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When Is The Best Time To Visit Gardens In NZ?

What Will I See?
by Terry Dowdeswell
by Terry Dowdeswell


Terry Dowdeswell is the owner of Dowdeswell's Delphiniums in Wanganui New Zealand.

Be sure to visit his site at

July 6, 2003

We often receive enquiries about the best times to visit New Zealand, and the best places to see. Gardeners in general, and gardeners from the Northern Hemisphere in particular, are keen to check out the rumours about our country. The "Lord of the Rings" films are showing off our scenery (albeit sometimes modified a little) and prompting even more attention and when Donna Dawson asked these questions - well, I had to do something about it.

New Zealand is a nation of gardeners in a garden nation. Just about anything grows here somewhere, from the semi tropical in the far North of the country to the alpine in the south of NZ and on the mountains. Average minimum temperatures correspond generally to USDA Zones 7 to 11 - cold enough to grow many cool or cold climate plants and warm enough, in some microclimates, for bananas (there's one flowering in Wanganui, outside, right now). Snow lies on the ground all year round on our highest peaks. However, minimum temperatures are only part of the story. Add the marine influence which effects the entire country, the wind movement over the mountains - or not - and the diversity of climate in such a small country astonishes most visitors - as does the fact that weeds grow all year round, almost everywhere.

Most places in NZ experience a winter. This is not like the winters you have in Canada, the USA or even the UK but winter nevertheless and a time when plants take a break and gardeners have a week off. Visitors to NZ gardens usually arrive in the spring and early summer, coming to see the amazing diversity of flowering and foliage plants in our gardens. Many come to see plants unique to New Zealand.

Being an isolated island for some 190 millions of years (give or take a day or two) the flora and fauna has evolved distinctly over a vast period of time and our native forests are among the most ancient in the world - and unique in composition. ( You may have heard of the Kauri tree (Agathis australis) a clear, hardwood tree that grows to 150ft tall and 20 feet in diameter and lives for a couple of thousand years, or the Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia) - like no forget-me-not you have ever seen. You will find many such native and endemic New Zealand plants growing alongside popular perennial and annual plants almost everywhere.

So when is the best time to visit? Spring bulbs begin flowering in late June through to the end of August when you will also see hellebores, calendula, myosotis, the end of the camellias etc. Gardens are generally fairly green at this time and the weather is on the cool side and quite damp. There are relatively few places open to visit except for botanic gardens and specialist spring gardens. As spring turns to summer, say from September to November, you will always find gardens open and full of colour. The weather at this time is still cool (maximum of 15 to 21degC depending on location) and occasionally windy. Mid October to late December is the time of maximum satisfaction for the general garden enthusiast. Gardens still have the fresh spring look, there is an enormous range of plants in flower, and garden shows and festivals such as the highly successful Ellerslie Flower Show ( abound.

Folk interested in our native flora can come almost anytime as virtually all trees and shrubs are evergreen, although many have leaves that look deciduous. The bright yellow/gold, pendulous flowers, which almost obliterate the foliage of the Kowhai (Sophora sp.) tree, light up October, whilst the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) turn crimson for Christmas and may be seen adorning many of our beaches. A Christmas picnic on the beach under a Pohutukawa is the quintessential New Zealand experience!

January through to the end of March is where the best weather is to be found (not too hot, still generally 23 to 26degC. Gardens generally begin to look a little tired after Christmas (don't we all) but this is the time for trampers and nature lovers to be out and about enjoying our glorious scenery. The NZ Dept. of Conservation organise many guided walks at very reasonable cost during the summer months - great if you are into wildlife, peace and quiet. And so to autumn. Fall is quite a drawn out affair with the leaves of the poplar trees turning yellow/gold from mid April whist the oaks and birches may sometimes hang on until the end of May. Autumn colour is wonderful in the southern South Island but hardly noticeable at all in the northern half of the North Island. The weather is generally fairly calm and dry and if you catch a glorious week in May touring the South Island, as we did last week, you'll never go home. The scenery is spectacular and the markets and craft stalls so attractive there's barely enough cash left over for the world class wine and food - or maybe that's the other way round.

Winter in New Zealand is relatively gentle but gardens tend to be rather drab, although still green. There's skiing on the mountains but gardeners have to be careful not to break a leg because there's no time for it to heal before the spring which is only a few short weeks away. If planning a garden trip this northern winter why not come "Down Under" to New Zealand - and bring your weeding trowel!



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