Te Koanga: A Time for Planting in Aotearoa
This year and at this time, more than ever, we give thanks to Ranginui (Sky Father) for the life giving rain and the celestial beings who signal to us the time to plant, of what the climate will be, and our harvest for the year. To our Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) for the richness of the soil, the respect that it teaches us, the clay that provides nutrients, the millennia of soil life. And Tane Mahuta (Māori god of the forest), the web of life giving and medicinal plants, the super organism we know as the forest; the blossoming trees and our bird companions who tell us the time to gather kaimoana (shellfish/seafood) and the warmth of the coming seasons.
We acknowledge Haumietiketike (god of wild foods) for the fern root that replenishes the soil for our sacred potato. Tawhirimatea (god of weather) for the cleansing winds and the soft, caressing winds that teach plants to stand tall and be strong. To Rongo-mā-Tāne (god of peace and cultivations) for the spiritual relationship embodied by our daily work in our maara (cultivations), for the plant companions we have co-evolved with across continents to Aotearoa, the flavorsome and nutrient rich foods. For the pollinators who teach us community. And for the seed.
Polynesian ancestors of Māori brought kumara (sweet potato) with them when they arrived in New Zealand in the 13th century. Photo by Te Tui Shortland.
The fourth lunar month, September, is named after the Goddess of Spring, Mahuru. She re-emerges as the days grow longer, land begins to warm, and the trees blossom. The kōwhai (small-leaved trees with yellow flowers) begin to bloom and it is time to plant kūmara (sweet potato) for sprouting in Te Tai Tokerau Northland region. A spring day in the maara is a day of all seasons; the wind blows, the rains shower down, and some mornings the mist sits over the land until the sun is high in the sky. Rainbows are a common daily blessing. The frosts and the floods of winter have passed. Tama-nui-te-rā (the sun) emerges from the watery underworld of winter to fertilize the earth.
As the land warms, it is the time to observe our surroundings, to plant seeds and watch through their revolutions through the seasons. Te Koanga (Spring) is the perfect time to observe the plants cycling through the rise and the fall of the moon. As the energy waxes and wanes through the three months of spring, life on the land responds. The plants speak to us every day about the season and the climate. Growing in an Indigenous agroecological way follows organic practices, which means the soil and water cycles must be at their optimum to avoid disease and pests.
Courtesy of Awatea Organics.
Through the moon, we observe the water cycle, the ideal times for sowing, transplanting, nourishing, and harvesting. At equinox, we recognize the turning point of the waxing powers of spring. It is a time to grow heritage foods that hold the memories of our ancestors and to build a loving relationship with our plant companions.
Te Rewarewa Maara Cultivations
Defined by the boundary markers of Wharekiri stream, Mangakowharo, Puketatua, Te Toko, and the Harbour edge, Te Wiwi, and Te Putahi, the Te Rewarewa ancestral lands are four kilometers from the central business district of Whangarei, New Zealand. It is a 165-acre land block administered by an Incorporated Society.
Cameron Sowter (Te Mahurehure) and I run the maara at Te Rewarewa with a purpose of reconnecting people to the land and supplying tasty, nutritious heritage organic food to the local community. When you visit you get a sense of peace, a chance to commune with yourself and rediscover your roots through food. There are biodynamic kitchen gardens, rows with heritage companion planting, and terraced gardens with a mix of Haumietiketike species.
Our business, Awatea Organics, specializes in growing heritage organic food, seed, and medicine, as well as cultivating farmers. Reviving ancestral seed guardians and responding to the seed famine in Aotearoa is our mission. We co-evolve our maara with Rongo-mā-Tāne, the plants, and insects. We follow the ancient principles of mimicking nature, establishing biodiverse resilient ecosystems of delicious and nutritious food. At Awatea Organics, we believe the future of food is culture. Hand raised and hand harvested heritage produce reconnects people to their ancestors and follows Indigenous practices with an intergenerational focus. We grow supporting harmony amongst diversity, observing and responding to how plants and insects thrive together. Mimicking nature is an Indigenous way of cultivating food. Since establishing the Te Rewarewa cultivations, we have brought back pollinator species and bird life to the area. As Indigenous organic farmers, we ensure harmony amongst diversity. We ensure balance amongst the predators and pests, that soil health and the cycle of return is at an optimum, and that the water cycle is fostered. It is time to reclaim the role of plants and trees in the water cycle, in the climatic balance of the Earth and the value of the farmer; to protect and enhance natural ecosystems, protect and improve rural livelihoods, and foster the resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems.
A large part of our efforts is in “growing out” heritage seed. This is when a farmer grows and saves seeds each harvest, such as peruperu (potato), to the point of security of supply. We started this initiative after hearing so many stories of lost heritage seed and receiving heritage seed with very low integrity. The seed is the cycle, the past, the future, the connection to soil, the memories of all time. If we look after the Earth, we can grow food for the next 100 years.
It is also imperative, now more than ever, that we share seeds across our generations with other Indigenous farmers following Indigenous practices, acknowledging the genealogy of the seed and one another. We have co-evolved with our diverse potato seeds over centuries and across continents. Seed freedom represents abundance, protection of Indigenous food systems, nutrition for the community, and the promotion and protections of indigenous seed innovations. By using organic practices to build resilience in our seed and adjust to the local climatic conditions, we ensure the future sustainability of the harvest. Seed is not a commodity; it is the source of life. Gardens and forests are seed sanctuaries. When you respect the seed, you are connected to the sacred thread that connects us all.
We grow native greens, which are a staple to the Indigenous daily diet: Ruruhau, a native brassica; puha, a variety of milk thistle; kokihi, a native spinach; and ku–mara vine greens. We grow the native squash kamokamo, which is speckled green when picked and eventually turns bright orange when hardened. They are delicious boiled with butter. We save seed and we nurture the soil to pass on to future generations. The maara is a place where people are rediscovering their roots through food. The COVID lockdowns have been a wake up call to how people cannot access healthy food due to the unhealthy food system. Providing food and medicine to communities concerned for the life and dignity of the farmer and Mother Earth is our mission. Hand raised and hand harvested food is the future of an ethical and ecological economy.
— Te Tui Shortland (Ngati Hine, Ngapuhi, Ngati Raukawa ki te Tonga) is founder of Awatea Organics, director of Te Kopu, Pacific Indigenous & Local Knowledge Centre of Distinction, and a Cultural Survival board member.
Top photo: Awatea Organics is a research and training farm specializing in growing heritage organic food, seed, and medicine at Te Rewarewa Māori land in Whangarei, New Zealand. Photo by Te Tui Shortland.