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.
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
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.