The very strange veg­etable busi­ness

Shane Mc­cul­loch's veges look weird, taste strange and are wildly pop­u­lar

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Notebook -

“Where are the snake beans?”

A bucket-car­ry­ing, In­dian cus­tomer in­ter­cepts Shane Mc­cul­loch as he tries to re­strain a rush of en­thu­si­as­tic cus­tomers. The car park is full and still they keep com­ing. Some have driven an hour to pick the tra­di­tional veg­eta­bles and they are very fo­cused. There is a buzz of chat­ter­ing and ex­cite­ment as they trawl the rows for the spe­cific trop­i­cal veg­eta­bles they love to cook with.

We could be in In­dia. Long, grooved luffas and warty bit­ter mel­ons hang from trif­fid-like vine canopies. Hid­den at the back of the green­house – so Shane can man­age sup­ply – are the much sought-af­ter, 60cm-long, thin, snake-like beans. “The In­di­ans call it the snake bean, long bean. They pretty much go bal­lis­tic over them.”

In an­other row, hot­ter-than-hot bird’s eye peppers be­guile you – at your peril – to touch them.

“These are about the hottest you can grow eco­nom­i­cally. I have the milder chilli – the In­di­ans call them ‘Kiwi chillis’ and they don’t touch them.”

This is all tucked away in a back sec­tion in res­i­den­tial Wan­ganui. No-one would know a mar­ket gar­dener was

there and Shane doesn't ad­ver­tise it. But then he doesn't need to. One look at the car park and it's clear his cus­tomers are find­ing him on their own.

He tells how a Filipino woman posted what she had bought from him on Face­book. The next af­ter­noon four car­loads of Filipinos turned up. The pre­vi­ous week­end he had a group from New Plymouth, two groups from Haw­era, one from Palmer­ston North, and one from Otaki, mostly In­dian, some Thai.

“They were all com­ing to pick stuff they can't get. They can get them in Auck­land but not in this area. I had cars stacked ev­ery­where. It was ab­so­lute may­hem.”

Shane's jour­ney into Asian veg­eta­bles started with chillis. He had al­ways had a few grow­ing and ev­ery year a few more cus­tomers would find out about them. One day a cus­tomer sug­gested he grow bit­ter mel­ons.

“For the first sea­son I only grew a tiny sec­tion of the green­house. I didn't tell any­body. The first In­dian lady that asked if she could pick chillis, spot­ted the melon and said, ‘How much?' She in­stantly recog­nised it.”

Shane was en­cour­aged by the de­mand to try an­other cou­ple of va­ri­eties the following sea­son, and things started to grow.

“I pretty much started fir­ing things in the ground and see­ing what would hap­pen.”

Now his crops in­clude luffas, Fi­jian egg­plants, snake beans, Chinese mar­row, and even a few Trinidad scor­pion chillis.

“It's sup­posed to be the fifth hottest chilli in the world. One guy said his fin­ger didn't stop burn­ing un­til the next day and even two days later he could rub his eyes and it still hurt.”

An In­dian friend gave him some curry leaf plants to ‘look af­ter' a few win­ters ago. Af­ter lan­guish­ing in pots without re­sults, Shane planted them and now has a small tree. One of his cus­tomers, a restau­rant owner, told him when they are added to cook­ing, whole rooms fill with the scent.

The trial and er­ror of grow­ing un­usual veg­eta­bles

Shane's eclec­tic col­lec­tion keeps grow­ing, some­times giv­ing him un­ex­pected re­sults. For ex­am­ple, this year the bit­ter mel­ons com­pletely shaded the sun-lov­ing Fi­jian egg­plants.

“I learnt my les­son from that. Next year they will be get­ting their own bay/area.”

He's also dis­cov­ered that luffas are ex­cep­tion­ally heavy feed­ers, and that buy­ing from Chinese lan­guage seed cat­a­logues is risky.

“When I thought I was get­ting su­cre melon, I got some­thing else be­cause I couldn't read Chinese. As far as I can tell, I think it is sponge gourd. It's a solid lit­tle bug­ger – I hit my head on it ev­ery time I walk past.”

Ref­er­ee­ing the pick-your-own scrums

Man­ag­ing a pick-your-own busi­ness looks rather like ref­er­ee­ing a bois­ter­ous foot­ball match.

Crops in short sup­ply, like the snake beans, have to be placed out of bounds and ra­tioned. Shane had to save a bit­ter melon by cov­er­ing it in net­ting and la­belling it so NZ Life­style Block would have one to pho­to­graph.

“Trust me, a note would not be enough,” he stresses. “If they (the veg­eta­bles) are there, my cus­tomers will find them.”

He has no­ticed that dif­fer­ent cul­tures like their veg­eta­bles picked at dif­fer­ent stages and use them in dif­fer­ent ways. In­dian cus­tomers like their luffas younger. If he is not care­ful, the young crop can be picked out and there's no larger, older fruit avail­able for other pick­ers.

But ev­ery now and then, he needs to go through the crops to take out the larger fruit which have not been picked.

“When I pick stuff and put it in the chiller, even if it's cheaper, some peo­ple still pre­fer to pick their own. If they've picked it, they know it's fresh.”

Work­ing out what cus­tomers want can be in­ter­est­ing as the dif­fer­ent cul­tural groups have dif­fer­ent names for the veg­eta­bles. He shows cus­tomers the pic­tures in his Asian seed cat­a­logue – his main seed source – to help him work out what they want.

“I say, ‘If you spot some­thing you like just label it and I will see if I can grow it.'”

Last sea­son, based on sug­ges­tions, he grew haired gourd and the large-fruited bot­tle gourd, one of the first cul­ti­vated plants in the world, which were once used as wa­ter con­tain­ers. Both were very pop­u­lar.

Shane keeps records of all veg­etable sales and based on these says next year he will be trim­ming his toma­toes back to two bays, giv­ing the luffas a bay of their own, dou­bling the bit­ter melon area, tripling Fi­jian egg­plants, and prob­a­bly putting in four full rows of snake beans. His flat­mates are help­ing him to de­velop a Face­book page so he can com­mu­ni­cate with his cus­tomers.

It's a seven-day-a-week vo­ca­tion most of the year, re­flected in the six month back­log of un­read grow­ing mag­a­zines await­ing his at­ten­tion in the smoko room. Be­tween run­ning his green­houses and de­vel­op­ing new crops, he doesn't have much spare time for taste-test­ing out crops him­self. He has stir-fried luffa.

“Zuc­chini was the clos­est taste I could think of.”

One of his cus­tomers brought in a dish made with bit­ter melon.

“I can’t say I’m a fan,” he says diplo­mat­i­cally. “It’s an ac­quired taste.”

Shane caught his love of gar­den­ing off his gran­dad and fol­lowed it up with two years at poly­tech. His only re­gret is that his beloved, green-fin­gered grand­fa­ther did not get to see this prop­erty as he died a year be­fore he started work­ing there.

“He would have loved this place.”

WORDS & IM­AGES JENNY SOMERVELL

An­gled luffa, Luffa acu­tan­gula. Trinidad Scor­pion chilli.

Snake beans, Vigna un­guic­u­lata subsp sesquipedalis.

Trinidad Scor­pion chilli.

Shane doesn't ad­ver­tise and he doesn't need to. Shane in one of his green­houses where veges are care­fully mon­i­tored so cus­tomers get their produce at the right time to suit their tra­di­tional recipes.

En­thu­si­as­tic pick­ers Deepika (left) and Sona.

Shane has found his cus­tomers – many of whom come from In­dia like Deepika (above) and Sona (below) – want to pick their own be­cause the age of the vege has a big bearing on how it flavours a dish.

Young cu­cum­ber plants, wa­tered us­ing T-tape ir­ri­ga­tion.

Curry leaf, Mur­raya koenigii.

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