Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Raising fruit

In 1997 Fred and I were fruit-self-sufficient from late May until late October. That was 12 years ago, and there hasn't been any great disaster in our yard since -- just squirrels. However, we do eat a lot of fresh, local fruit and enjoy it very much.
The strawberries are forming as I write this. I bought a few (three?) plants some years ago, and transplanted the daughters. I now have several plots, each with a substantial yield. Last year I discovered that if I pick them when they are just turning color, they ripen quickly, often overnight, and are delicious -- certainly much better than feeding the wildlife from a selfish point of view. My daughter says she learns that strawberry season is beginning when she discovers a half of a ripe strawberry on her back steps. She suspects chipmonks. Anyway, they alert her to the possibility of searching her yard for goodies, and soon she has enough for "them and us." For several weeks Fred and I have strawberries on our breakfast every day.
As they are ebbing, the raspberries begin. I recommend "Heritage," which are available in most garden centers. A friend told me this week that a young plant costs over $20 at Plochs. It is worth cultivating a raspberry rich friend, because, like strawberries, raspberries will take over your property if not curbed, which means owner can give the plants away. Heritage bear from late June into July, and then again late in the summer until frost -- on younger plants. Each plant lives only a year, bearing first in late summer and then an early crop, so the big nuisance of raspberry care is cutting out the dead wood in mid-summer from among the youngsters. Fortunately, the thorns on raspberries are mild compared to those on roses (which are mild compared to those on gooseberries). I fertilize them with the leaves that Fred brings me each fall, which I use for a generous mulch.
My white peaches bear about the time raspberries are fading, along with Concord seedless grapes (next to the house). The peaches take no care, and the grapes need only a pruning each February.
Blueberries down the neighbor's driveway bear sequentially through the summer. Long ago I bought a set of bushes that bear one after the other from a now-defunct mailorder source. You put a lot of labor into harvesting blueberries per mouthful, but the bushes are beautiful, and they stay put, unlike raspberries. Mine are over 20 years old, and have been fertilized only with other people's discarded Christmas trees, which Fred drags home for me each January. We put five trees, cut up, under our blueberry bushes each year. They smell very good!
In August we get delicious Bartlett pears. In 2004 we harvested 70 from our miniature tree, but usually the squirrels make sure we get only about 20. Still, that's wonderful eating! Next are red delicious apples and then macintosh apples. There are three other trees, but they give only a couple fruit at best -- so far. I bought these from John, who had a front-yard orchard on Grove Street until he died of cancer. He was appalled that I refuse to spray my fruit trees, but I do get decent harvests, although I donate some to mildew. The basic care of fruit trees is pruning in February and thinning the fruit to 6" spacing when they are between a quarter and a half inch in diameter. If you forget this service, the tree responds by having no fruit at all the following year; fruit trees don't like to be overworked.
About a decade ago the neighbor and I put in native plum trees alternately along the back line of our properties. They provide some visual privacy now. A later neighbor once made credible wine from the plums. They are good, but bear at the same time as the Bartlett pears, which is stiff competition.
By the time the tree fruit is fading the raspberries are bearing with enthusiasm. At least once a day I can gorge for 15 minutes. Once when my kids were home for college we all three harvested on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning and took what we hadn't eaten to chuch. Someone computed we brought 20 pints -- enough for everyone to eat plentifully after the service with some left over to be taken home. If you can tolerate some wildness, raspberries are a delight. During my July and September Open Gardens children roam through my raspberry patches and don't interfere with grownup conversation. There seems to be enough for 2-3 hours of entertainment.
In late October (?) Arctic kiwi are ripe. What a treat! The problem with kiwi is building a strong enough support. Our efforts seemed almost Biblical. Then, however, they are delicious and long-lasting. They taste like the kiwi in the stores, but have smooth skin that you eat and are smaller, like huge grapes. They also may be somewhat sweeter, but that's probably because you eat them totally fresh.
Raising fruit is much harder than raising vegetables, partially because it takes years to get it going, but it surely raises the quality of life once you enjoy the tasting.

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