Try Growing Your Own Fruit
Most winter mornings I start my day with a bowl of oatmeal. That can get pretty dull, so I liven it up with a variety of fruits, most of which I grew myself and preserved either dried or frozen. I add some cinnamon or cardamom and a few nuts, and bland becomes bodacious. I have blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, plums, apples, raspberries and a few peaches in my freezer that I got by trading some apples with a friend. So if you’re bored with breakfast, do some studying now about fruits you might grow, and plant them this summer.
Much of what I know about gardening comes from practical experience: ask a good gardener, for example, what kind of peach tree she grows, plant one, and see how it does. Try again if the first one dies. But I also depend on reading good books on gardening, and now, while there is still snow on the ground, I spend considerable time reading.
I have two books on fruit growing that I like a lot. The first, written in 1992 by Lewis Hill of Greensboro, Vt., is a classic: Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. Lewis was a friend of mine (he passed away in 2008) and a Vermonter to the core: quick-witted, hardworking and curious. He grew up on a dairy farm and only had a high school education, but with his wife Nancy he wrote 16 excellent gardening books. His book on fruits and berries is full of good information and also entertaining. It has recently been updated, I just learned, by University of Vermont professor Len Perry as The Fruit Grower’s Bible.
The other fruit book I like is Lee Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit, which came out in 2012 and is full of color illustrations and good drawings. Like Hill, Reich is opinionated, thorough and has many years of experience. Lee has a Ph.D. in horticulture and lives in upstate New York. I have enjoyed comparing his views with my own. In general, I agree with what he says and I have learned much from his book.
Reich’s book introduced me to two fruits hardy for Zone 5 (possibly even Zone 4) that I have never grown or tasted: the medlar and the shipova. The medlar is a small tree that is self-fruitful, meaning that one tree is all that is needed for pollination. According to Reich’s book, the medlar blossoms open late enough to almost never be bothered by spring frosts. The fruit keeps well and is very tasty. So why have I never heard of one? Reich writes, “The flesh, when ready for eating, is brown and mushy and lacking visual appeal.” It also needs “bletting” or ripening on a shelf in a cool room, the cooler the better.
The shipova is actually a hybrid made from two different species, a type of mountain ash (Sorbus aria) and the European pear. Reich lists it as a Zone 4 plant, so it is hardier than the medlar and should survive my New Hampshire winters easily. It produces large pear-like fruit on a tree that can grow to 20 feet, or if grafted on a suitable rootstock, just 8 feet tall. He says they are ready for harvest in mid-summer. Unlike the medlar, the fruit does not keep well — but it is attractive to the eye and tasty. I called Reich, and he said the fruit tastes similar to a pear.
Reich made it clear that fruits like the medlar and shipova are not often sold at our local nurseries, so I went online to see where they are available. Raintree Nursery in Morton, Wash. (http://www.raintreenursery.com) had both for sale. In the back of Reich’s book is a list of nurseries that sell fruit trees, including St. Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, N.Y., which has lots of cold-hardy trees that can be ordered bare root until April 10.
Reich’s book is just chockfull of useful tidbits. He explains, for example, about labels on pesticides: “caution” means the material is slightly toxic or relatively nontoxic. “Warning” means moderate toxicity, and material marked “danger” might kill you — even in small quantities. Reich is a proponent of organic techniques, but points out that even pesticides approved for organic growers can have severe side effects. He notes that nicotine sulfate is an extract of tobacco that is “organic” but has a danger label. It’s important to pay attention to warning labels whether you are using organic pesticides or not.
I also like the fact that Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally has specific cultivars named for the fruits it describes, and offers useful tips such as whether the varieties are self-fruitful or not. There is a nice section on pruning and another on proper planting techniques.
I like to buy trees from local nurseries as it means that the owners probably have grown what they are selling. Still ... I love to experiment with new plants and usually try something new every year. This just might be the year for a shipova or a medlar. I wonder how they are on breakfast cereal?
Henry Homeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.