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Public gardens

by  Maggy Wassilieff

New Zealand cities and towns usually have at least one public garden. They are enjoyed for their attractive plants, or as pleasant places to relax and play. Some were designed to recreate English parks, but others celebrate New Zealand’s native bush.

Types of public garden

Almost every city and town in New Zealand has at least one public garden.

Ornamental gardens

The majority of New Zealand’s public gardens are ornamental. They usually follow the style of English gardens and estate parks, and typically contain tall trees of northern hemisphere origins, showy borders of evergreen shrubs, brightly coloured perennial and annual display beds, closely mown lawns, and walking paths. Often they have glasshouses, ponds, fountains, aviaries, children’s play areas, and coffee or tea houses.

The band played on

In 1885 a band asked Dunedin City Council for permission to play in the gardens on Sunday afternoons. The council voted against the proposal, with one councillor declaring: ‘[I]f you wish to get something to demoralize the children you cannot get anything more effective than the playing of the band in the public Gardens on the Sabbath day.’ 1

Botanic gardens

Like most overseas botanic gardens, those in New Zealand were primarily set up by central or provincial governments to trial plants with potential economic benefits, and to study exotic and native plants. From 1850 to 1880 a key function was that of colonial nursery – seeds of exotic trees were imported and raised at botanic gardens, and hundreds of thousands of plants were distributed to schools, hospitals and farmers for use as shelter, ornamentation, and orchard or forestry stock.

In the mid-1880s control of New Zealand’s botanic gardens went to local authorities, who changed their focus to ornamental and recreational purposes. Their scientific and economic functions were taken over by government departments.

Towards the end of the 20th century botanic gardens began to take a greater educational role by offering plant and gardening seminars to the public, and providing information about their plant collections. In recent years some have assumed responsibility for the conservation of regionally threatened and uncommon plants. Most have not had the resources to undertake extensive botanical research or develop new cultivars.

Ownership and management

Public gardens are administered by local authorities under the terms of the Local Government Act 2002, and are funded by ratepayers. Most of the larger gardens and parks are designated as scenic or recreational reserves under the Reserves Act 1977, and have their own management plans that are available for public comment every 10 years.

The largest gardens are run by a manager or curator, who oversees a staff of qualified and apprentice gardeners. Smaller gardens are often maintained by contract staff.

Visits to the gardens

In the 2006/7 year, more than half a million international tourists listed visits to gardens as one of the activities they took part in while in New Zealand. Jack Hobbs, curator-manager of the Auckland Botanic Gardens, was surprised to learn from visitor surveys that the most popular reason for visiting was to feed the ducks. Most visitors are not plant aficionados, but are there to enjoy the paths for walking or running, lawns for games or picnics, playgrounds for children, and cafés for food and drink.

  1. Quoted in K. C. McDonald, City of Dunedin: a century of civic enterprise. Dunedin: Dunedin City Corporation, 1965, p. 215. › Back

The oldest public gardens

Town belts and botanic gardens

The oldest public gardens in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin owe their origins, albeit indirectly, to decisions made in Britain in the late 1830s, when settlements were planned. In the case of the New Zealand Company settlements of Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, surveyors were instructed to set aside broad swathes of land – town belts – for public use at the edges of the young cities. Initially, no provisions were made for public gardens within the town belts, but subsequently each city developed one – Dunedin and Christchurch in 1863 and Wellington in 1868.

Dunedin Botanic Garden

New Zealand’s first botanic garden was located on a small site now occupied by the University of Otago. Established on 30 June 1863, it is 10 days older than the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. It housed a propagation unit that supplied trees for the Otago province. Following a severe flood of the Water of Leith stream in 1868, the garden was relocated to its current position at the northern end of the town belt, and began to be developed as an ornamental garden.

David Tannock's girls

Of the 90,000 women in paid employment in 1910, only one worked in public horticulture. This began to change with the appointment of Joan Hogg as a gardener at Dunedin Botanic Garden in 1924. By 1930 there were eight female horticulturists at the garden, known as 'Tannock's girls', after superintendent David Tannock. Their duties included plant propagation, the arrangement and delivery of flowers for the mayoral office, and work in the rhododendron, azalea and native gardens.

David Tannock – an inspirational gardener trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England – took up the position of Dunedin’s superintendent of reserves in 1903. His vision was to transform the gardens into a living collection of plants of great educational value. Over the next 28 years he established the major features of the garden, created new plant collections, organised seed exchange programmes with overseas institutions, and started planting a large gully in rhododendrons.

There was little development between 1930 and 1945, as council funds dried up in the depression years and there was a shortage of labour during the Second World War. However, the garden was revived and expanded in the second half of the 20th century.

In 2008 the Dunedin Botanic Garden covered 28 hectares, divided into a lower garden of formal design and an upper garden of regenerating bush and planted woodland. In all, it housed 25 large collections of plants, including 4 hectares of rhododendrons, a large winter glasshouse, an aviary of exotic birds and an extensive network of walking paths.

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

The 33-hectare Christchurch Botanic Gardens are alongside the Avon River in Hagley Park, the largest city park in New Zealand. At the time of European settlement in 1850, the area was swamp and sand dunes. Many European trees such as oaks, sycamores, elms and pines were planted to create a landscape of open parkland and formal gardens similar to those of England.

In 2008 the gardens contained New Zealand’s largest and most varied collection of exotic plants, with at least 8,500 different species.

Wellington Botanic Garden

The Wellington Botanic Garden was established in 1869. It covers 25 hectares and has a mix of formal gardens, regenerating bush, remnant native forest and old conifer plantings, and includes a winter house. The impetus for establishing the gardens was mainly utilitarian – to trial exotic trees for forestry and to provide experimental gardens for studying native and introduced plants.

Auckland Domain

Until the Auckland Botanic Gardens opened in South Auckland in 1982, the Auckland Domain served as the city’s major public garden. Set aside as a space for public recreation in 1841 by Governor William Hobson, Auckland Domain is an 80-hectare park on the slopes of an ancient volcano. It has large lawns, fine stands of introduced trees planted between 1841 and 1900, native bush, formal gardens, sports grounds and spring-fed duck ponds. The winter gardens – two large glasshouses and a connecting courtyard – were built in the 1920s. One of the glasshouses contains a fine collection of tropical plants, including a fruiting cocoa tree. The Auckland War Memorial Museum, which opened in 1929, was built on the highest point of the domain.

Municipal public gardens

Smaller towns also made provision for public gardens.

Government Gardens, Rotorua

Government Gardens were developed in the 1890s to beautify scrub-covered ground surrounding a sanatorium hospital and thermal baths. During the first decades of the 20th century, sports fields, lakes and formal gardens were created, and the site took on the appearance of an Edwardian spa.

Pukekura Park, New Plymouth

Unlike most of New Zealand’s older parks and gardens, which are fashioned on overseas gardening styles, Pukekura Park emphasises New Zealand’s bush environment. In the 1870s it was a treeless valley, covered in gorse and fern. Its transformation into a public park began in 1876 with the planting of an oak, a Norfolk pine, a pūriri and a radiata pine. It has developed into New Zealand’s finest informal garden, with native and exotic plantings blending well. The park also includes artificial lakes, a large fernery, and a collection of Taranaki-bred hybrids.

Ladies only

The stream in Pukekura Park was dammed to form a lake, which was used for swimming. In 1886 the park board decreed that only women and girls could swim between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Instead of banning men outright, a red flag was hoisted as a signal to men that their presence was unwelcome as ladies were in an exposed state.

Victoria Esplanade, Palmerston North

Situated alongside the western banks of the Manawatū River, Victoria Esplanade comprises 19 hectares of planted gardens and native bush. It began to be developed in 1897. A major feature is the Dugald McKenzie Rose Garden, one of the world’s finest rose gardens according to the World Federation of Rose Societies. It is the site of New Zealand’s rose trial grounds, used to assess the suitability of rose varieties for New Zealand conditions and test new cultivars.

Queens Park, Invercargill

Located in New Zealand’s southernmost city, Queens Park is one of the largest municipal parks in New Zealand. Originally set aside as a native bush reserve in 1857, the former swamp forest was cleared, sown to pasture and leased for grazing. It was not until 1911 that the area began to be developed as a public park and gardens. The Southland Museum and Art Gallery are within its 80 hectares, and it features a rhododendron dell, subantarctic garden, formal rose garden, Japanese garden and sports grounds.

Modern public gardens

Bason Botanic Gardens, Whanganui

Named after their creator, Stanley Bason, the Bason Botanic Gardens were gifted to the Wanganui City Council in 1966, on the understanding that the council would continue to develop and maintain the area as a botanic garden. Since the end of the First World War a number of private, rural land holdings have been gifted or acquired by local and regional councils, but few have been developed into gardens – most have been kept as open parkland. The council adopted Bason’s vision for his 25 hectares of coastal farmland, and has developed areas of woodland plantings, native bush, a conifer arboretum, a subtropical garden and a conservatory complex.

Auckland Botanic Gardens

Located on 64 hectares of rolling land in South Auckland, the Auckland Botanic Gardens were opened in 1982. Unlike other public gardens in New Zealand, they showcase collections as much for their botanical worth as for their ornamental value. Staff at the gardens breed and trial cultivars that grow well in Auckland conditions, and play an active role in conserving native plants of northern New Zealand.

Key collections in the gardens are:

  • the Gondwana arboretum – a collection of plants with ancestral links to the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana
  • threatened native plants
  • a palm garden specialising in species that tolerate cool temperatures
  • a rose garden containing cultivars that perform well in Auckland
  • an interactive children’s garden, where children can dig, plant and explore
  • an edible garden, displaying vegetable and fruit plants.

Hamilton Gardens

Hamilton Gardens are unique in that they contain a collection of themed gardens designed to tell the history of garden culture. These include the Paradise Gardens – six separate areas illustrating an Italian renaissance garden, a Japanese garden of contemplation, an American modernist garden, an English flower garden, a Chinese scholar’s garden and an Indian char bagh garden.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Public gardens', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2021)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 24 Nov 2008