Maara kai recreates pre-contact garden

A group of Victoria staff and students are getting their hands dirty in the name of research.

Taputini kūmara, believed to be one of four remaining pre-European varieties of kūmara.
Dr Ocean Mercier and Associate Professor Peter Adds with taputini kūmara, believed to be one of four remaining pre-European varieties of kūmara.

Behind the Māori Studies (Te Kawa a Māui) buildings at 50 Kelburn Parade, space is being cleared and prepared for planting a maara kai (vegetable garden).

The project is based on recreating the type of garden Māori tended prior to European contact, with planting scheduled around the Māori calendar.

“To our knowledge this is the first time this has been done in a Māori context in Wellington,” says Head of Te Kawa a Māui, Associate Professor Peter Adds.

“Among other things, we plan to use it as a teaching tool in a number of our classes.”

Several varieties of pre-European cultigens will be sourced with the help of the Botanical Society—including yams, taro, gourds and kūmara—to ensure the traditional maara kai is as authentic as possible.

Te Kawa a Māui PhD student Philip Best, who is part of the project, is excited about the possibilities for learning and research.

“We talk about the many foods Māori grew prior to European contact, but previously lacked the opportunity to see, feel and taste the foods of the ancestors. This project makes that possible.”

A weather station will be set up to monitor temperatures and weather conditions. Soil testing will also be undertaken and university soil scientists will assist with soil analyses.

The garden will be divided into zones, with different soils and plants, to seewhat works best.

“We are interested in finding out which traditional Māori cultigens will grow this far south,” says Peter.

“Historical records in the Wellington region show some unexpected plants growing successfully.”

Participation in the project is university-wide, and includes external groups such as the Department of Conservation and Te Puni Kōkiri.