New Zealand is one of the world's most beautiful but remote places. A group of two large and several smaller islands in the south Pacific, it has a complex coastline with everything from fiords and glaciers to long, sandy, sun-drenched beaches. The interior is dominated by active volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, deep lakes and picturesque farming country.
There are many gardens to see and visit in New Zealand from a strong gardening tradition brought by its mostly British settlers during the past 200 years. Several of New Zealand's native plants have become important ornamental plants around the world, especially flax, hebe, cordyline, carex, pittosporum and corokia.
Local guides in this country:
Garden Travel Guide to New Zealand
New Zealand has a population of about 5 million, most living in the North Island. It was settled by Polynesians during the late 13th century and then also by British settlers from the early 1800s. A vibrant indigenous Māori tribal culture continues, predominantly in the North Island.
Because of its many forests of high quality timber, New Zealand’s homes were traditionally made from timber weatherboard and there are still many ornate and beautiful buildings eg homes of the Bay Villa style in the Parnell and Ponsonby area of Auckland. In the south, dark basalt stone was used in many major buildings throughout Dunedin, Invercargill and Christchurch.
Getting to New Zealand, and around when you’re there
New Zealand has five international airports in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington (North Island) and Christchurch and Queenstown (South Island). Smaller regional airports service destinations in Australia and around New Zealand and also Pacific islands. It is a 3½ hour flight from Sydney or Melbourne to New Zealand.
Travel within New Zealand is easy on internal flights or using the extensive bus network, and there are ferries between the two main islands. With good quality roads, a self-guided driving holiday in New Zealand is a relaxing and very pleasurable way to see the countryside. New Zealanders drive right-hand-drive cars on the left side of the road.
Major North Island garden hotspots such as Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga (Bay of Plenty) are only 2-2.5 hours drive apart.
New Zealand climate
New Zealand, called ‘Aotearoa’ or ‘The Land of The Long White Cloud’ by its indigenous Māori people has a climate dominated by both maritime influences near the coast and also the high mountain range than runs down both islands.
The north of the North Island has a cool subtropical climate with humid summer days averaging 24ºC, down to 15ºC average maximum in winter, and 1300mm of rain annually. The southern part of the North Island is colder with more distinct seasonal change and average summer daytime temperatures of only 20ºC falling to 11ºC in winter. Wellington, the national capital located on the southern tip of the North Island, is nicknamed ‘Windy Wellington’.
New Zealand’s South Island has a temperate climate, that’s very wet in the west and south (1600mm rain) but much drier on the east coast around Christchurch, with only 640mm of rain. Snow covers the mountains during winter and creates many popular skiing resorts. Christchurch’s average temperature ranges are 12ºC to 22ºC in January (summer) down to OºC to 11ºC in July (winter).
New Zealand topography and natural vegetation
New Zealand has major mountain groups in both its main islands, rising to more than 3000 metres in the South Island. The South Island’s Westland (west coast) has a spectacular, steep and rugged coastline with three major glaciers and many fiords, while the east side of the South Island has extensive coastal plains used for farming.
Several mountains in the center of the North Island are still-active volcanoes, including the near-perfect cone of Mount Taranaki (Mt Egmont) in the west, and there are also geothermal areas with geysers and boiling mud. The northern part of the North Island extends into a long narrow peninsula with rolling green hills, forests and many beautiful beaches and the eastern side has both hills and plains often called the ‘fruit bowl’ of New Zealand, and includes the famous wine growing region of Hawke’s Bay.
New Zealand is seismically active with ten large earthquakes (over magnitude 6) since 2000.
New Zealand has many forests dominated by a mixture of podocarp conifers and beech but its greatest biodiversity is in its alpine flora, especially the snow tussock herb-fields. A distinctive feature of the development of New Zealand’s plants was the absence of large, grazing herbivores.
Beech forests of Fucospora and Lophozania species are common throughout New Zealand, from the cold wet parts of the south west to the lowland areas of the North Island. The distinctive outline of cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) is widespread throughout New Zealand, as it grows from wet swampy areas to dry hilltops. Flax (Phormium species) are also common and there are many species of native ferns. Forests of podocarp conifers (where the modified cone looks more like a berry) such as rimu, kahikatea, miro, mataī and tōtara with abundant tree ferns and ferns growing beneath can be found throughout New Zealand although many have been cleared since white settlement for farming land. Giant conifers such as the huge kauri (Agathis australis), one of the world’s biggest trees, can still be found in remnant forests in the north.
New Zealand garden styles
As New Zealand’s first gardeners, the Māori grew and bred many significant edible crops in large communal gardens, particularly kumara (a type of sweet potato), taro, yam and Pacific cabbage tree.
Large scale European settlement throughout New Zealand accelerated in the mid-19th century. Residential homes were typically single level on separate blocks (‘sections’), surrounded by garden, while newer homes from the past few decades are more likely to be two storey. Many lucky New Zealanders living in the cities also have a holiday home or ‘batch’ on the coast. You can see fine examples of art deco buildings from the 1930s around the town of Napier as it was rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1931.
Traditional larger gardens and public gardens in the cooler-climate south tend to echo British and European styles with hedges, perennial and shrub borders, roses, ornamental conifers, lawn and deciduous trees. Large estate gardens have significant collections of rhododendrons, roses, iris and exotic conifers.
Many of New Zealand’s ornamental native plants have always been popular in gardens, such as pōhutukawa, kōwhai, cabbage tree, flax and tree ferns and there is a growing interest in using native plants in modern style and designer gardens.
Smaller sections in the 21st century mean many town gardens are now courtyard-sized which has also led to the spread of community produce gardens.
New Zealand’s active garden lovers can be seen in the many regularly open gardens, the wonderful Gardens of National Significance and the dozens of garden festivals around the country, predominantly in October-November (spring) and March-April (autumn/fall).
Garden and landscape designers work in all the major centers, many of them members of the Garden Design Society of New Zealand. Several New Zealand garden designers have achieved world recognition with gold medals at international shows including Xanthe White, Ben Hoyle, Bayley LuuTomes, the design team of Kim Jarrett, Trish Waugh and Lyonel Grant, and Harry and David Rich.
Garden tours to New Zealand
Tours will usually visit both the North and South Islands and some also include Stewart Island to the south, or perhaps a ferry ride to Waiheke Island from Auckland or the 30 minute flight to Great Barrier Island.
Garden travellers from temperate climates like the UK, will find New Zealand’s garden style and plant choices very similar to their own. Famous New Zealand Gardens to visit include Auckland Botanic Gardens, Hamilton Gardens, Ayrlies, Te Kainga Marire, Gwavas Garden, Ohinetahi, Trott’s Garden and Larnach Castle.
Garden tours will also visit many natural wonders too, such as spectacular Milford Sound, bird watching and nesting sites, Queenstown lakes, the volcanic and thermal areas, as well as places to experience the indigenous Māori culture.
Best times to visit New Zealand gardens
Most of New Zealand’s premier gardens are open from September to May but several close during the winter months from June-August. New Zealand gardens are at their peak from September to early December and many of the garden festivals are held in November. In Auckland and the north there are subtropical-style gardens that look fabulous during February and March.
Best spots for seeing New Zealand gardens
North Island: Kerikeri, Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay area, Palmerston North, Wellington
South Island: Nelson, Marlborough region, Wanaka, Christchurch, Dunedin
Gardens to see and visit in New Zealand
See the Garden Guide to New Zealand – North Island, and Garden Guide to New Zealand – South Island (under construction) for more information on gardens to visit.
Fun facts about New Zealand
New Zealanders refer to themselves as ‘Kiwis’ after the flightless kiwi bird.
New Zealand has no native terrestrial mammals, except for bats, but has many unique birds and reptiles, including the kiwi, kakapo, kea and tuatara.
New Zealand has a nickname of the ‘Shaky Isles’ because of its many earthquakes (20,000 each year)
New Zealand has the world’s longest official place name: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu – the name of a hill in Hawke’s Bay
Māori traditions are an important and respected part of New Zealand’s culture such as the haka, the warrior challenge, which is learned by all boys at school.
If you have been thinking of visiting New Zealand, don’t miss this one-off opportunity to see the work of some of our top designers in private gardens that bring out the best of Auckland’s iconic landscape
One inner-city garden in New Plymouth, near Mt Taranaki on the west coast of New Zealand’s north isle, defies this English style. Te Kainga Marire is a native garden open to the public by appointment for a modest fee from September to April.