star rated gardens that will make you green with envy, and they’re only a short drive away, no matter where you are.

Star ratings

If you want to find the best of the best, the website of New Zealand Gardens Trust is a wonderful place to begin. The Trust’s comprehensive and attractive website offers planners and armchair travellers alike all the garden eye candy they could possibly want. Feast your eyes on gardens close by, nationwide, or simply by their star rating. Then you can begin planning a tour de force of some of the most beautiful private paradises and public gardens in every region.

Classical beauty

NZ best gardens
Greenhaugh, near Palmerston North, is a classical garden with a nursery

I’m always banging the drum about how underrated the Manawatu region is, so my eye was naturally drawn to Greenhaugh Gardens, just outside of Palmerston North.

Greenhaugh Gardens ticks all of the boxes for me, perhaps because I grew up in Tasmania with its magnificent colonial architecture often set in classical surroundings. I love a good wild landscape, but my eyes are also perfectly attuned to the beauty of symmetry. With its Austin roses, wisteria-draped pergolas, mature trees, and boxed hedging, sometimes juxtaposed with a wild profusion of perennials and self-seeding annuals, Greenhaugh Gardens feels like home to me.

It’s a year-round destination with winter delights and summer sensations, where visitors are encouraged to bide a while to take in the view or picnic en famille. There’s also a garden centre, too, so you can always take home a bit of what you fancy.

Into the wild

In perfect contrast to the symmetry of Greenhaugh is Taranaki’s six-star Te Kainga Marire, which has been described as the epitome of a New Zealand native garden. This is a city section in the heart of New Plymouth’s Merrilands, backing on to a reserve. It showcases a broad selection of plants arrayed to present a natural landscape. There’s a fern house and natural-looking rock pools, as well as a real stream on one boundary and some stunning introduced plants, such as roses and rhododendrons, along with an organic vegetable garden. Te Kainga Marire is open from September to April each year, and it’s also part of the highly anticipated annual Taranaki Garden Festival.

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While in the region, you may wish to also check out some other six-star gardens: Nikau Grove, Oakley Garden, Puketarata Garden, and Tūpare.

A masterpiece in the making

NZ best gardens
Ayrlies is a garden of international significance

To the seasoned eye, Ayrlies Garden in southeast Auckland is one of the finest in the country, if not the world. It’s a Garden of International Significance, of which master gardener and esteemed writer Jack Hobbs, who’s in charge of Auckland’s Botanic Gardens says, “If you think of gardening as an art form, Ayrlies is the best expression of that art.”

The great British gardener and broadcaster, Monty Don, claims to have left Ayrlies “elevated and inspired”. The garden, which includes a sensitive and much-lauded wetland recovery, has been being developed since 1964 by Beverley McConnell and her late husband Malcolm. The couple transformed a bare clay block into an extraordinary and varied vista, which now includes 14 hectares of swamp flats and a 3.3-hectare lake, both of which provide a haven for native birds. The garden is open throughout the year, but if you cannot go in person, you may wish to read Beverly McConnell’s wonderful book.

Southern splendours

Much has been written over the years about Larnarch Castle itself, but the 120-year-old garden is also a major drawcard for visitors in the know. The garden combines rare alpine plants, with those sourced from both the Chatham Islands and palms from the wider Pacific region.

It’s one of two Otago gardens that carry six-star ratings, the other being Dunedin Botanic Garden, which features more than 3500 rhododendrons, alongside rare and endangered native plants. Dunedin Botanic Garden is open every day from dawn to dusk, but if you’re in Otago and Southland, there are some exceptional four- and five-star gardens that include Bannerman Park in Invercargill, which features woodland and herbaceous plants and Queens Park, also in Invercargill, with its extensive walkways, fitness tracks, an 18-hole golf course, and an aviary.

In the Queenstown area, one of the finest regional gardens combines a cruise on the SS Earnslaw and a historic Lake Wakatipu garden established in the 1870s. Walter Peak High Country Farm Garden is a four-star garden and is a wonderful excursion destination with extensive catering facilities within the old homestead. And be sure to join the sing-along in the piano bar on your return journey to make the day complete.

Top of the South

If you’re looking for a six-star garden in the Marlborough Region, make a beeline for Barewood Garden near Blenheim, which is a florist’s own, established around a 100-year-old house. The grounds feature cascading white wisteria, a colonnade of mature hawthorn trees, and profusions of wild perennial gardens with formal hedging. There’s a white garden, a pond, and a potager, all designed to complement the house.

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Five-star gardens in the region include some fantastical landscapes – Welton House and Eliza’s Garden Cottage, as well as Winterhome, Paripuma, and Longfield.

Pop over the hill to Nelson and you’ll continue to be dazzled by four- and five-star gardens designed to complement stunning architecture (Broadgreen, Isel Park, and Melrose) and make time to see Miyazu Japanese Gardens, which are public spaces celebrating Nelson’s sistership with the Japanese city, Miyazu.

NZ best gardens
The magnificent Laburnum Arch at Larnach Castle

East for Eden

Eastwoodhill Arboretum holds international and national significance status. The 135-hectare, five-star estate holds what’s likely to be the greatest collection of wooded plants in the country, and it’s also home to more than 170 northern hemisphere trees, some of which are on the endangered list. The park is located near Gisborne and is a riot of colour in both spring and autumn, but it will hold visitor interest year-round and is only closed on Good Friday and Christmas Day.

Further north in Tauranga, the five-star Te Papa Tauranga garden, The Elms, is a private garden of historical significance. It’s the oldest European garden south of the Bay of Islands and was created by the Church Missionary Society around the same time as Treaty House at Waitangi, from 1834.

Cultivated by both Māori and Europeans, the garden has landscape archaeology of unique value. The Elms is open year-round.

A tasting garden

In any story on gardens of any grade, six-star Hamilton Gardens must rate a mention, simply because it’s exquisite and also because it’s many gardens within a single location. There’s an Italian Renaissance Garden and an Indian Char Bagh Garden. Other inspirations include Japanese, Chinese, and Modernist Gardens. Then there are the productive gardens – Parapara, Sustainable, Kitchen, and Ancient Egyptian, to name but a few. And don’t overlook The Fantasy Gardens where the imagination has been allowed to run riot. Of these, since I am currently reading a collection of her vivid short stories, Wild Places, I’m most looking forward to visiting The Mansfield Garden, which was inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s short story The Garden Party.

Another must-see for gardeners while in the Waikato Region is the five-star rated Hobbiton Movie Set at Matakana. Even if you’re not a fan of the trilogy, you’ll love the sprawling Hobbiton landscape, which is a stunning work of garden art.

NZ best gardens
The Japanese Garden is part of six-star Hamilton Gardens

Plan your own adventure

This armchair exploration of some of the country’s best gardens offers but a brief introduction to an extraordinary number of dazzling landscapes open to the public nationwide. Begin planning your own itinerary with New Zealand Gardens.

Trust and immerse yourself in these world-class wonderlands right here in your own backyard.

Find a garden

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