When Rob and Rosaleen Peden bought 1.15 hectares on Katikati’s Busby Rd 16 years ago, it was in foliage plants for the flower market.
“Back then Tauranga’s flower market had closed and everything had to go to Auckland. There was no money in it so we let floral artists and churches help themselves until we found what we wanted to do,” says Rob.
The journey of discovery took eight years, including planting 150 tamarillos. “They got frosted out in the first year. So we thought that’s not going to work.”
The Peden’s Katikati business saw Rob hang drapes in homes. “I went to a customer and he had passionfruit growing. That’s the first time I knew passionfruit grew around here and we got talking...”
They started off small – and nearly by coincidence became the only commercial growers of gold passionfruit in NZ.
“We set this orchard up under .6ha of hail cloth to protect fruit from frost down to minus two degrees Celsius.”
“We happened to buy a plant from a guy in Auckland that was double-grafted. It was purple on one graft and gold on the other,” says Rob, who hosted NZ Tree Crops Association conference field trip on April 8.
Originally the couple planned to cut the gold off “and forget about it”. “We let it flower and when it fruited we knew it was good [tasting], so we made enquiries with our exporter on whether there would be a market for it – and, yes, there was in the United States.
“It’s not a big market – it only goes into high-end restaurants and suchlike. It doesn’t go into the retail market like the purple does,” says Rob.
“We grew our first lot of plants from the seed of the gold fruit, we planted them and when they started fruiting half of them were gold and half were purple.”
“The bees had cross-pollinated them – and that’s what we’ve ended up with.”
But the faux pas did have some advantages. “The gold fruit were very small but by having this happen we got some very good-sized gold passionfruit. The only way we get gold plants now is taking cuttings from a healthy plant with the right size fruit. We like to have a fruit size of 30 to 35 count. That is how we’ve managed to establish the orchard.”
The orchard is about three-quarters gold. “We still have some purple in the original part so we’ve carried on with them. We feel the purple fruit from this hybrid plant are much nicer than the purple Passiflora edulis fruit most commercial growers have.”
Rob is not 100 per cent sure what species the gold is – but believes it is Passiflora flavourcarpis.
And it has advantages. “It’s nowhere near as vigorous as the purple edulis so we don’t have to spend as much time pruning. The downside is it probably doesn’t produce as much.”
Rob says gold fruit has a more tropical flavour, slightly sweeter, and is very fragrant. The packroom exudes a tropical smell when you open the door.
No passionfruit is picked – they drop and are picked up off the ground. “One disadvantage of the gold is it’s more labour-intensive because when the fruit drops it’s green. We pick it up and it can be in the packhouse for up to 14 days, before it turns gold.
“If we put it into the coolroom while green it will stay green. So our packroom has air-conditioning set at 20 degrees Celsius. This seems to keep the fruit at the right condition for ripening.
“That’s why we’re the only commercial gold passionfruit producer in NZ – most wouldn’t bother with the hassle. Storing it until it ripens means we have to go through the fruit two or three times and re-pack it all because it doesn’t ripen at the same time.”
Ninety per cent of Peden’s gold passionfruit goes to the US and a little is sent to Japan.
“The Japanese market is quite difficult because the fruit have got to be almost perfect. The American export fruit can have a small amount of marking on the skin. They often check it at Auckland Airport before it leaves.” Luckily, the gold fruit doesn’t damage as easily as the purple.
Early-April the Peden’s were 90 per cent through harvest. But Kiwis won’t taste the gold fruit – unless they head to Katikati’s plant and produce market, where Rosaleen sells the fruit which is not export standard.
Deciding to sell their property, the Peden’s have many young vines – replacing those that weren’t producing for new owners.
“We also had a really wet winter in 2017 where more vines died than usual as they don’t like the wet.”
Rob does soil tests and leaf analysis every year “and applies fertiliser at that stage, when the whole orchard is broadcast”.
The family spend much time deflowering young plants so they don’t fruit in their first year. “We want them to put all their energy into growing. We allow them to flower in spring.”
Early-spring pruning also takes up much time and energy. “This is a mass clean out – a heavy prune – most laterals will be cut down to two or three leaves because they fruit on new growth. We take 80 per cent of leaves off. Because they’re so rampant you’ve got to go through regularly,” says Rob.
“Home-growers don’t understand you’ve got to prune heavily and open them up to get a good spray coverage.”
Rob often gets phone calls from home-growers, asking why leaves on their vines are falling off and their fruit has marks.
“I say it’s because the fruit hasn’t been sprayed regularly. We spray regularly – especially in summer. We apply a copper fungicide every seven to 10 days. During winter we spray every three-four weeks. But we don’t use any insecticide sprays at all.
For pollination, Rob has beehives. “You go into the orchard and it is humming – there are sometimes two or three honey bees on each flower.”
“A lot of commercial growers bring bumblebees in – we haven’t had to do that yet.”
A larger hive he’s built himself. “It has 36 frames, divided into three lots of 12. There are two colonies of bees and they work together to make honey in the middle.”
For the hive’s floor he imported special tubes from France. “Instead of a wooden base I’ve spaced out the tubes. They are slippery and the varroa mite drops between them and out of the hive and can’t get back up. This technique is used in Europe.”