From colonial times through to the 1970s, New Zealanders spent many hours tending vegetable gardens and orchards and keeping chickens. Food production at home by working-class landholders was ‘their most important economic protection’ according to historian Miles Fairburn, ‘something to fall back on during spells of unemployment’ and in old age.1
A long day
Landowner John Cracroft Wilson complained in 1854 that ‘it is an ordinary occurrence for a man to get up at 4 o’clock am in the Summer, and work hard for three hours in his own garden or field. Having thus taken, to use a vulgar phrase, the shine out of himself for his own benefit, he works listlessly enough, for his Employers for 8 hours; and then … gives his own garden or field the benefit of two additional hours’ good hard labour.’2
Vegetable gardens and orchards were usually the husband’s responsibility while the wife took charge of preserving the fruits of his labour. But in many families everybody had to pitch in to grow enough food for the household, particularly in difficult times such as the early colonial period and during depressions and wars.
Orchards and vegetable gardens
Up to the mid-20th century many houses had orchards. Fruit trees made a property more valuable, and they were often mentioned in advertisements for houses for sale from the 1860s through to the First World War.
The vegetable garden was usually sited behind the house. Until about the end of the Second World War it was not unusual for a household’s vegetable gardens to take up at least as big an area as the house.
The technical knowledge needed to maintain large gardens and feed a family throughout the year included knowing when to sow and to plant, how and when to spray and prune, how to plan crop rotations and how to fertilise the soil.
Most people who learned how to garden probably did so by watching and working with their parents. From the 1920s boys were taught vegetable gardening at school. There was a particular emphasis on this – for both boys and girls – during the government’s ‘Dig for victory’ campaign in the Second World War.
The Yates garden guide, first produced in 1895 by the Yates seed company, became common in New Zealand households. Newspaper gardening columns appeared from the beginning of the 20th century and gardening clubs were set up in the 1940s.
When Jim Matthews launched the New Zealand Gardener magazine during the Second World War, a special act of Parliament was needed to authorise the use of scarce paper for printing a magazine. But the government believed it was necessary for the war effort as people had to grow their own vegetables while commercial crops went to the armed services. Jim and his wife Barbara wrote many books and articles to help New Zealanders to get the most out of their gardens. New Zealand Gardener was still the country’s best-selling gardening magazine in 2009.
Child labour in the garden
Food history writer David Veart grew up in Onehunga, Auckland, in the 1950s and 1960s. His family lived as much as possible off their three-quarter-acre (0.3-hectare) section, which had a huge variety of fruit trees and vines, a large vegetable garden and chickens. This meant work for the three children. ‘My father viewed his family as part of a single economic unit and we all had jobs to do. It took years before I could face a vege garden again – too much weeding, watering and white butterfly patrols (one penny for each one we caught) in my childhood.’ 3
Compost is made out of food and garden scraps as a fertiliser to enrich the soil. Up to the First World War garden soils were mostly fertilised with trenched kitchen waste and with wood ash from home bonfires.
‘Hot composting’ was popularised as a way to decompose kitchen waste for garden use during the Second World War because it did not involve digging trenches and could therefore be more easily handled by women. In this method, the compost ‘ingredients’ are layered according to a formula with the right proportions of nitrogen and carbon to ensure that the compost bin gets hot, which speeds up decomposition.
Home garden culture declines
After the Second World War, the development of fruit and vegetable retailers and supermarkets, and changing patterns of recreational time use, seriously affected New Zealand’s home gardening culture. By 1956 less than one-third of households grew vegetables.
Revival of home food production
In the 2000s there has been a resurgence of interest in home food production, because of the rising cost of fresh food, health concerns about pesticide use by commercial growers, and a desire to live more sustainably and protect the environment.
Keeping hens for eggs was a significant unpaid occupation. In 1956, 90% of the 4 million fowls in New Zealand were kept for home egg production. Home poultry keeping declined in the following years – in 1969 about 60% of the country’s eggs were produced at home, but three years later only about 40% were. Home poultry keeping continued to decline – but it has had a resurgence in the early 2000s.