Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, Māori grew crop plants that the first Polynesian settlers brought from tropical Polynesia. European explorers observed that Māori had neat gardens, about 0.5–5 hectares in size, on sunny, north-facing slopes. These gardens were communally owned and worked.
Kūmara (sweet potato) was the main crop, and could be grown throughout the northern and coastal North Island, and in the northern South Island. Four other important food plants – taro, yam, gourd and tī pore (Pacific cabbage tree) – were confined to northern gardens.
Aute (paper mulberry) was grown for its fibre, which was made into tapa cloth. It seems to have been grown only in warm northern locations, and by the 1840s no longer grew in New Zealand.
A few native plants were cultivated for food, although perhaps not as intensively as the Polynesian crops. Some central North Island Māori grew cabbage trees (Cordyline australis) for their edible rhizomes (roots). Karaka trees were planted near settlements for their fruit. Bracken rhizomes were eaten when other root crops were in short supply.
It is likely that Māori cultivated plants for ornamental reasons, because sites settled by Māori coincide with the current distribution of the attractive native shrubs kākā beak (Clianthus maximus) and napuka (Veronica speciosa).
Pre-European Māori gardens were not plagued with weeds. New Zealand’s native flora does not include weedy annuals or biennial plants that invade cultivated soils. If any tropical weeds arrived with the ancestors of Māori, they did not survive in New Zealand’s temperate climate.
Before planting, Māori cleared and burned forest, and prepared the ground. They spread ash over the garden and added sand and gravel to heavy loam and clay soils. Usually the land was not completely dug over. Instead, the gardeners formed the earth into small mounds for planting kūmara, or scooped it into shallow hollows for growing taro or gourd.
They used the garden for two to six years and then left it fallow for several years, during which time a cover of fast-growing native shrubs developed.
Māori dug ditches and drains around their gardens, perhaps to demarcate boundaries and drain water away. Reed or mānuka-brush fences protected crops from marauding pūkeko (swamp hens). Some former garden sites have long stone rows, which may have provided shelter for the crops, or defined the garden boundary.
Tools were made from hard woods such as kānuka and akeake, and were designed to poke and prod the soil, rather than turn over clods of earth. Cultivation was labour-intensive, especially on poor and hard soils.
Māori and European crops
When Europeans arrived, Māori replaced their traditional crops with those brought by Europeans. Their main crop was soon potatoes, which provided a heavier and more reliable food source than kūmara, and could be grown throughout the country. Corn, cabbages, tobacco, carrots, turnips, squash, swedes and new varieties of kūmara were also added to Māori gardens.
By the early 19th century vegetable growing had become a highly profitable enterprise for some coastal tribes, who sold or traded their vegetables with whalers, sealers and the first European settlers.
Although Māori adopted the new crops they did not adopt all European horticultural practices. Māori were reluctant to use hoes and spades, preferring their traditional tools. They also refrained from fertilising their crops with animal manure, instead continuing to clear new sites when the fertility of their gardens dropped.