In this post I discuss the fruit and nut trees that took longer than 10 years to bear well but have proven worth the wait. If you have access to some land on which you can plant trees and you expect, or at least hope, to have that access for at least 10 years, consider planting these trees. As in the first two posts, I’ll tell you how they grow for me so you can decide if you want to grow them. I may be able to offer a more realistic expectation for you based on my experience than a nursery catalog can.
If you don’t have land on which you can plant trees, you might consider searching for trees from which you can harvest. In much of the eastern and midwestern US you can find pawpaw and persimmon trees growing wild. You’ll need to determine if you have the legal right to harvest before you get all excited about free fruit. If the trees are on public land, please make sure to check the regulations for that land to determine if harvesting is legal before you harvest! And if they are on private land, be sure to receive permission from the landowner before harvesting.
The neighborhood squirrels permit us to eat some of the apples from one of the semi-dwarf apple trees that I planted. Maybe they think they are being generous in allowing us to eat any of the fruit. Or maybe the fruits they leave for us are their least favorite. Or maybe they forget to eat the rest of the apples once the acorns are ready. Whatever the reason, at least we do get to eat some apples.
The variety that the squirrels share with us is ‘Enterprise’. It bears a crisp apple with a red color over a green background and has a well-balanced flavor; we eat them raw, though I expect they would be good in cooking as well. The apples begin to ripen sometime in September here and I can pick them for about a month. I use an extendible rod with a fruit basket on the end of it to pick the apples. In 2019 I picked about 34 pounds of apples out of this 15ish year old tree.
Squirrels always eat all the apples from our ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ tree well before they ripen. It ought to be named ‘Squirrel Selected’. ‘Eddie April’ hasn’t borne enough apples to tell how the squirrels feel about it yet.
I’ve found apples to be the most productive of the well-known fruit trees under my conditions. This does not mean, however, that they are without their share of pests, large and small.
If you have squirrels (and if you have acorn- or nut-bearing trees within a few hundred feet of you, you have squirrels) expect them to get a share of your apple harvest. The one thing I think might stop a squirrel is a hundred feet or more of lawn or similar tree-free space between the apple tree and any oak or nut tree. Squirrels may be disinclined to travel across such a long stretch of open area where their predators can easily spot them. Otherwise, you’ll just have to accept their feeding.
Of the small pests, I haven’t had trouble with any of the worms that are reputed to attack apples. However, most of the apples do have some rot around the stem and/or blossom ends by the time I harvest them. Because I don’t spray the trees, most of the apples display fly speck and other disfigurements of the skin. Some of them also have small holes in the outside of the flesh that appear to be the work of insects such as wasps or yellow jackets that feed on the outside of the fruit. We aren’t deterred by skin imperfections, and we’ve found that we can cut out the rotted areas and holes and enjoy the fine flavor of the remainder of the apple. If you want to eat the apples your trees produce without going to the trouble of spraying them, I suggest developing a similar attitude.
This tree, whose scientific name is Asimina triloba and is native to much of the eastern and midwestern US, is IMHO underappreciated. Only since about 1980 has much breeding work been done on the pawpaw, with a number of new grafted varieties having been introduced in the past few years. If you are a fan of pawpaws, or if you are considering planting them, I highly recommend the book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore. It's an enjoyable read and you’ll learn about the natural and cultural history of the pawpaw and the breeding work that has gone into “improving” it.
Why do I put “improving” in quotes? Because I’ve planted at least three different grafted pawpaw trees since the early 1990s, none of which survived for more than two or three years. However, trees grown from seeds have done well for me. Maybe the newer grafted varieties survive better than the ones I tried to grow. Possibly their fruits taste better. I’ve never tasted a pawpaw from one of the grafted varieties so I can’t speak to their flavor. I can tell you that the pawpaws from our trees taste very good to us. Be warned, however, that some people dislike the taste of pawpaws. If you haven’t tried a pawpaw before, I recommend tasting some fruits before you decide to grow them. Moore gives you hints on finding wild trees to harvest from and discusses pawpaw festivals and other ways of obtaining a taste of the grafted varieties.
Pawpaws are among the easiest fruit trees to bring to a successful harvest, at least if you are growing them where they are native. Squirrels leave pawpaws alone and I have yet to encounter any insect pests, though Moore mentions some insect pests of pawpaws grown in orchards. I did have a tree rot where the trunk met the soil, but I’ve not noticed any other disease issues. The trees need only a light winter pruning to stay in good shape and they are taller than wide, with a single trunk; being about 30 feet tall at maturity, they can fit easily into a small yard. Because they are understory trees they will grow and fruit in shady conditions, though they will produce more fruit if grown in sun. They flower late enough to avoid frosts so they crop every year. Note, however, that the trees sucker once they are several years old, creating an expanding patch of genetically alike pawpaws. You’ll need to buy at least two genetically distinct trees for cross-pollination and you’ll probably want to thin out the suckers so as not to crowd the original trees and to make it easier to harvest the pawpaws.
I harvest the fruit when it drops off the tree onto the ground, usually in September to early October. If a fruit isn’t quite ripe, I leave it on a shelf for a day or so until the skin yellows and the fruit softens. They have a cloyingly sweet scent when ripe. We eat them raw, fresh or thawed after freezing them (they freeze well with no blanching required). Moore recommends using the pulp to make pawpaw ice cream and provides a recipe, while some folks like to use the pulp in place of bananas in a banana bread recipe. Be warned: do not eat the seeds or skins! Fortunately the seeds are very large and therefore easy to avoid eating. We cut the fruits in half along the short dimension and dig the flesh out from the skins with a spoon, spitting out any seeds as we eat each bite. I harvested about 29 pounds of pawpaws in 2019, with three of our younger trees producing fruits for the first time this year and with five trees yet to reach bearing age. Yes, we like pawpaws.
The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is another underappreciated fruit tree native to the Midwest US. While pawpaws prefer moist soils and shadier locations, persimmons grow farther upslope, in drier soils and in more sun. They grow taller than pawpaws, up to about 60 feet, and they have broader crowns. Most persimmon varieties require cross-pollination but some are self-fertile. Persimmons will produce suckers and spread from seed, forming patches; as with pawpaws, you’ll need to thin these. And like pawpaws, they need only a light winter pruning.
While squirrels will eat persimmons, they don’t seem to favor them. Between that and their blooming late enough to avoid frosts, persimmons, like pawpaws, provide me with good yields of fruit. In 2019 I harvested 11 pounds of persimmons from just two trees, with younger trees in another part of the yard that should bear within the next five years or so. I haven’t noticed any issues with insects or diseases.
Even fewer named varieties of American persimmons than pawpaws are available from nurseries, though this is slowly changing. I have one named persimmon variety, ‘Early Golden’, but I don’t notice any difference in the flavor between it and the wild persimmons that I’ve tasted.
American persimmons must be dead ripe to be delicious; otherwise they will make the inside of your mouth feel as if it is covered with dry fur. I find that the best way to harvest ripe persimmons is to wait till they fall on the ground, then check that the cap pulls off the rest of the fruit easily; those fruits whose cap pulls off easily are ripe. Persimmons that are still stuck to a twig when they fall are unripe. Don’t eat the seeds of persimmons, but you can eat the skins, and a good thing too, because persimmons are small fruits, about the size of apricots. Imagine trying to skin a fruit that size, and you’ll appreciate that you won’t have to. We eat persimmons raw; many people like to separate the seeds from the pulp and use the pulp in place of bananas in a banana bread recipe. Persimmons freeze even better than pawpaws, with no blanching required. I can’t tell any difference in looks, taste, or texture between fresh and thawed persimmons. This means that we refrigerate the apples and eat them in autumn, while we freeze most of the persimmons and pawpaws and eat them during the winter.
If it weren’t for chestnuts and black walnuts, we wouldn’t get to eat any nuts at all. And the only reason we get to eat them is that we can get past their defenses while squirrels cannot. I won’t mention black walnuts other than this, because I find them enough trouble to not bother with harvesting more than a few of them. But chestnuts are another matter. We have 15 pounds of chestnuts waiting for processing in the freezer.
Unless you have a very large lot, you’ll have to forego growing chestnuts. They are among the tallest of the eastern forest trees, up to 100 feet or more tall, and you’ll need at least two of them for pollination. They are quite stately trees with beautiful smooth grayish bark.
You may already know that one of the worst ecological disasters in the last century or so of US history was the devastation caused by chestnut blight, which was accidentally introduced from Asia in the early 1900s. While the chestnut species in Asia can tolerate the blight, it rapidly killed most of the American chestnut trees, a keystone species for humans as well as the rest of the denizens of the eastern US forests. Besides the food value of the nuts (unlike most nuts, they have a high carbohydrate content so they can be used similarly to grains), the rot-resistant wood was used for fenceposts and to side buildings and for furniture. Fortunately one American chestnut tree happened to survive the blight, whose story you can read about here. From this one tree comes the Dunstan chestnut, of which I have three seedlings. A decade and a half after planting, all three are thriving. They have produced nuts for the past several years.
Chestnuts survive squirrel predation (and predation by almost everything else) because a very spiny case encloses the nut. And when I say spiny, I mean spiny. I have seen a few brave (and probably very hungry) squirrels with bleeding mouths harvesting chestnuts, but I think they only do this when there are no easier foods to eat. When you harvest chestnuts, wear sturdy shoes that will protect your feet from the spiny cases.
Sometimes the spiny case opens while the nut is still on the tree, releasing the nut to fall on the ground. The squirrels will probably find those nuts before you do, unless you get lucky. You’ll be using your feet to open the cases of nuts that fell off the tree still enclosed in the case, so your hands won’t get stuck by the spines. I do this by using my feet to roll the case till I can position the seam in the case between my feet. Then I place a foot on either side of the seam and push with both feet to the side, to force open the case at the seam. Once it’s open wide enough, I pick out the nuts with my fingers. I freeze the nuts so they won’t mold before I have a chance to use them. You can find information on using chestnuts here.
And thus ends my opinionated guide to growing fruits and nuts. When next we meet, I’ll have the 2019 garden results to discuss. In the meantime, a happy 2020 to all of you!