A gardener's guide to Matariki

By Meg Liptrot

It makes sense to plant vegetables by the lunar cycles, writes Meg Liptrot.

Some days are suited to planting potatoes, like these Maori varieties. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Some days are suited to planting potatoes, like these Maori varieties. Photo / Meg Liptrot

Matariki is our very own Maori New Year, and is strongly associated with the celebration of harvest, of gifting food, and planning or preparing the ground for the new year's crops.

The appearance of the Matariki star cluster signals a time to start planning and preparing for the spring garden while your garden is at its most dormant in winter. The disappearance of the cluster in autumn is a signal for food crops to be harvested and stored, and therefore the end of the crop cycle for the year.

The star cluster is also known as the Seven Sisters, or scientifically as Pleiades. Some like to think of the seven-star cluster as the "mother" Matariki and her six daughters. Some iwi celebrate a different cluster of stars called Puanga or Puaka. The rise of all these clusters happens between late May and July, and the celebrations remain much the same. These stars are also recognised as a new-year marker and are celebrated in other Pacific nations.

Matariki is the time to plan the Maori calendar (Maramataka). Particular days are named for their favourable or unfavourable qualities associated with fishing, gardening and other practical food gathering or planning activities.

The moon has a strong influence on the sap flow and energy of plants, so has a logical link to the named days in the calendar.

Whiro is the first day following the new moon. This day is no good for planting food or fishing, but good for eeling. The night sky is at its darkest so perhaps good for catching those secretive eels. By contrast, Rakaunui is the day of the full moon. It is a very good day, where crops are bountiful, and is a good day for fishing, but not eeling.

It is hard to generalise looking at this calendar about when it is most suitable to plant, versus not planting. There are intricacies in these guidelines, which are based on observations made over hundreds of years, and there are variations when compared with the organic gardening moon calendar. It is clear the effect the moon has on bodies of water and tidal ebbs and flows, so therefore is an influence on living things containing water.

There are still other theories around the moon's influence on plant growth. Scientists have discovered the temperature is marginally increased in temperate latitudes during full moon. The flowering of plants is also tied in with the length of darkness at night. Many cultures around the world plant by the moon. The Miskito Indians of Eastern Nicaragua believe "below-ground" plants should be planted between the full moon and the last quarter, and "above-ground" plants be planted between the first quarter and the new moon.

Some days in the calendar are suited to planting root vegetables, other days not. Mawharu, which is the 12th day after the new moon is "a most favourable day for planting food", and "kumara will grow large but rot quickly". Perhaps this is because they have grown quickly with the strengthening moon and are full of sugary sap, which will rot more quickly when stored. Both Otane and Orongonui (days 27 and 28 after the new moon) are favourable food-planting days.

You can make your own Maori moon calendar by purchasing a basic wall chart calendar. Note when the new moon and full moon will be, and mark the special days accordingly, with coloured icons representing a plant, a seed, a root crop, or a fish. This would be a fun school holiday project for the kids, and it's a co-ordinated way to plan your edible garden for the coming year.

Mid-winter is a time for those in the Northern Hemisphere to celebrate Christmas, a time to get together with friends and family and to feast on rich satisfying foods to keep our bodies well-padded in the cooler months.

It makes sense to do the same here after harvest season, to celebrate Matariki and our place in the Pacific, and maybe get together for a warming pot-luck dinner while it's raining outside.

Ideally your dish would incorporate something you have grown this year.

If not, now is the time to order a seed or fruit tree catalogue and start dreaming of next year's garden.

Matariki for gardeners

* Share some of your winter harvest or autumn preserves with friends and family. Lemons and other citrus fruit have a long shelf life and are useful to people who don't have their own trees.

* If you have plenty of citrus ripening, make marmalade or lemon curd with the kids. They could design their own labels and give away jars as Matariki presents.

* Dig over a patch of new ground to begin or extend a vege plot, and sow a green manure crop so it is ready to dig over and plant in spring.

* Plant garlic cloves. Buy organic cloves which are untreated and will sprout, or purchase them from a garden centre.

* Add a new fruit tree to your garden, perhaps something that will ripen this time next Matariki, such as a lemon, lime or mandarin.

* Mark the Maori lunar calendar for the coming year on a wall chart or calendar of your choice.

For the complete Maori calendar, Maramataka, go to Korero Maori. For more Matariki activities click here.

- Herald on Sunday

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