Most New Zealanders have always seen gardening as a do-it-yourself enterprise and pastime. Professional gardeners have fallen into two types: trained gardeners who do landscape gardening or maintain large properties, and gardeners who work regularly or intermittently doing everything from planting to mowing lawns.
A gardening mission
The Reverend Richard Davis was probably the first Pākehā New Zealander who could be described as a gardener by occupation. He left his Dorset farm with his family, on a personal mission to make sure missionaries in Northland could feed themselves. In the 1830s he planted large gardens at Church Missionary Society mission stations, including fruit trees, grape vines, berries and vegetables, to feed Māori workers as well as the missionaries.
Professional gardeners in the 19th century
Many of New Zealand’s early professional gardeners began their careers in England with an apprenticeship and work on large properties there. After emigrating they might become head gardener on a large country estate, but they tended to diversify. Some opened their own nurseries, or designed and maintained public and private gardens.
The seeds of success
Gardener John Nairn, who had been apprenticed at the age of 10, emigrated as a botanist with the New Zealand Company. He married Eliza Liston, a servant. One of their sons, Charles Nairn, became one of the richest men in Hawke’s Bay. He employed many servants and gardeners at Pourere, the 32-room house he built in 1875.
A good example was Scotsman William Smith. He was apprenticed at 13 and worked his way up to foreman gardener through jobs at large English country houses. After emigrating to New Zealand in the 1870s, he worked at Mt Peel Station in Canterbury. He later worked in both private and public gardens, including New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park, where he bred kiwi, wrote on horticultural and natural history topics, and encouraged conservation.
Professional gardeners in the 20th century
The career of Alfred Buxton, New Zealand’s most significant landscape gardener of the first half of the 20th century, shows that gardeners continued to diversify. He was apprenticed as a teenager to Canterbury’s leading nurseryman, Thomas Abbott. Buxton later went on to open his own nurseries, start a highly fashionable landscape gardening company that undertook commissions in many parts of the country, and grow commercial flowers in his retirement in Ōtaki, while continuing to do some design work.
Gardening for his supper
Jimmy O’Neill was a classic cowman-gardener. He arrived at Maraekōwhai station, in Hawke’s Bay, in 1916 to work as a teamster, looking after the horses and growing oats for their fodder. When horses were no longer needed, he became the cowman-gardener, keeping a large vegetable garden and sometimes helping out in the cookhouse. After retirement age, he continued to work in return for board in a little hut next to the cookhouse and three meals a day. He was the station’s longest-serving employee when he returned to Ireland in 1961, aged 83.
Large country estates often employed a number of gardeners. However, male ‘help’ employed in New Zealand households tended to be jacks-of-all-trades, sometimes termed ‘cowman-gardeners’. As the tag implies, they milked the cow and gardened, but usually did other odd jobs as required.
Although many New Zealand settlers planted and maintained their own gardens, by the late 19th century it had become reasonably common for larger city householders to employ a gardener, often on a part-time or casual basis. Gardening, like house cleaning, was a job that students and artists often used to earn money in the 20th century.
Franchise firms expand
Franchise gardening firms such as Mr Green Home Services and Jim’s Mowing grew in the late 20th century. This expansion of the service sector was caused by people employing others to do the household tasks their parents would have made a point of doing for themselves, while they worked longer hours and kept their leisure time free of domestic chores.