Three years on, this Cook Islands-born gardener is using his knowledge and passion for the land to gently guide a new generation of growers in not one but two locations in South Auckland and his efforts have seen him selected as a finalist in Gardena Gardener of the Year, an annual competition celebrating horticultural superheroes run by NZ Gardener magazine.
The Old School Teaching Garden was set up in 2009 when the council bought a former market garden. Now people come from all over Auckland to tend their individual plots, and former prisoners and mental health patients are taught to grow food there too, and Aerenga is always there to turn the soil and humbly offer advice.
As Yvonne Thomas, a mentor at the Teaching Garden says, "He is worth his weight in lollipops."
But where Aerenga really makes a difference is his mentoring of students at Mangere College. Deputy principal Mohan Patel says Metua has been integral in setting up and running the school garden club. Surplus veges are donated to the local marae, charities or refugee centre, or sold to teachers to help buy more seeds and plants.
"It's more than just gardening now – it's an opportunity for kids from overseas, including refugees, to make connections with the Kiwi way of life."
Aerenga himself is a man of few words, but his passion for the work clearly shows when he talks about his young proteges.
"Every Wednesday after school the kids come down, and I'm there to show them what to do: propagating, sowing seeds, harvesting. You have to be patient, they don't always have their ears open! But as you go on, they soon have their own home gardens. I've been to see them and it's very impressive the way they're feeding their families; some are refugee kids."
The students often cook their produce on a small gas cooker on site.
"They eat before they go home: we grow cabbages, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, oranges, plums, and we've just put in a row of feijoas. They're even there looking after the garden in the school holidays, they love coming down! They're a good bunch of kids. They're like my children." Aerenga is one of five finalists in this annual competition by NZ Gardener magazine to celebrate horticultural heroes. His story, along with the other four finalists, is in the October issue of NZ Gardener.
For video footage and more photos of Aerenga’s gardening project, go to http://www.stuff.co.nz/ - Stuff