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Market gardens and production nurseries

by  Maggy Wassilieff

Market gardening is a multi-million-dollar business in New Zealand. Māori were the first commercial growers, trading fresh vegetables with early European settlers. At first produce was mostly for the local market, but after 1950 exports of fresh and processed vegetables began to increase. Potatoes, onions and squash are the main crops, but more than 50 different varieties of vegetables, flowers and seeds are grown.

Contribution to the economy

Market gardening is an intense form of vegetable and cut-flower production in which crops are grown continuously. It occurs outdoors and under cover in greenhouses.


Until the 1990s a New Zealand market garden was typically a small-scale, family-owned business operating on a few hectares of land. But, increasingly, crops to be sold fresh and processed are being grown on a larger scale by big national or international companies.

Garden location

Suitable sites for market gardens are located throughout New Zealand. Fertile soils with good physical structure on flat or gently sloping land are needed for outdoor vegetable cultivation. About 5% of New Zealand’s soils (1,120,000 hectares) fit this description, but in 2007 only 55,360 hectares of land grew vegetable crops.


Vegetable production is a multi-million-dollar business in New Zealand, worth NZ$1,456 million in 2007. Domestic production accounted for about 60% of the value of the industry. Export of fresh and processed vegetables earned $566 million in 2007 and comprised a fifth of New Zealand’s horticultural exports.

More than 50 different vegetables are grown commercially in New Zealand. Potatoes, onions and squash are the main crops. In 2007, 1,450 growers raised crops for fresh vegetable markets and 750 growers supplied the processed vegetable sector.

Flowers and ornamental plants

New Zealand has a small flower export industry worth about $70 million in 2007. The export industry of bulbs and cut flowers developed in the 1970s. Few growers are involved in export, about 20 were responsible for 95% of flower exports in 2007. In contrast, 400 full-time flower growers and another 800 part-time growers supplied the domestic cut-flower trade, estimated to be worth $60 million in sales in 2007.

Vegetable seeds

Vegetable seed exports were worth $38 million in 2007. Vegetable seed cropping is centred on the Canterbury region on some 3,000 hectares of land. New Zealand growers act as multiplying agents for northern hemisphere companies, raising seed crops during the northern hemisphere autumn and winter seasons, and then air freighting the harvest back to northern companies in time for spring sowing.

History of market gardening

First market gardens

Māori had extensive gardens in New Zealand and became the first commercial growers of vegetables. They traded potatoes with European whalers and traders in the first decades of the 19th century and exported tonnes of potatoes to Sydney in the 1830s. In the 1840s Māori in the North Island also grew maize, tobacco, wheat, cabbage and turnips, and supplied fresh produce to the developing settlements of Auckland, Wellington and Nelson.

European settlers established their own vegetable gardens from the 1840s as Māori began to lose fertile lands into European ownership. Merchants like William Brown and John Logan Campbell entered the export trade, sending potatoes and onions to Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Chinese growers

Between 1880 and 1913 sons and young male relatives of Chinese gold prospectors took up market gardening as Otago’s goldfields became exhausted. They settled throughout the country, leasing land, often from Māori. They usually worked in kinship groups and sold their produce to relatives running greengrocery businesses.

Market gardens increase

By 1899 about 1,390 hectares were in market gardens. As roads and railways appeared, market gardens began to develop in districts like Pukekohe and Levin, some distance from the cities that were their main markets.

1920 to 1940

In the 1920s a few Indian immigrants from the Punjab region settled in Pukekohe and began growing potatoes.

Around the same period some Chinese market gardeners discovered the rich volcanic loams of Ohakune and began to grow vegetables there. They took up short-term leases on Māori land that needed tree stumps removed following burning of its dense forest cover. The Chinese grew crops for three years then sowed the land to grass and returned it to its owners, before moving on to a new lease.

The government bought up large tracts of prime horticultural land in the Hutt Valley during the 1920s for housing, and some market gardeners relocated their businesses to Ōtaki and Levin.

There was a slow increase in the land under vegetable cultivation up to 1940.

War years

During the Second World War vegetable production became an essential activity. The government compulsorily leased land for growing vegetables and directed people to work in the gardens. Wattie’s factory in Hastings canned and dried produce to send to New Zealand troops overseas and to American troops in the Pacific.

Alien gardeners

Although of alien status, Chinese market gardeners were willing participants in the government’s effort to help boost vegetable production during the Second World War. By 1945, 6,800 hectares were in vegetable cultivation and a surplus of vegetables was being produced. Two years after the war's end the area in market gardens dropped to 5,000 hectares.

1950 to 1990

With the exception of the Second World War, vegetable production was solely for the domestic market from 1900 to 1950. Since 1950 there has been a steady increase in the volume of produce grown for processing and for export. In the 1950s canned vegetables were important exports, but frozen and dried products overtook them. Fresh vegetables were freighted to their destination in holds of ships, or in ventilated, temperature-controlled containers.

During the 1950s and 1960s market gardening land in the Māngere and Panmure areas of Auckland, and parts of Marshlands in Canterbury, were lost to suburbs. A few centres of vegetable production began to develop through the country, each specialising in a limited range of crops. With the development of a regular vegetable export trade in the early 1970s, the area in vegetable production began to increase, reaching 31,500 hectares by 1980.

Vegetable growing after 1990

Since the 1990s there has been increasing consolidation of vegetable growing, with fewer growers on larger holdings. Single-owner or family-owned enterprises are being replaced by corporate businesses. Partnerships with overseas companies are common, ensuring off-season supply for northern hemisphere and Australian companies.

Established growers supply two supermarket chains, which distribute fresh produce daily throughout the country. New growers are most likely to sell their product in local farmers’ markets which operate on weekends.

Major vegetable crops


Half a million tonnes of potatoes were grown in New Zealand in 2007 and New Zealanders ate the bulk of them.

In the 1960s virtually all potatoes were sold fresh and prepared and eaten in the home. By 2007 over half the New Zealand potato crop was processed, mainly as French fries (chips) and crisps. Export of processed potatoes began in 1991 and has grown steadily since. Potatoes are New Zealand’s second highest vegetable export earner (NZ$94.2 million in 2007). Frozen potatoes account for 77% of this income.

The potato industry was made up of around 268 growers on 10,850 hectares in 2007.

Introduced potatoes

Potatoes were first planted in New Zealand in 1769 by the French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville. Māori were quick to see the advantages of potatoes over their traditional root crop kūmara and began growing them in quantity. Potatoes could be grown in cooler climates, gave higher yields and were easier to store.

Potato yields

The first potato varieties gave yields of around 13 tonnes per hectare. During the 20th century a combination of plant breeding, improved growing practices and fewer viruses led to major increases in yield and quality. By the start of the 21st century New Zealand potato growers were averaging 60 tonnes per hectare, with yields of 80 tonnes per hectare being achieved in well-managed fields.

Fit for purpose

Potato breeders have developed varieties that are suitable for different purposes.

French-fry potatoes – big squarish tubers are preferred, and they must have a low sugar content to prevent caramelisation when they are fried.

Potato crisps – round tubers high in dry matter and low in sugars are preferred.

Fresh potatoes – small tubers are popular; they must store well and preferably have a good skin that washes well.

Potato varieties

Over 50 varieties of potato are grown in New Zealand. They crop best in sunny locations on rich well-drained soil with plenty of organic material. Production is mainly in the Pukekohe, Manawatū, South Canterbury and Southland areas. Ilam Hardy and Rua are the main varieties grown for domestic consumption. Both were bred in New Zealand – Ilam Hardy in 1951 and Rua in 1960. The common processing varieties – Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Shepody – were introduced from North America in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


Onions are New Zealand’s highest-earning export vegetable and the fourth highest-earning horticultural export. Onions are mainly grown in Pukekohe and around Matamata. Smaller volumes are grown in Hawke’s Bay, Horowhenua, and Canterbury. In the mid-2000s some 110 onion growers cultivated 5,000 hectares of land. They produced around 200,000 tonnes of onions each year, with a retail value of around $120 million.

Japan was the main export market for New Zealand’s fresh onions in the 1970s and 1980s, but since the 1990s most of the export crop has gone to Europe.

Tearless onions

When onions are peeled or cut they release pungent oils that irritate eyes, causing tears to flow. But in 2007 New Zealand and Japanese onion scientists developed a tearless onion. It might be some years before home cooks get their hands on them though. In the meantime, home chefs can reduce their tears by storing onions in the fridge for a few days before peeling them under a running tap.

Onion varieties

The mainstay of the onion industry is the Pukekohe Longkeeper. It is a strongly flavoured, firm cooking onion with golden brown skin and white flesh. Originally developed in the 1920s by John Turbot, a Pukekohe grower, it quickly gained favour for its long-storing quality. Other common commercial varieties include Crusader, which was developed for South Island conditions, and Californian Red, a red-skinned onion with a milder flavour and shorter storage life.

Squash pumpkins

Pumpkins and squash are members of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). In New Zealand the terms pumpkin and squash are used quite loosely, one person’s squash may be another’s pumpkin, but in general pumpkins are hard-skinned squashes, typically with an orange rind.

Before the 1980s Whangaparāoa Crown pumpkins were the most widely grown variety. Large (30 centimetres in diameter, weighing 4 kg) and grey-skinned, with a bright orange flesh, they keep well and are available year round. They are usually eaten as a vegetable or pureed into soup.

Soft squash

Zucchini (courgettes), scallopini and marrow are soft-skinned squashes that are available during summer months. Unlike the hard skinned squashes, they do not store well.

Since the 1980s the buttercup squash has been the main variety grown and has become a major export earner. These are green-skinned, medium-sized pumpkins (20 centimetres in diameter, weighing 1.5 kg) that have a shorter shelf life than hard-skinned varieties.

Squash are grown around Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, which have fertile soils, and hot summer days and cool nights ideal for ripening firm-fleshed squash fruits. Harvest is from January to April. Two-thirds of the crop is exported, mainly to Japan. There the squash is known as kabocha.

Other outdoor crops


The brassica crop comprises broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, swedes, turnips, radish, broccoflower and Asian greens. In 2007 there were 290 growers of brassicas. They cultivated 3,500 hectares and produced some 82,000 tonnes of produce. The three main crops are cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Major regions of production are Auckland, Manawatū and Canterbury. Almost all production is consumed on the domestic market. A small amount of cabbage is exported to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand.

Leafy crops

The leafy crops include lettuce, silverbeet (Swiss chard), spinach, mesclun mixes and watercress. In 2007 there were 315 growers of outdoor lettuce on 1,200 hectares, and 122 silverbeet and spinach growers with 400 hectares under cultivation. Main regions of production are Auckland, Manawatū and Canterbury. The majority of leafy crops are consumed domestically, with a small volume of lettuce exported to Hong Kong. Most of the lettuces grown outdoors in New Zealand are iceberg lettuces which have firm, tightly packed heads.

Carrots and parsnips

Carrots need deep sandy loam soils and relatively cool conditions for good growth. A spring crop is planted at Pukekohe during autumn and winter (from March to September) and the main winter crop is planted at Ohakune and South Island locations between September and December. In 2007 some 65,000 tonnes of carrots were produced from 1,800 hectares. Two-thirds of the crop was consumed in New Zealand, the rest was exported. Since the 1990s an export market has developed to Japan, Thailand and the Pacific. Parsnips are grown in Pukekohe and Ohakune for the domestic market.

Kūmara – sweet potato

Sweet potatoes (Ipomaea batatas) are known as kūmara (their Māori name) in New Zealand. New Zealand’s crop is grown on the fertile plains of the Wairoa River near Dargaville, in Northland. Kūmara are planted in October and harvested 126 days later in mid-January. Good crop yields are around 15 tonnes per hectare. In 2007, 90 growers produced around 18,000 tonnes, which was worth NZ$34 million on the domestic market. Three varieties are grown. The most popular is Owairaka Red – a reddish- purple-skinned variety with creamy yellow flesh. The others are Beauregard, an orange-skinned variety, and Toka Toka Gold with a yellow skin.


Most of the corn grown in New Zealand is grown as stockfeed and is better known as maize. The types of corn grown in New Zealand for human consumption are varieties of sweetcorn. Sweetcorn is a natural mutant form of field maize that does not convert all the sugar in its kernels into starch. Annual sweetcorn production in New Zealand averages about 97,000 tonnes from a crop area of around 6,400 hectares. There are approximately 280 growers. Since 2000 the volume of sweetcorn grown for freezing and the fresh market has increased, mainly due to the introduction of supersweet varieties. Major production areas are Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and Canterbury.

GE corn

In New Zealand it is illegal to grow genetically engineered (GE) crops commercially. In 2002 a controversy arose about whether sweetcorn had been grown from GE seed imported from the US. Although it was never established whether GE seeds had been planted, the event became politically damaging to the government – it was revealed that ministers knew GE seed might have been planted. The media labelled the incident ‘Corngate’.

Supersweet corn

Supersweet corn originated as a chance mutation of sweetcorn in 1962. It has a higher sugar content in its kernels than normal sweetcorn. Supersweet corn stores well and does not require extra sugar to be added when it is canned.


Asparagus was a popular crop with growers in the 1990s, but following outbreaks of Phytophthora – a soil-borne rot that severely affects asparagus – the number of growers and amount of land in production declined. In 2006 there were 126 asparagus growers, who produced 2,500 tonnes from 710 hectares of land. About half the crop is consumed by the local market, the rest is exported or processed. Japan is the major overseas market for fresh product. Waikato, the south-west North Island, and Hawke's Bay are the main producing areas.

Covered vegetable crops

A number of vegetables are produced year round in greenhouses. Greenhouse growing is a capital-intensive form of production (with high energy, fertiliser and labour inputs) with high yields. Most growers raise their crops hydroponically in soil-less media, planting into sawdust or pumice-filled bags or into rockwool blocks, and trickling nutrient solutions through the growing medium. In good conditions, greenhouse crops yield 10 to 20 times more each year than a similar outdoor crop.

In 2007, 600 commercial growers raised crops under cover. Their crops included tomatoes, capsicums, chillies, cucumbers, eggplants, lettuces, sprouted beans, witloof, and courgettes. Greenhouse vegetables had a retail value of about NZ$200 million, with exports making up a quarter of these earnings.


Capsicums are grown under cover for the export market, mainly for Japan and Australia. Export of greenhouse-grown capsicums was worth $34 million in 2007. The 11,500 tonne crop was raised by 128 growers in 55 hectares of covered land.


Tomato growers mainly raise their plants in greenhouses and are based in Auckland, Pukekohe, Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Nelson and Canterbury. In 2007 there were a couple of large tomato-growing enterprises of 20 hectares, but most were 1 to 5 hectares. Some 400 growers produced 42,000 tonnes of tomatoes with a retail value of over $100 million in 2007. Most tomatoes are sold on the domestic market. The small export market was worth $7.7 million in 2007.

Lettuce and salad greens

The salad-greens market expanded in the late 1990s as supermarkets installed refrigerated cabinets into fresh produce sections. By 2006 there were 315 growers of lettuce and mesclun mixes producing year-round supplies from 1,207 hectares of covered crop.

Processed vegetables and seed production

Processed crops

In 2007 there were 900 process-vegetable and 130 process-potato growers in New Zealand. They grew vegetables for five firms that processed them into canned or dehydrated products such as tomato paste, frozen vegetables and potato crisps. The main growing regions for processed crops are Gisborne/Hawke’s Bay, Rangitīkei/Manawatū, Marlborough and Canterbury. The principal crops in order of tonnage are:

  • potatoes, 262,500 tonnes
  • sweetcorn, 96,500 tonnes
  • peas, 63,000 tonnes
  • tomatoes, 45,000 tonnes
  • carrots, 26,000 tonnes
  • beans, 7,500 tonnes
  • asparagus, 3,500 tonnes.

Minor processed crops are beetroot, kūmara (sweet potato), cauliflower and broccoli.

Before the 1950s most processed vegetables were canned, but in 2007 less than 1% of the processed crop was canned. Most processed vegetables are now frozen or dried.


Tomatoes are grown outdoors in Hawke's Bay and Gisborne for processing into paste. A few large growers are responsible for producing the process crop.


Since 2000 about 40,000 tonnes of peas have been grown for processing each year on approximately 10,000 hectares. The main areas of commercial production are Canterbury, Marlborough, Manawatū and Hawke’s Bay. Frozen peas are New Zealand’s fifth most valuable vegetable export, and are exported to 35 countries.

Demise of a dynasty

For 102 years the Arthur Yates seed company supplied seed and garden advice to New Zealand gardeners. Arthur Yates, the founder of the company, was the son and grandson of British seed merchants. His children and grandchildren ran the company profitably until it was taken over by ill-fated investment bank Equiticorp, and went into receivership in 1985.

Vegetable seed production

Vegetable seed production is a specialised and expanding sector of the vegetable industry in New Zealand. Some Canterbury growers act as off-season multipliers of seed for northern hemisphere seed distributors. The growers sow seed in fields that are isolated from related plants to prevent pollen contamination of the desired seed crop. They allow the crop to flower and seed, then harvest the seed and send it back to the northern hemisphere.

From the 1990s vegetable-seed production for northern hemisphere seed companies has grown from nothing into a sizeable export earner. Vegetable seed growers produced 4,000 tonnes of seed from 6,000 hectares of land in 2007, earning NZ$40 million. Radish and carrot seed were the biggest earners.

Production nurseries and cut flowers

Production nurseries

Production nurseries raise indoor plants, bedding plants, ornamental trees and shrubs, roses, fruit trees and young vegetables for sale to retail outlets. Some also sell fruit trees and vegetables to commercial growers. Nursery plants are raised in various conditions – open fields, under simple cover or in high-tech greenhouses – depending on the varieties involved.

Since European settlement there has been a well-developed flower and ornamental plant industry. Nurserymen and flower growers established nurseries in towns throughout the country and sold most of their stock locally. With the development of railways and roads, a few nurseries expanded to supply plants to distant buyers.

Duncan & Davies

In 1946 Duncan & Davies, a Taranaki nursery specialising in the propagation of trees and shrubs, became the largest nursery in the southern hemisphere, and sent plants and seeds throughout the country and overseas. In 2007 it was still one of the country's largest nurseries, supplying plants and shrubs to retail nurseries, and growing stock on contract for overseas nurseries.

As with vegetable growing, there has been a trend for small family-owned nurseries to be replaced by a few large producer nurseries who supply large retail outlets. It was the arrival of garden centres in the 1970s and 1980s that spelt the end for many small nurseries. For a time, some survived by offering mail-order services, but by 2005 that trade had all but ceased.

Cut flowers

For most of the 20th century cut flowers were grown for the domestic market only. There was a mix of specialist growers and a number of small part-time growers. They produced single or limited lines of flowers, such as carnations, chrysanthemums or roses, and supplied florists in the towns and cities. This mix of full-time and part-time growers for the domestic cut-flower trade has continued into the 21st century. Many who enter the industry fall by the wayside – in the 2000s the average time new growers spent in the cut-flower industry was two years.

Roses have been the main domestic crop. They are grown indoors under controlled conditions to ensure year-round production of flowering stems.

Export of cut flowers, bulbs and tubers developed in the 1970s when regular flights to export destinations such as Japan, Europe and the United States began. Cymbidium orchids have been the mainstay of the export trade, although lilies, callas, hydrangeas, proteas, nerines, sandersonias and paeonies are also grown for export. The foliage of native flaxes and pittosporums is popular in overseas markets.

Climate matters

Cymbidium orchids are usually grown in the northern half of the North Island, and cool-climate requiring plants such as paeonies are raised in the southern South Island. Tulips and daffodils are grown in Southland for bulb export.

It is not economical for New Zealand rose growers to export their flower stems as they cannot compete with Kenyan and South American producers. On the other hand, New Zealand rose breeders have managed to conquer international markets with their new varieties. Rose-breeding nurseries in New Zealand are usually 1 to 5 hectares in size, mere pygmies compared to overseas rose farms that can extend for hundreds of hectares.

Bulb production

Bulb and seed sales to northern hemisphere buyers increased fourfold between 1996 and 2006. Much of this increase was due to the arrival of several large Dutch companies in Canterbury and Southland. Some 1,500 tonnes of bulbs grown on leased land were exported to the Netherlands in 2005.

Industry structure

Grower organisations

There is no single group representing growers in New Zealand.

The interests of commercial vegetable growers are represented by Horticulture New Zealand. This was formed in 2005 with the merger of the NZ Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation and two fruit-grower’s organisations. It provides advocacy for growers on trade and food safety issues, provides advice on safe growing practices, and coordinates marketing promotion and research.

The Nursery and Garden Industry Association represents a number of the nursery producers, as well as garden retailers and suppliers of horticultural materials.

Cut-flower growers do not have a national organisation to represent their interests. Some flower growers for the domestic market belong to regional or product groups.

Research and development

In the 2000s two Crown agencies, Crop and Food Research and HortResearch, were the most important horticultural research institutes in New Zealand. Their work has included investigating pests and diseases of plants, breeding new cultivars, developing new technologies and offering advice to growers. Staff in the horticulture departments of Lincoln and Massey universities have also undertaken research for New Zealand growers.

Weeds, pests and diseases

A biosecurity section of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is responsible for preventing the entry or establishment of new weeds, pests and diseases into New Zealand.

Education and employment

In the early 2000s there was a shortage of trained horticultural staff as few students were undertaking tertiary studies in horticulture or plant science. Finding seasonal workers to harvest crops has also been a longstanding problem. A shortage of workers can mean that sectors of the industry fail to compete with overseas growers.

Massey and Lincoln universities have traditionally provided horticultural education, available to post-doctoral levels. Other institutions also provide training in horticulture. In 2007 apprenticeships and work-based horticultural training were coordinated by the New Zealand Horticulture Industry Training Organisation at hundreds of work places throughout the country.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Market gardens and production nurseries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 February 2024)

He kōrero nā Maggy Wassilieff, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008