War and Peas: Women, gardens and World War Two

By Zoë Heine (MScSoc student at Victoria University of Wellington)

I come from a long line of women who have gardened, both bouquets of flowers and baskets of vegetables. When I turned to garden history last year I was drawn to stories about women in the garden. One aspect that has received little attention is the role women played in vegetable growing during World War Two. The stories I found were tangled with ideas of gender, race, and politics.

My first impression was that for some the war brought no change from the norm. Alice W, a Māori woman interviewed in Lauris Edmond’s Women in Wartime1, talks about how her whānau did all their own gardening and grew kumara, watermelon and corn. “We always grew our own food, war or not.”2

Alice W lived rurally, and other sources reinforce that vegetable growing was still an essential part of New Zealand rural life for women. Jenny Gibson, a land girl, worked on a farm owned and managed by Anna Aubrey. Gibson remembers a “very large flower and vegetable garden surrounding the lovely homestead, all maintained by women”.3

Closer to town, Māori women had been working in the Chinese Market gardens for years. A primary source relating to this are racist letters to the paper outraged at the potential for Māori and Chinese inter-marriage. “The beginning of a hybrid race, Chinese and Maori, is an unhappy fact. Does anyone in authority care a dump [sic] about it?”4

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Workers gathering Auckland Weekly News, October 08, 1941 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19411008-29-4′

The war led to more Pākēhā women taking up work on both private and government run market gardens. This provided more opportunity for dubious viewpoints about race to be expressed in the newspapers. Signed off as “Astounded”, a letter to the New Zealand Herald questioned why Pākehā would be recruited for this work. “Shop and office girls cannot stand the sun and wind,” claimed the writer. “Why not direct the Māori girls, who are more suited for the work?”5 ‘Astounded’s viewpoint, however, did not go unchallenged. Lydia McPhee also responded after being both astounded and shocked. “If this job is not suitable for our girls, it is not suitable for the Māori girl.”6 This debate shows the contrasting ideas about race and female physicality that existed in New Zealand at the time.

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Workers gathering Auckland Weekly News, October 08, 1941 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19411008-29-4′

The war undoubtedly led to a change in other’s home gardening patterns. In a first-person account recorded by Edmond and titled “Teenager”, a daughter reflects on her mother’s work during the war.7 With five children and a husband overseas, her mother “dug up the back lawn and planted it in vegetables, read books about vegetable gardens, and established compost bins. She provided sparkling fresh vegetables for us out of that garden during the whole of the war”.

Across the country, women led garden groups were set up to contribute to the war effort. Christchurch Councillor Mary McLean kick-started the first women’s land army in Christchurch. These women were recruited from the Christchurch Business and Professional Women’s Club (CWLA) and thus fully occupied during the week. They were willing, however, to “give their spare time at week-ends [sic] to the cultivation of land and the growing of such vegetables as will be of nutritional value for those in need.”

Alongside the land army, McLean promoted the idea of a civic vegetable campaign and the associated committee. This resulted in a debate with another councillor. Councillor Lyons is quoted as saying, “Don’t go for the fanatics and the ultra-feminists of the community,” and throwing further shade over the proposed group’s experience in gardening he guessed that “mighty few possessed a shiny spade at home.”8 McLean at the least knew her way around a spade. In 1942 CWLA already had 9000 cauliflower seedlings and 5000 leeks growing in their vegetable plots.9 With over 100 women involved the CWLA provided vegetable parcels to orphanages, soldiers’ families and pensioners throughout the war before fading away with the end of the war in 1945.

These stories just scratch the surface of the different roles women had during World War Two. The period is particularly relevant as climate change gives us pause to reflect on gardening habits evolve in times of crisis. I, for one, would love to see more research into this topic.


[1] Edmond, Women in Wartime, 142 – 146

[2] Ibid. 144

[3] Bardsley, The Land Girls, 71 Dianne Bardsley’s The Land Girls.

[4] “In a Chinese Shack,” Auckland Star, August 8, 1935, 6 https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19350808.2.29

[5] Astounded, “Workers for Vegetable Gardens,” New Zealand Herald, November 23, 1943, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH19431123.2.15

[6] Lydia McPhee, “Workers for Vegetable Gardens,” New Zealand Hereld, November 27, 1943, 6, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH19431127.2.36

[7] Edmond, Women in Wartime , 172

[8] “Heated Council Debate: Civic Vegetable Campaign,” Press, October 20, 1942. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CHP19421020.2.35

[9] “Good news,” Press, January 30, 1942  https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CHP19420130.2.25

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