When a family couldn’t find their favourite fruit in New Zealand, they planted their own orchard. Words Diana Noonan Photos Dean MacFarlane
Dean and Sheree MacFarlane of Te Karaka, 30 kilometres inland from Gisborne, have a long association with pomegranates. For 10 years, the couple and their children lived in Saudi Arabia, where the sweet red orbs were a readily available and cheap fruit. “Instead of buying them as a single piece,” says Dean, “we’d buy a carton load! Sheree would crack them all open and put the arils into a massive bowl. Whenever the kids wanted some, they’d dip a smaller bowl into the larger one, and help themselves.”
The ‘arils’ Dean is referring to are the juicy, ruby-red, flesh-covered seeds inside the pomegranate. In alcohol-free Saudi Arabia, they are crushed into juice and served at local bars. In New Zealand, says Dean, you are more likely to encounter them as a garnish, sprinkled over a restaurant meal or salad.
When Dean and family returned to New Zealand to live, pomegranates were rarely available. If they could be tracked down, they were “hideously expensive”. The desire to have the fruit be more accessible, combined with a wish to live in open spaces (in Saudi, the family home had been behind high walls), eventually led Dean and Sheree to purchase land in the country.
“The property we chose had once been a piggery,” explains Dean. “So, we thought: let’s plant a few trees.”
The ‘few trees’ ended up being around 370 one-year-old pomegranates (Punica granatum), with the old piggery providing the compost and well-rotted manure required to give them a good start.
“Pomegranates prefer sandy loam,” says Dean. “We had heavy silt loam, so when we planted the trees, we also put a lot of gypsum in the holes.”
The pomegranate trees Dean and Sheree opted to grow are a Californian variety called ‘Wonderful’ (it is the same variety that home growers are likely to find in nurseries). The other variety Dean is familiar with is ‘Eversweet’. “Although it’s a sweeter pomegranate,” he explains, “it has a closed calyx which means that bugs that have entered the fruit can live inside, protected.” A closed calyx also creates a moist environment where fungal disease can thrive.
Dean and Sheree’s orchard is run on organic principles. When it comes to feeding, Dean describes the trees, which are deciduous and dormant over winter, as ‘easy-care’. In spring, when the leaf bud is first showing, a sprinkle of Nitrophoska and trace elements is all that’s required. The first leaves appear in September or October and, thereafter, mowing between the rows produces cut grass that acts as a modest fertiliser, while also holding in a little moisture around the roots over the summer. Flowering starts in November and continues right through to the start of winter. The harvest, however (which is handled by professional pickers and packers), isn’t so straightforward.
Picking, which begins in April and can continue into May, must be done entirely by hand. Machine harvesting isn’t an option because the trees do not have a single ‘flash’ of flowers, so there is always
a mixture of mature and unripe fruit on the branches at the same time. “In fact,” says Dean, “pickers usually go over the trees three times before the harvest is finished for the year.”
To complicate matters further, while harvest is based predominantly on colour, that alone does not guarantee ripeness...
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