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Tuesday, 07 June 2011 14:02

Chillies add warmth to Canterbury lifestyle

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LouandchilliesChillies are the spice of life for Swannanoa-based lifestyle block owner Louisa Eades.

Louisa and her husband Mike moved on to their 11 acre North Canterbury lifestyle block in the winter of 2006. Louisa says the main reason was to give their three boys more space to run around.

"We wanted to use the land to do something productive since we were buying a small farm. I wasn't a very good gardener back then and the only plant I'd managed to keep alive was a chilli plant I'd bought from Mitre 10 and kept on my windowsill."

Their section came complete with a house, along with trees, shelterbelts and a little granny flat.

"We claimed the GST for the land purchase and used that money to set up the chilli business. We bought an ancient tractor, a quad bike and the largest tunnel house we could afford - about 250 square metres. We registered the granny flat as a commercial kitchen, and that's where I do all my smoking, pickling and bottling."

Over the years, Louisa has experimented with many different chilli varieties, including poblano, pasilla, tabasco, rocoto and habanero. But the ones that do the best in the cold Canterbury climate are the faster-growing jalapeno, cayenne and Hungarian yellow wax.

"I pickle the jalapenos and smoke the Hungarian yellow wax; the ones I don't sell fresh. Sometimes, if I've got enough, I'll make a sweet chilli sauce. I sell those sorts of things on the website, because people are prepared to pay a bit more for them and pay postage."

Louisa has sold her chillies using a variety of media, including TradeMe, a website called locavore365, a roadside stall and also the two local farmers' markets.

"To be successful at the market you have to be there every week so people get to know you. It's a 35 minute drive each way for me and I was there every Saturday morning for three months. It was too hard because I work full-time, and on Friday evenings I'd have to cook for the kids and spend two hours getting everything ready for the market. I'd be up at six to pick chillies, spend all morning there and wouldn't be home until one. It was just too much, so I try not to rely on the farmers' market.

"We're on a relatively busy road between Christchurch and Oxford so the roadside stall works pretty well. It's far less maintenance, and it's generally easier."

Louisa's chillies are 100 per cent organic - though they are not certified as such because of the cost and time involved in doing so - which means she has a few problems with pest control, the slugs especially.

"They eat chillies. You wouldn't think it, but they will eat the hottest chilli you can grow. The way to keep on top of them is to keep on top of the weeding. We put down weed mats and feed the plants on sheep pellets and things. I use biological control instead of using chemicals. Pest control has been a bit of a learning curve; I've found that leaving it be is the best I can do with aphids, because if I spray them with chemicals it would kill all the good bugs, too. I encourage the predator population - ladybirds, hoverflies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. In this last season we've had no aphids whatsoever on the chillies."

Now that winter is on its way, the tasks at hand turn to clearing out the tunnel house and selling whatever pickled or smoked produce is left over. To continue growing during winter would require a climate-controlled greenhouse.

Because the chilli business operates on a small scale and they don't rely on the income, she says, they can afford to grow the chillies organically. And even though the business is small, Louisa would like to see it expand in the long term.

"I have a an expression that we are 'growing at glacial pace', so it will get bigger as I get better at growing them as well. I'm taking this time to learn the ropes and experiment, figure out what works and what doesn't, build up a customer base and find out what people want to buy."

A far cry from the lone chilli plant on her windowsill, Louisa now has a garden with cucumbers, tomatoes, beans and more for the family to eat, but the chilli remains her favourite.

"Chillies are a lovely plant to grow, and so easy. They're just really nice-looking - the pods are so beautiful. I think every house should have one."

Visit http://www.kiwichilli.com/ for more on Louisa's chillies.