You don’t think of the top of the South as a tropical paradise. But I visited a Nelson garden recently that made me think twice about what you can grow here in the belly button of the country. Although known for the highest annual sunshine hours, (apologies to sometimes winners Blenheim and Napier), the Nelson region can also get a very decent winter, with some citrus curling, pond freezing, frosts.
So when I was invited to join a Tahitian lime harvest in Tasman, in the middle of winter, I was intrigued. Throw a stick in this region and you’ll meet someone interesting. It seems to be a magnet for folks who want to have a go at something (I blame all the vitamin D shining on us). Mike and Linda Chaddock are just such a couple. They operate “Edible Eden” on an elevated 7 acre site near Motueka, overlooking the estuary.
The property was originally home to a commercial carnation growing operation. Several large hot houses used for growing the flowers were then re-planted as a commercial lime orchard by the next enterprising owner and now Mike and Linda are putting their stamp on the property, expanding the range of tropical crops grown and processed onsite.
On the brisk Saturday morning of the harvest I arrived to find banana boxes full of limes lined up on carts outside the hot-house doors and not a soul in sight. Following the smell of a cup of tea and a scone, I reached the house and the happy harvesters tucking in to morning tea. They had picked the whole crop in a couple of hours, literally a case of many hands making light work.
After morning tea Linda kindly took me on a wander through the garden and hot houses. The smell of the Tahitian and kaffir limes was wonderful, even on a cool morning. Luckily I found a solitary lime that had evaded the pickers so I could say I’d harvested something for my scone. We also found a little thrush sitting tight on a clutch of eggs in one of the lime trees when all her outdoor friends would be months away from setting a nest.
And that is the job of these hot houses in a cold winter climate; to fool and foil Mother Nature. Linda showed me two different banana palms, vines dripping with black passion fruit and rows of Thai and tabasco chilies bristling with fiery upright fruit. The tamarillo tree was so large and lush you could use its leaves as sun umbrellas, compared to outdoor tamarillos across the region which were more mush than lush at this time of year.
Although not artificially heated, the hot house structures offer sheltered and warmer growing conditions than outdoors. Tender perennials such as stevia, known as a natural alternative to sugar, galangal and turmeric were all flourishing here in their hot house digs. But even hot houses have their limits. A little frost cloth tent within one of the houses cossetted a tender young curry plant. One big sniff up close to its leaves made me want to reach for the Naan bread and fluffy rice. In fact looking around there was pretty much every ingredient required to whip up a mean curry paste. These were hot houses alright.
Linda explained that they are still trialing different crops to see what is viable and she pointed to a group of pomegranates in pots which are the next crop to be planted in the hot houses and a tray of germinating caper seeds as a summer crop when the hot houses are really dry and cooking. Another experiment, the perennial Peruvian Rocoto chilli, is also thriving at over 2m high. This long lived chilli grows into a large bush that can yield many kilos of fruit per season. The small round fruit look deceptively like a sweet pepper that you would fill with cream cheese and wolf down but beware, these chillies pack a huge heat punch.
They also branched out into growing lemongrass for a local herb wholesaler a year or so ago and I’ve never seen such a lush crop this far South of the border. While we were walking down the rows talking about markets for their crops, a chorus of mournful mooing started up outside the back of the hot house. Linda ripped off a big armful of lemongrass and disappeared out the back door where a group of big eyed calves were lined up at the fence waiting not too patiently. The natural antimicrobial qualities of the oils in the lemongrass help control their worms and parasites and by the contented chewing you could tell they loved it.
After the hot houses we toured the rest of the garden where the hand of Mike was in evidence. The second half of the Edible Eden team, Mike is a qualified arborist and builder. Talking with him I learnt that you should only prune silver birch trees in winter on a waning moon as at other times of the year the sap flow is too great and the tree won’t heal well.
Mike converted a playhouse fort into a very nifty chook shed, complete with a built in water dispenser that looked like a cocktail bar. He also constructed three induindustrial-sizedpost bins with an ingenious top loading, front emptying design and a handy ramp down the side. The space between the bins can double as a stock crate with the right gate fitted, how handy is that.
Over the lunch that had been prepared for the harvesters (it would have been rude not to stay) we talked about what they do with all the fruits of “Edible Eden”. Like any boutique producer, finding markets is the challenge but they have a growing list of restaurants, caterers and deli’s across the country that they supply directly with their fresh spices and fruit.
They also invested in a beautiful copper alembic still and have been making a kaffir lime fruit essential oil which is showing potential for both cosmetic and culinary use. Apparently the fruit makes a sweeter oil than the leaves. I love the fragrance of kaffir lime leaves and with one whiff of the oil I could just imagine scented candles, room spray or bath salts. And in the kitchen, infusing a few drops into a plain oil would be an excellent way of getting the flavour into Thai dishes if you didn’t have fresh kaffir lime leaves to hand.
Linda and Mike have challenges ahead, finding markets, meeting regulations and trying to control pests without resorting to sprays but it’s obvious they are loving their Edible Eden and with those hot houses at least they don’t have to battle Mother Nature.
Here are some more photos from the visit…