In July, John issued the challenge “I want a really BIG pepino patch this summer”, and so I got to work. We’d had few straggly pepino plants around, but they weren’t given any special treatment, were semi-shaded, and had only produced a few small fruits, which were promptly eaten up by magpies.
I decided to do some research about growing conditions, and found that the pepino (Solanum muricatum) is native to temperate climates, originating in the Andean regions of Colombia, Peru and Chile. Surprisingly, the plant is not known in the wild, only in cultivation, so no-one really knows its origins. It is grown commercially in New Zealand, Chile and Western Australia. Fortunately the pepino is a hardy plant and can grow at altitudes ranging from near sea level to 3500m, although it does best in a warm, relatively frost-free climate. This seemed to suit our conditions – our vegetable patch is at the highest point of our 5 acres, and hardly gets touched by frost. In any case, it seems that they will survive a short period of low temperature of 27 to 28° F, but may lose leaves.
I forked over a patch in full sun about 3 x 2 metres and worked in some well rotted compost and just a few handfuls of Organic Extra. Our garden is all organic, and this is the standard treatment for my vegetables. I didn’t overdo the fertiliser, as I wanted to avoid too much vegetative growth. The patch was then left fallow while I propagated the plants.
With its woody stems and fibrous roots, the Pepino is very simple to propagate vegetatively from cuttings. I just ripped up some pieces – some of which had roots and some not – treated them with rooting hormones, potted them in some good free-draining mix, and placed them in our shade house. In a few weeks they were flourishing – each piece had grown to a strong plant with vigorous root growth.
I planted out 10 plants into the patch in late August, so they would have plenty of time to grow and ripen during the warm summer months. I gave them a spacing of about 40cm, and mulched well to suppress weed growth. The whole vegetable garden gets watered frequently by overhead sprinkling, and over the next few weeks the pepinos responded with rapid growth. Apparently they are sensitive to moisture stress, as their root systems are quite shallow.
The plants started flowering well but seemed slow to set any fruit. Back to the Internet! - where I found that they will not set fruit until the night temperatures are above 65° F. Before long the fruits were forming, alas, just as the first few ripened, John was headed off to the USA for 2 weeks on a business trip. He managed to try the first one, but over the next fortnight they just kept rolling in, and all the neighbours benefited! Most of the fruits were very large, as big as a good sized orange, and sweet and juicy. Luckily there were still plenty when John returned, and he went straight off to “his” Pepino patch and filled a large bucket or two.
We have had virtually no problem with pests and diseases. Occasionally a creature (probably a rat) has a go at a fruit – usually the ripest. Apparently pepinos can be affected by many of the diseases and pests that affect tomatoes, such as bacterial spot, anthracnose and phytophthora, spider mite, cut worm, fruit fly and leaf miner, but we have not had any trouble with these.
Despite the possibility of pest attack, we avoid the temptation to pick the pepinos greener, because the best flavour is when they are fully sun-ripened, when they compare favourably with a cantaloupe or honey dew melon. John grabs the fruits straight from the plant as a thirst quencher, and can be spotted in the garden with juice dribbling down his chin, but I think they are nice chilled and eaten like a melon.
Our pepino patch has been a great success, and I recommend that everyone grows at least a few plants. To top it all off, yesterday I noticed pepinos in the supermarkets selling for $2 each – and not as big as ours! I guess that means we’ve produced a couple of hundred dollars’ worth already!