Billy Joe-Ann (BJ) Taylor is a community gardener who knows better than most that mahi māra – gardening – provides food for the soul as well as the table.
It has the power, she says, to heal a grieving heart.
BJ began gardening because her friend and mentor couldn’t. That friend was E Tū Whānau founding kaiwhakahaere, Ann Dysart.
BJ had worked as a caregiver to Ann’s daughter, Becs, for four years until Becs died in April 2020. When Ann’s own terminal illness entered its last months, it was BJ she wanted as her caregiver.
Mahi māra heals
BJ knew how much Ann, her ailing ‘Aami,’ loved her garden. Despite her inexperience, BJ got stuck into Ann’s garden, recording her mahi on a phone as she went. If unsure about anything, she’d go back inside, play the video and Ann would tell her what to weed, what to nurture and what to do next.
“I was her hands and her eyes. She was the one doing all the work. But I got a lot out of it and understood why gardening is a major part of our lives.”
As BJ worked, the everyday stresses in her life melted away and, in that space, came sadness. She realised that she was also struggling with the loss of her friend Becs.
“I came to understand those emotions. Instead of being aggressive I just worked in the garden, and I could feel myself getting lighter.”BJ Taylor
The bounty of mahi māra
Over the last couple of years, she’s developed a richly varied home garden. Last summer she had a veritable forest of different types of tomato. She has also established a fruit and vegetable māra in the grounds of the Farmers Crescent Community House in the Hutt Valley suburb of Pomare.
“We started by building four raised gardens beds where everyone used to park their cars. We want everyone to see what we’re doing here and hopefully spark their interest.”
BJ’s enthusiasm and commitment to mahi māra is indeed contagious. Friends and whānau are following her lead, sharing on social media tips, photos, and videos of their efforts and the bounty they harvest in their own gardens.
The Farmers Crescent community garden is now well into its second, fruitful season and its produce is being shared with local whanau and foodbanks. Passers-by are encouraged to pick the kai they need and to enjoy.
Confidence, skills, and connections grow with support from E Tū Whānau
E Tū Whānau has had a close relationship with the Farmers Crescent community over many years. This has focused on supporting their mahi with local whānau to grow confidence, skills, and connections within and beyond their community.
BJ is one of several wāhine toa in Pomare using mahi māra and other strategies to build community resilience and sustainability and to create opportunities for healing, growth, and positive change.
Her love of gardening was sparked by a desire to do everything she could to help her beloved Aami.
In turn, it helped BJ grieve the death of both of her friends. It has also helped her to open a new chapter in her life.