Wednesday, October 30, 2019

An Opinionated Person’s Guide to Growing Fruit and Nuts, Part 1

Strawberry plants (left) and raspberry canes (right) in my garden on 3 June 2019

I’ve written a lot about growing vegetable plants, the crops most people think of when they consider growing some of their own food. Most vegetables can be grown most places in temperate climates as long as you know the characteristics of your growing season and how to use them to figure out when to plant and how to grow the vegetables you want and what varieties do best for the length of your growing season. But humans do not live by vegetables alone – or at least Mike and I don’t. One of the reasons we moved to this place 17 years ago was to have room to grow our favorite conventional fruits like strawberries, raspberries, peaches, pears, and apples as well as native fruits like persimmons and pawpaws, along with nuts such as hazelnuts, pecans, and chestnuts.

Upon moving here I used the book Gaia’s Garden, supplemented with information I gleaned from the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Missouri Department of Conservation, and our state Extension Service, to design a plan that included as many of these crops as I thought I could fit into the yard. Now it’s time to share with you what worked for me and what didn’t, what I liked well enough to grow if I had to start over in a new place and what I wouldn’t bother with. May it be useful to you (or at least amuse you).

What makes growing fruits and nuts different from growing most vegetables is that most fruits and all nuts I know of are perennial plants that take a few years to a decade or more to bear well. If you’re lucky, someone planted fruits or nuts on your property years ago so they are bearing now, and all you need to learn is how to maintain them and when and how to harvest them and use the harvest. If you’re like me, however, you move to a lot that doesn’t have a single fruit or nut bearing plant on it. You may already know that you won’t be there for long enough to grow trees, but you might wonder if you could grow strawberries. Or you might want to grow certain fruits or nuts but wonder how long it will take them to bear and if so, if you’d get enough out of them to bother. So I’ve divided the guide into multiple parts. In Part 1, I’ll discuss which fruits or nuts I would grow if I were expecting to move elsewhere in 5 years or less. In Part 2 I’ll discuss the ones that take more than 5 years to bear a good crop, and in part 3, the ones that don’t bear well for a decade or more after planting.

If you’re going to make the best use of my opinionated views, you need to know what my growing conditions are so you can make adjustments for your conditions. For newcomers to this blog, my husband Mike and I live in the northeast corner of St. Louis County, MO, the county that surrounds the city of St. Louis wherever the Mississippi River doesn’t. In general, we experience rather cold but changeable winter weather. The USDA says we are in Zone 6 and the last few winters have matched this with the lowest temperatures between -10F and 0F, but even in December and January high temperatures occasionally reach the 60s or 70sF; highs can also be well below freezing, as the Zone 6 designation suggests. More typical winter highs are in the 30sF to 40sF. With the wide swings in temperature, we usually experience a number of freeze-thaw cycles during the winter. This can be harder on plants than where the soil freezes in autumn and stays frozen until spring.

Spring and autumn also feature widely varying temperatures as warm and cold fronts parade across the region, with severe thunderstorms not uncommon during spring and the first half of summer. The last spring frost is usually sometime in April while the first autumn frost is typically sometime in October for a growing season of about 180 to 200 days. Summer is reliably hot. We don’t have wet or dry seasons but we do tend to get less precipitation in winter than in the other seasons. We get droughts some years but they usually do not last longer than a few months. We can also get prolonged periods of heavy rain during the growing season, as in 1993 and again this year, which may lead to saturated soil conditions that can damage or kill roots of perennial plants if it lasts long enough.

As to the particulars, we live on a loess hill, thanks to glaciers. Loess hills look like what you would imagine a series of ocean waves look like if you flash-freeze them in place. The soil is silt loam and it’s very deep, 40 inches or more to bedrock. With this soil and our being near the top of an east-facing slope, even in years with the heaviest rain like this year the soil never gets waterlogged for long. The flip side, of course, is that it can also dry out rapidly, though not as fast as a sandy soil would. This is a good area to grow fruit trees; there are still a few old apple trees down the street from us that we think date from when this was still rural farm country.

Annual fruit crops

While the majority of vegetable and root crops that are grown in temperate climates can be started, grown, and harvested within a single growing system, the list of sweet-tasting fruit crops that can be grown in this way is very short. (I specify sweet-tasting because some of the crops we use as vegetables, such as tomatoes and squash, are fruits botanically.)

The most commonly grown annual fruit crops are the various melons. Up until this year, I hadn’t had enough success with any melon to be worth the space the plants needed in the vegetable garden. But this year I struck gold: ‘Missouri Gold’, to be precise. I grew two plants of this muskmelon on this A-frame trellis in a 16 square foot space and harvested 8 melons weighing about 20 pounds total over a month-long period! I’m not sure why I was successful this year when I hadn’t been in the past, but it could have been a combination of the right plant spacing, mineral-rich soil, the trellis, and plenty of water from the excessively rainy summer we had, something I will discuss more when I make my report on the 2019 garden. At any rate, assuming you get the right varieties of the right kind of melon and grow them under the proper conditions for your area (in my experience they like lots of water and well balanced fertility), melons are probably the best bet for good annual fruit production. That’s assuming you like melons, and we do; that’s why I’ve kept trying to grow them for 17 years. The best part about growing melons is that you can pick yours when they are actually ripe, when they taste much better than the pathetic excuses for melons that most of the grocery stores in this area offer. I’d forgotten how good melons are till I tasted the melons I grew this year.

An unusual fruit crop that I have grown as an annual is ground or husk cherry (Physalis pruinosa). Like tomatoes and peppers, it’s in the nightshade family, and it’s grown in the same way that tomatoes and peppers are. The plants are shorter than sweet pepper plants but much wider and more sprawling. I tried growing them in cages but they grew wider than the cages could handle. The half to three-quarter inch fruits are borne singly inside a papery husk like those on tomatillo or Chinese lantern plants. Wait till the fruits turn their ripe golden yellow color to harvest and eat them; do not eat any unripe (green) fruits as the seed catalogs assure me the results are highly unpleasant. The husk becomes papery when the fruit inside is ripe; it may open up and drop the fruit on the ground at this stage.

Similarly to cherry tomatoes, each plant can provide a lot of fruit in a single growing season. The fruits are reasonably tasty, quite sweet and with a hint of pineapple flavor. But I didn’t like the short and sprawling nature of the plants, which makes it hard to find the ripe fruit that falls on the ground. If you cannot get down on your hands and knees to find the ripe fruit, this is not a good plant for you. While its flavor is pleasant enough, and I would figure out ways to use it if it were all I had, I don’t like it as much as the other fruits I grow. A few years of working with it were enough for me; I no longer grow it.

The Fedco seed catalog also offers a related plant, Cape gooseberry (P. peruviana). They say it’s a larger, more upright plant (3 to 4 feet tall) with larger husks and fruits. That would make it easier to grow and to harvest from. They claim that the variety they offer, ‘Ambrosia’, lives up to its name. It’s a tender perennial in warmer climates and requires a much longer season of 115 days to ripe fruit. I’ll let you know if I try it.

Those of you who live in places with cooler, longer growing seasons than mine may find some of the other nightshade family fruit crops grow well for you in a single growing season. Baker Creek offers seeds of several species.

I grow melons using the same soil re-mineralization process that I employ to grow vegetables, in among the vegetables in their beds. I had very little trouble with insect pests this year on the melons or, for that matter, any of the other squash family crops. This has not always been the case. You would do well to watch for the pests and diseases that you get on cucumbers or squashes, as they might also take a liking to your melon plants. When I’ve grown melons on the ground, unidentified mammals have eaten the fruits before I could. Growing them on the trellis seems to have kept the mammals at bay. In the few years I grew ground cherries I didn’t notice any issues with pests or diseases.

Fruits that yield well in 2 to 3 years

If you expect to be in your current location in a temperate climate for something like 3 to 5 years, you might consider strawberries or the various cane berries. Strawberries and all the cane berries I know of are members of the rose family. Most of them are widely adapted and perennial in most of the temperate climate zones, though you should check that a particular species and variety is hardy in your conditions before trying it. All of the ones I know about grow well under the same conditions that vegetable plants like (a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight). I grow two of these, strawberries and raspberries, each in its own dedicated bed in the fenced area where I also grow vegetables and corn, as shown in the photo at the top. I move the beds on a long rotation, 5 to 10 years, when I notice the yields beginning to drop. I re-mineralize the soil before I plant strawberries or raspberries in a new bed, but I haven’t added any more minerals to the soil for the remainder of the time the plants occupy the bed.

Both strawberries and raspberries are very productive in my conditions once they are three years old or older. Last year I picked 15 pounds of ‘Heritage’ raspberries and 28 pounds of ‘Earliglow’ strawberries, the most of any other fruit I grew that year except for apples. Both are delicious (in my top 5 favorite fruits) with many uses in the kitchen, and they can be harvested for about 3 to 4 weeks. Whatever diseases and pests may be present aren’t affecting them enough to bother me, and I have moved runners from an existing bed to another bed when it’s time to rotate them, although the catalogs say that this can cause a buildup of pests and diseases. Because they readily propagate themselves they cost less to buy than fruit trees and bear much sooner. Raspberries are harvested from a standing position at a convenient height for adults and older children alike, as the hours I spent eating from my grandparents’ raspberry patch as a child will attest.

On the negative side of the ledger, their runners will overcrowd their bed and spread into adjoining areas, so they require more active management over the growing season than fruit shrubs and trees. Perennial weeds like to hide in strawberry beds and are difficult to remove once they are present. You have to pick strawberries from your hands and knees because the plants are short and the ripe berries hide among the leaves; it takes me over an hour to thoroughly pick a 100 square foot bed of strawberries at the height of the season. Raspberry canes are prickly; they need some kind of support to keep them upright enough so you don’t have to pick up the prickly canes with your hands in order to harvest them, and you must keep up with training them onto or into whatever support system you use or they will rapidly outgrow their allotted space and support system. And both raspberries and strawberries have tough root systems that aren’t fun to dig out whenever you decide it’s time to convert their current bed to something else. Still, the high yields of delicious fruit keep them in my garden year after year.

I’ve recently taken to mowing the entire strawberry bed about a month after harvest ends. This is something I learned about from an organic gardening book. Mowing the bed removes the old leaves, allowing the plants to grow healthy new leaves. It also makes it easier to see and remove annual and perennial weeds or runners that crowd too closely together.

As for the raspberries, ‘Heritage’ is an ever-bearing variety so I used to leave the year-old canes to fruit the following spring and then pick from the new canes in the autumn. Finding that the birds took entirely too much interest in the spring berries while much of the autumn crop fell to frost, I now prune out all the old canes during the winter, so only this year’s canes fruit, primarily in August between the elderberries and the autumn-bearing fruit trees. The birds take less of an interest in the August crop, perhaps because they are finding other kinds of foods more to their liking. This leaves most of the crop for Mike and me and we take full advantage!

The last fruit that I’ve grown that fits in this category is grapes, specifically the ‘Concord Seedless’ variety. This is a table grape rather than a traditional wine grape, but we like it for both eating and making wine. I have never fertilized the grapevine, although it was mulched when I first planted it. Once you get the hang of pruning the vine (I use Barbara Damrosch’s instructions), grapes are easy to grow – but it’s not easy to protect the clusters of grapes from birds. Only one year did I get enough grapes for eating and wine-making. This year we didn’t get to eat any of the grapes. Unless you are prepared to protect the clusters from birds, I suggest growing something else.

In Part 2 I will opine on several fruiting shrubs and one shrubby nut, the hazelnut, that I’ve grown, or at least tried to grow.