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by  Maggy Wassilieff

For early New Zealanders, both Māori and European, gardens were a necessity, providing the food they needed for survival. But vegetable gardens no longer dominate backyards, and gardening has become a hobby.

Māori gardens

Polynesian crops

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.

Native crops

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).

Weed-free gardening

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.

Gardening methods

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.

Early settler gardens

The gardens of the first European settlers were primarily for food. They knew from the reports of 18th century explorers that they could not rely on a supply of native plants or wild game for food, so they brought with them seeds, cuttings and tools to make gardens. Most settlers came from rural backgrounds and had the practical knowledge to grow a range of vegetables and fruits.

For the first few seasons, until their own gardens became productive, the settlers relied upon food raised by local Māori. Potatoes and cabbages were their mainstay for much of the year.

Settler garden produce

Settler gardens were characterised by their large size and great variety of produce. The productive gardens at the Kerikeri mission station in the 1820s were about one-third of a hectare and grew:

  • vegetables – asparagus, beans, beetroot, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, celery, cress, cucumbers, endive, lettuces, onions, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, shallots and turnips
  • fruit – almonds, apples, apricots, grapes, hops, lemons, oranges, peaches, pears, plums, quinces, raspberries, rock melons, strawberries and watermelons
  • herbs for cooking and medicine – feverfew, lavender, mint, parsley, rosemary, rue and sage.

Other common fruits and vegetables in settler gardens included blackberries, borage, chicory, blackcurrants, figs, gooseberries, medlars, mulberries, salsify, rhubarb, walnuts, sweet corn, cauliflowers and parsnips.

Garden structure

Large vegetable gardens were usually divided into four or more beds, separated by gravel paths. Crops were rotated, and animal manure, often from nearby stables, was dug into the beds every year to maintain soil fertility.


Although the emphasis was on edible plants, settlers also brought ornamental shrubs and flowers with them to brighten up their homes. Hollyhocks, fuchsias, geraniums, stocks, marigolds, pansies, pinks, sweet williams, jasmine, honeysuckle, violets and various types of roses were popular. They were grown in narrow borders at the front of the house and alongside paths. Few could afford the time or money to lay down a lawn of fine English grass.

No flower gardens

In February 1861 Mary Hobhouse, the wife of the first bishop of Nelson, wrote to her sister-in-law Eliza about her life in a new colony: ‘For a tolerable gardener you pay £2.2.0 a week or £109 a year – a handsome sum to spend on vegetables and flowers – I do not say a flower-garden, for that in the common sense of the term is absolutely unknown here.’ 1

Pioneer nurserymen

Skilled gardeners and nurserymen arrived with the first influx of settlers in the 1840s and 1850s. They quickly set up businesses importing, propagating and selling the plants that the developing colony needed. Within a few years these pioneer nurserymen had grafted tens of thousands of fruit trees, raised hundreds of thousands of conifer and gum trees for shelter, produced countless shrubs of gorse and hawthorn for hedging, and established extensive nursery gardens.

  1. Quoted in Alison Drummond and L. R. Drummond,At home in New Zealand: an illustrated history of everyday things before 1865. Auckland: Blackwood and Janet Paul, 1967, p. 157. › Back

Estate and homestead gardens

Some of the new arrivals in New Zealand accumulated a lot of money and land in a relatively short time. They displayed their affluence by building mansions surrounded by landscaped gardens. The grandest were on the eastern sides of the North and South islands, on the vast estates of sheep runholders.

Orari and Mt Peel stations

Orari and Mt Peel stations in Canterbury are fine examples of runholder gardens. They were laid out by owners with a good knowledge of plants. W. K. Macdonald began the garden at Orari in 1856. When J. B. A. Acland took over Mt Peel station there was a small vegetable and flower garden, which he soon extended and redeveloped.

These gardens featured large, productive vegetable plots and orchards, sheltered by hawthorn and holly hedges. Macdonald planted gums, elms, wattles and poplars as shelter belts. Conifer and deciduous trees dominated at Mt Peel station. Acland sourced many of his trees from the UK – some from a relative’s property, and some from Veitch Nurseries, a leading British firm.

Over the years both stations added flower beds, shrubberies, a croquet lawn and rose beds to their gardens. Macdonald had two glasshouses for growing table grapes and raising seeds. Acland had a conservatory in which he grew camellias, grapes, geraniums and ferns.

Buxton’s landscaped gardens

For those who desired a fine garden but lacked horticultural skills, help was on hand in the form of garden designers. These were usually professional nurserymen who planned and constructed gardens as well as supplying plants.

Alfred Buxton was one of the most influential. Between 1900 and the mid-1930s, he and his staff landscaped over 40 rural and city homesteads. Features shared by many of his client’s gardens include:

  • sweeping driveways
  • large lawns in front of the homestead, usually terraced if the site sloped
  • lawn tennis courts
  • shrub borders and informal flower beds
  • formal rose beds
  • rockeries
  • ponds, streams and fountains with rustic bridges, goldfish and waterlilies
  • Oriental plants such as bamboos, chusan palms, rhododendrons, camellias, Japanese maples, Japanese cherries and wisteria
  • New Zealand natives, especially cabbage trees, flax and toetoe.

Grand city gardens

In the first decades of the 20th century the front gardens of a town’s wealthiest citizens resembled those of the large country houses, and required a permanent gardening staff to maintain them.

With the spread of suburbia, most of these large gardens disappeared. A few survivors, acquired by local councils, have been opened to the public and include Brooklands in New Plymouth, Truby King garden in Wellington, Isel Park in Nelson, and Mona Vale in Christchurch.

Wild weeds

Over 30,000 different types of flowering and cone-bearing plants have been introduced to New Zealand since 1769, most as garden plants. Around 2,500 of these have escaped from domestic confinement and grow in the wild. Some have become pest weeds and all have the potential to become problem weeds. To prevent further weed introductions, New Zealand now has very strict regulations governing new plant importations.

Woodland gardens

Large rural gardens were also created throughout the 20th century but, due to high labour costs, most were not serviced by a permanent gardening staff.

Many were developed as woodland gardens, where ornamental shrubs and exotic trees are grown together in arrangements that best display their different forms, foliage and flowers. Two of the finest are Tupare, near New Plymouth, and Eastwoodhill, near Gisborne. Both were created from bare paddocks by knowledgeable gardeners.

Tupare contains many rare rhododendrons growing amongst taller deciduous and evergreen trees. The garden is centred around a steep valley, and incorporates numerous paths and streamside plantings.

Eastwoodhill is New Zealand’s largest collection of exotic trees and shrubs. Spread over 150 hectares of valley and hillside, its conifers, deciduous trees and evergreen broadleaf trees have been skilfully mixed together to resemble some of the finest woodland gardens of the northern hemisphere.


New Zealanders enjoy visiting gardens and, since the 1980s, a number of private gardens have been opened to the public for viewing, either on a regular or occasional basis.

Backyard gardens

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.

Suburban backyards

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.

Children's playground

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.

Abundant advice

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.

Victory gardens

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.

Suburban front gardens

New Zealanders’ gardens can best be described as an eclectic mix – in any suburb a kaleidoscope of styles and plant combinations can be found, reflecting both the history of the garden and the taste of the current owner. However, the majority of front gardens follow a simple format of paths leading to the front door and around to the back of the house, an area of lawn, one or more shrub and perennial flower borders, and a low front fence. This style of front garden resembles that of the early settlers.

Front gardens have primarily been for show, with an emphasis on presenting a tidy garden – one where the lawn was mown smooth, with clipped edges and no weeds.

Showy new plants

Gardens of the 1900s and 2000s differed from their colonial forebears in their wider variety of plants. New Zealand nurseries imported and distributed many showy exotic plants from East Asia, South Africa and the Americas. Those that are easily propagated, such as hydrangeas, fuchsias, freesias, gladiolus, agapanthus, calla lilies and red hot pokers, were grown widely. Rhododendrons (especially the low-growing azalea forms) and camellias were popular in cooler locations where year-round rainfall was reliable.

Local horticultural societies fostered an interest in flower gardens and promoted new varieties of plants as they became available.

Rose craze

Roses grow well in New Zealand’s temperate climate, and rose growing and breeding is a passion for many. Sam McGredy, an internationally renowned rose breeder, relocated his rose-hybridising business from Ireland to New Zealand in 1972. One major advantage was that he no longer had to raise his plants in greenhouses. Since his arrival he has bred around 100 varieties, including ‘Sexy Rexy’, ‘Dublin Bay’ and ‘Aotearoa’.

Breeding new garden plants

New hybrid plants bred in the northern hemisphere were keenly sought after. Hybrid tea roses proved immensely popular and remained so throughout the 20th century.

New Zealand gardeners have tried their hand at breeding ornamental garden plants, and a few have achieved notable successes. Some of the best-known known breeders include:

  • Edgar Stead (Ilam Azaleas) – rhododendrons
  • John Yeates (Melford Azaleas) – lilies and rhododendrons
  • Emily Jean Stevens – irises and leucodendrons
  • Tom Durrant, L. E. Jury, O. Blumhardt and N. Haydon – camellias
  • Felix Jury – camellias and magnolias
  • Keith Hammett – dahlias and sweet peas
  • Terry Hatch – alstroemerias, cheiranthus, osteospermums and nerines.

The rise of the native

A few native plants attracted the attention of the first settler gardeners, including pōhutukawa, kōwhai, cabbage tree, flax and tree ferns. But it was not until the 1980s that a wide range of native plants became available to the home gardener. Prior to this, many gardeners considered native plants to be drab, preferring imported species with colourful flowers. However, enthusiasts and plant breeders propagated numerous cultivars of native shrubs, grasses and sedges that were more compact or colourful than their wild parents and were preferred by home gardeners.

The lawn

Mowing lawns is a regular chore for suburban householders. For over a century lawns dominated New Zealand’s front gardens, but they are seldom an integral component of the garden design – rather, they seem to function as space holders. As suburban sections reduced in size, lawns have increasingly been concreted or paved over.

Typically, laying down and maintaining lawns has been men’s work. New lawns were originally grown on land that had been worked to a fine tilth after first growing a crop of potatoes, which helped to break up the clods of earth.

Most front lawns are sown with a seed mix containing browntop, ryegrass, and chewings fescue grasses. Hard-wearing backyard lawns often have white clover seed added to the mix. These combinations usually provide an attractive green sward all year round. On sandy soils, and in drier regions, lawns need watering through the summer.

Some gardeners opt for a ready-made lawn, buying rolled lawn grass turf, which is laid over a prepared soil surface.

Garden competitions

Most towns run some form of home garden competition, and have done so since the first years of European settlement. Garden historian Matt Morris has suggested that there is a strong social control element to garden competitions – where the civic worthies encourage the working classes to beautify their sections and to conform to a shared vision of an attractive suburb.

Private gardens in the 2000s

Home gardening in the 21st century is more varied, but less labour-intensive, than at any time before. Sections are generally small, and easy-care gardens are preferred by an increasingly urbanised population.

Garden centres

One of the most significant influences on home gardening since the 1970s has been the rise of garden centres, and the demise of specialist nursery gardens (for example, those growing only rhododendrons). Most home gardeners now purchase their plants and gardening supplies from a garden centre – usually large one-stop shops belonging to a national chain. They offer a range of plants, tools, landscaping materials and garden ornaments. Often they include a café and gift store.

Supply nurseries mass-produce a select group of plants that are sold throughout the country. This results in gardeners often growing the same kinds of plants, even though their garden settings may be quite different. Although garden centres have been instrumental in introducing new cultivars of hardy and easily propagated plants to the public, they have been less successful in ensuring that uncommon or difficult-to-grow plants are generally available.

Urban gardens

Small sections and handkerchief-sized gardens are the norm for inner-city dwellings. Although some urban dwellers develop display gardens that can be viewed from the street, most urban gardens are designed as retreats, enclosed by high walls or barriers to protect them from public view. Lawns are often absent and large trees are uncommon. Courtyards or patios are common, as they provide a space for entertainment or general relaxation.

Designer gardens

Landscaped gardens were once the preserve of wealthy estate owners, but now many busy urban dwellers can afford the services of a garden designer. New Zealanders are increasingly moving from do-it-yourself to do-it-for-me gardens, where a team of gardeners arrive on site and install mature plants and hard landscape features, such as paving and pergolas, within a few days. Companies can also be employed to maintain gardens.

Community gardens

In 2007 there were about 20 community gardens throughout the country. These communal gardens cater for people who want to grow vegetables and flowers but don’t have enough space. They also encourage community interaction.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Gardens', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 24 November 2008