Think Katikati or Bay of Plenty and most people think kiwifruit. But there's more to horticulture in this area than the hairy berry, as Rosalie Smith explains.

Storage pits for kumara (sweet potatoes) in the Katikati district are evidence of a long horticultural tradition dating back to the arrival of the Maori eight centuries ago. The light ash soils and sunny climate were as suitable for kumara then as they are for kiwifruit and avocados today.

The early settlers grew fruit and vegetables to sell to the gold miners living in nearby Waihi from the 1880s on. The setting up of the dairy factory in 1902 initiated the rise of dairying, which remained the major land use till the 1980s. During the Second World War dairy paddocks were ploughed to provide cabbages, carrots, onions and other vegetables for the American armed forces fighting in the Pacific theatre. After the war ended most were put back into grass though vegetable growing continued on a smaller scale as well as a small industry growing strawberry plants for growers in Pukekohe, near Auckland.

The first avocado tree in Katikati came from a seed planted in 1936, the first kiwifruit vines probably a year or two later but commercial orcharding did not get underway till after the war ended in 1945. First a few citrus orchards, then tamarillos and passionfruit after 1951 and kiwifruit (then called Chinese gooseberries) a couple of years later. Kiwifruit were first exported from the district in 1966. The kiwifruit boom began in 1978 and the Katikati countryside was transformed. Dairy farms were subdivided, hills were pushed into valleys to flatten the landscape, shelter belts planted and kiwifruit were trained on to wooden support structures in a frenzy of activity as people rushed to join the bonanza offered by high export prices. People were willing to try any other fruit, likely or unlikely, hoping to find another winner like kiwifruit. Avocados; citrus, feijoas, tamarillos and passionfruit all proved viable industries both for local sales and the export market. Babacos, pepinos and cape gooseberries were among those which were tried and failed. Since then Katikati has become a major kiwifruit producer and it currently grows about 60 per cent of the nation's avocados.

Flowers of many varieties are grown under cover or in the open and exported to Japan, USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and even to Holland, the home of flower growing. Proteas, leucodendrons, waratah, hydrangeas, orchids, manuka, sandersonia, calla lilies... This list goes on and on. Now lavender is being grown for its essential oils and medicinal plants are proving profitable.

However, many would-be growers have fallen by the wayside. Horticulture is hard work and demands skills that have to be learned the hard way. Many people have sought the rural lifestyle, found the going too tough and headed back to town after a few years.

But the orchards, gardens and shade and greenhouses remain and provide a living for its fast growing population. . Katikati's wealth lies in its soil below, the rain and sunshine from above and the skills of its growers labouring on the land.

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