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The Vegetation of New Zealand

Chapter III. — Agriculture and Horticulture in New Zealand

Chapter III.
Agriculture and Horticulture in New Zealand.


New Zealand with its various soils and climates is admirably adapted for different branches of agriculture and horticulture. A full account of how the virgin plant-associations have been displaced or utilized during the past 77 years, and made to yield in exports of agricultural produce a sum of nearly fifty-two million pounds sterling in 1925 would be full of interest, but lie far beyond the limits or scope of this chapter.

Primarily, the phytogeographical character of the region has directed the progress of agriculture, forcing it into certain channels. Thus, first of all, apart from the work of the early missionaries and their converts in the far north, the extensive tussock-grassland provided fair pasturage, so that the first progress was in the direction of sheep-farming upon a large page 373scale without in the least attempting to "improve" the land. On the other hand, the dense rain-forests, quite unlike anything the European settler had been accustomed to, seemed to offer an insuperable barrier to agricultural advance. But, with increase of population, and, before all else, with the practical application of certain scientific discoveries, the markets of the world have been brought, as it were, to the very door of the most distant lands, so that from the end of the eighties, in the case of New Zealand, agriculture has advanced by leaps and bounds. No longer did wool form the mainstay of the industry but the production, first of meat, and later of dairy produce, became of prime importance. The small farm, which hitherto had provided a scanty livelihood, became a paying concern, the demand for land increased and still increases, so that such thought to be of no value, or impossible to "reclaim", now yields an abundant harvest, while, above all, certain forest-lands have been converted, at but little cost, into the richest of dairy-farms. Another formation that possessed great agricultural capabilities was the swamp, and this early on through drainage, ploughing and sowing with meadow-grasses, was transformed into pasture quite foreign to the soil. Some swamps, however, were too vast for private enterprise to deal with, but even these are now being subdued by aid of the State. So it comes about that only certain plant-formations remain comparatively undisturbed, especially Leptospermum shrubland, forests too far distant or in too wet a climate for profitable occupation, much of the dune-area and the herb-field of the Southern Alps. But all these, too, are being slowly occupied, so that the time is not far distant when the whole of New Zealand, save the most inhospitable and rugged portions, together with the National Parks and similar reserves, will be subservient to the will of man.

The land now being utilized for agricultural purposes falls into the two main classes of arable and grassland, while this latter must be subdivided into natural and artificial pasture. The last-named, again, comes into the two categories of ploughed and unploughed. Speaking phytogeographically, the arable land and ploughed grassland represent primeval swamp, alluvial tussock-grassland, lowland hillside, tussock-grassland and to some extent forest and even heath, while the unploughed grassland is, for the greater part, rain-forest converted into pasture by the method described in the last chapter. The natural pastures represent the original tussock-grassland at all altitudes now considerably modified by the reduction in number of certain indigenous species, the increase of others and the presence of many foreign plants especially Hypochoeris radicata and Rumex Acetosella.

The following statistics for the season 1926–27, most kindly supplied for this book by Mr. Malcolm Fraser (Government Statistician), give at a glance detailed information as to the crops grown the area occupied and their yield when such can be stated.

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Crop Area Yield Yield in Quintals
Acres Hectares Unit of Quantity Quantity
Wheat 220 083 89 063 Bushel 7 952 442 2164 282
Oats 117 326 47 479 . 4 997 535 906 730
Barley 29 886 12 094 " 1243 333 281981
Maize 10 249 4148 " 491468 133 755
Peas & beans 15 495 6 271 " 454 722 123 754
Rye-grass 42 082 17 030 lb. 18 083120 82 023
Cocksfoot 9 820 3 974 lb. 1358 082 6160
Chewings fescue 9634 3899 lb. 2177125 9875
Red clover and cow-grass. 8 540 3 456 lb. 1935 328 8 778
White clover 4 029 1630 lb. 671828 3047
Potatoes 24616 9 962 tons 116 771 118 644 tonnes
Turnips 462 360 187108
Mangolds 11870 4 804
Pasture grasses 16 680 348 6 750 198
Area under cultivation 18 830 436 7 620 295
Area in occupation 43 587 698 17 639 057

Production figures for butter and cheese are not available for the year 1926-27. For the previous year the production of butter was 1544 722 cwt. (78 475 tonnes), and of cheese 1 520 169 cwt. (77 228 tonnes).

Live-stock figures for 1927 (sheep at 30th April, others at 31st January), are:—horses 303 713; cattle 3 257 729; dairy cows 1303 225; sheep 25 649016 pigs 520143.


Horticulture, since it deals with an unlimited number of species, reflects climatic and edaphic conditions to no small degree. Speaking generally, the lowland climate throughout the region, with the exception of the Subantaretic province, permits the cultivation, in the open air, of many species not hardy in Europe, except in the South or in districts possessing a mild insular climate e. g., — Eucalyptus globulus, Acacia melanoxylon, Agave americana, Hakea saligna. Pelargonium zonale. But the greater part of the plants, whether of flower-garden, kitchen-garden or orchard, are those most commonly cultivated in Great Britain and the garden-fashions of that country, so different ecologically, are for the most part slavishly followed. At the same, almost from the foundation of the Colony, there have been enthusiastic amateur gardeners in the different centres and by them, at one time or another, have been introduced an immense and heterogeneous collection of plants hardy in their several localities. Further, there are a number of semi-botanic gardens where considerable collections of trees, shrubs and herbs have been brought together.

In proceeding from north to south, leaving on one side the rank and file of the garden species, a considerable change takes place in the flower gardens more especially, which is most marked on entering the Southern page 375botanical province on its eastern side and thus quite in accordance with the distribution of the indigenous vegetation.

Various species absent in most parts of South Island, and in many other parts of North Island, give a special character to the gardens of Auckland. Amongst such are: — Schinus Molle which attains a great size especially at Thames, Bougainvillea glabra, Datura cofnigera, Euphorbia pulcherrima, the indigenous Meryta Sinclairii, Phytolacca dioica, species of Hibiscus, Tibouchina semidecandra, Ficus macrophylla, Erythrina crista-galli, lemons and oranges. The two latter are grown for commerce, especially near Whangarei. Many species of Eucalyptus, not tolerant of frost, grow excellently in lowland Auckland. Napier possesses a climate much the same as Auckland so far as temperature goes, but drier. Virtually the same subtropical species grow excellently. The horticultural feature of the town is the splendid row of Araucaria excelsa along the esplanade. Taranaki has been named the garden of New Zealand. Here, too, many subtropical plants grow luxuriantly. But the chief horticultural features are the splendid vigour of shrubs of all kinds and the rich abundance of Camellias and Chinese Azaleas. By the time the city of Wellington is reached, the subtropical element has weakened somewhat, still it is plainly to be seen in the presence of Ficus macrophylla, many garden forms of Fuchsia, Lager-stroemia indica, Clethra arborea, species of Bouvardia, Araucaria Bidwillii, Boronia megastigma, many species of Abutilon, Eucalyptus ficifolia and Himalayan rhododendrons in great variety.

Turning now to South Island, various subtropical species can be grown in Nelson and along the coast on the west to as far south as Hokitika and probably much further, but on the east, as soon as the Canterbury Plain is gained, the winter frost forbids the presence of all plants which will not tolerate above— 10° C. Thus the trees and shrubs consist largely of species belonging to Europe, as a whole, California and Japan. Many Tasmanian species, too, are quite hardy. Alpine plants are somewhat difficult to cultivate on account of the north-west wind, and this too forbids the use of tree-ferns which can be grown with success in the open in the wetter parts of North Island. Lowland Banks Peninsula does not answer to the above description, for the climate is much warmer in winter. In Otago, near the coast, the climate of winter is milder than in Canterbury, bat the summers are cooler and there is less sunshine. In consequence, more tender species can be grown in many localities e. g. Leucadendron argenteum. The climate especially favours alpine plants so that not only can European, North American and Himalayan species be grown with the greatest ease, but the indigenous plants, much more difficult to cultivate, thrive amazingly. Further south still, at Invercargill, the great subantarctic herbs grow most vigorously.

Fruit-growing is becoming a thriving industry. Apples, pears, plums and small fruits are grown in many parts of the lowland and montane page 376belts, but commercial orchards are situated for the most part in the following districts, to each of which the area in orchards (including private orchards) is appended: — South Auckland (2800 hectares), East Cape (1070), Sounds-Nelson (2700), North Otago (1800). The best class of gumlands' soil of Auckland is suitable for all classes of fruit, including grapes and citrous fruits. Apple orchards are a special feature of Sounds-Nelson. Central Otago (NO.), with its climate far drier and more sunny than any other part of the region, is particularly suitable for the growing of stone-fruits, notwithstanding its winter cold, greater than elsewhere. But, in order to secure the best results, irrigation is essential.

A most important branch of horticulture or agriculture is forestry. From the earliest days of settlement, first the missionaries, and later the colonists, planted the trees of the homeland, and, with the settlement of South Island, plantations and shelter-belts were established on its treeless plains (the Canterbury Plain more particularly) consisting principally of Eucalyptus globulus (frequently sown in situ), Pinus radiata and Cupressus macrocarpa. But these were far from being the only species planted; indeed all the forest-trees used in Great Britain for economic and ornamental purposes (European, Californian, Japanese &c.) have been introduced, together with many species of Eucalyptus and some of Acacia — the result being that there are now many noble plantations of mixed exotic trees.

Since the subtropical rain-forest regenerates very slowly after its timber trees have been removed, it became necessary as the natural forests were being rapidly destroyed — partly for their timber (wood being almost the sole building material) but far more to make place for grassland — to establish extensive plantations of exotic trees. To begin with, this essential national work was placed in the hands of the Department of Lands and Survey and for a number of years it was ably directed by the late H. T. Matthews whose name must ever stand high as a pioneer of New Zealand commercial forestry; nor must it be forgotten that much of his work was necessarily of an experimental nature.

In 1919 a separate Forestry Department was formed which in 1920 was reorganized as The State Forest Service with Mr. L. M. Ellis as Director of Forestry. Matthews had early on selected a portion of the Volcanic Plateau near Rotorua with its fern heath and low shrubland as the principal scene of his operations, the general climatic conditions from 300 to 600 m. altitude or more, and the easily worked pumice soil being ideal for tree-planting on a large scale, the value of the land also being very low. Various areas, too, in South Island were planted with trees, including part of the tussock-clad Hanmer Plains (NE.). But, under the State Forest Service, planting is being carried out on a far more extensive scale, and the introduction of new methods, and labour-saving devices, have greatly reduced the cost of planting, while also it has been definitely ascertained what page 377species are best fitted for the artificial forests, and trees of inferior value are no longer used. Indeed, the future of New Zealand forestry is full of high promise and in no part of the British Empire does the same class of forestry stand on a higher plane.

Since the inauguration of State afforestation in 1896, nearly 32000 hectares of plantations have been established (N. Z. Official year-Book, 1927:494), and during the season 1926–27 about 8000 hectares was added to this area (Ann. Rep. State Forest Service, 1927:2).

At the present time, the following are the principal species which are being planted: — Pinus radiata (matures in from 30 to 40 years, i. e. 3 crops in 100 years), P. ponderosa, P. laricio and Pseudotsuga taxifolia. But there are many more species in the various plantations, amongst which are Larix decidua (grows splendidly at Hanmer), Sequoia sempervirens (grows rapidly in certain localities), Pinus austriaca, Picea excelsa, and various species of Eucalyptus (many not hardy throughout North and South Island). A rather curious circumstance is the fact that Pinus sylvestris is useless for afforestation in any part of the region; the trees becoming diseased at an early age.