By 1920 more New Zealanders were living in towns than in the country. Typically they lived in three-to-four-bedroom houses, set back from the road on quarter- or eighth-acre (1,000 or 500 square metres) sections of land. The area behind the house – the backyard – was the centre of outdoor domestic activity, while the front garden was for display.
Vegetable gardens were located at the back of the house. Although most suburban sections were too small for an orchard, homeowners often grew a couple of fruit trees and berry bushes.
The backyard served multiple purposes. It usually included a shed or three – a wood shed, a tool shed and a chicken shed. Compost bins, dog kennels, incinerators, garages and clothes lines were also found in backyards. Until internal plumbing and sewerage became common, there were also dunnies (outside toilets) and washhouses.
Usually there was no grand design for the location of these structures in the backyard, and they were added or removed depending upon their usefulness.
The backyard was also the children's domain. Here, they could run, kick balls, and indulge in louder and rougher behaviour than might be allowed on the front lawn.
The backyard garden, 1900–1940
In the first decades of the 20th century families relied upon their home garden to supply most, if not all, of their vegetables and fruit. Surplus produce was bartered or sold. Potatoes, silverbeet, cabbages, carrots, onions and rhubarb were standard fare, and could be grown throughout the country for most of the year. Peas and strawberries were planted in time for a Christmas harvest.
Since Europeans first settled in New Zealand, local newspapers have run gardening columns offering advice on what work should be done in the garden in the coming week or month. Garden clubs sprang up in every district and members demonstrated what could be grown locally. Numerous gardening guides and specialist plant books have been published. Since the second half of the 20th century radio and television stations have run programmes aimed at the home gardener.
Men usually did the heavy digging and lifting work in the vegetable garden, and were helped by their wives and children when planting out, weeding, watering and harvesting the produce.
With limited access to horse, cow and sheep manure, suburban gardeners maintained soil fertility by growing and digging in green crops like lupin, or adding organic waste to the soil. Making compost was promoted during the 1940s and was generally accepted as good practice by most home gardeners.
In 1939 market gardens totalled 3,158 hectares and supplied a small proportion of householders’ vegetable needs. During the Second World War, a vegetable shortage began to develop, due to market gardeners and home gardeners entering the armed forces, and because the remaining commercial gardens sent their produce to the services.
The government launched a ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign in the winter of 1943, exhorting householders to grow vegetables and encouraging families to eat a healthy diet. Lawns were dug up and planted in vegetables. Children grew vegetables in their school grounds, and Auckland and Wellington city councils provided public land for garden allotments.
Decline of the home vegetable garden
Food production in home gardens steadily decreased after the war. Increased use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers allowed market gardeners and orchardists to grow more vegetables and seasonal fruit. Householders found it was cheap and less time-consuming to buy vegetables and fruit from greengrocers and local market gardens.
By 1956, although the majority of households (62.4%) had home gardens, less than one third (29%) grew vegetables. Gardens were now mostly for flowers, and backyards for outdoor recreation.
Concrete patios, lawns and, later, wooden decks took over some of the space that had been used for gardens. Barbecues, swimming pools and trampolines appeared in the backyards of the middle classes. Vegetable plots got smaller or totally disappeared. In the early 2000s, those who grew vegetables generally did it as a choice, often based on their desire for pesticide-free food, rather than out of economic necessity.