Thursday, 17 July 2014

Growing fruit

When we bought the farmhouse 24 years ago we inherited three plants; a huge spruce tree in the front which the previous owners, the Brady's, who lived here for 51 years, planted as a Christmas tree, an old apple tree which I have suspected might be a Snow apple and Charlie had the same feeling, and two rhubarb patches. Since we never pay attention to the apple tree, neither pruning nor spraying, it just does its own thing, occasionally bearing fruit and more often, losing huge limbs whenever there is a windstorm. One rhubarb plant was in an area which I wanted at a certain point to be a perennial bed (in my Vita Sackville-West period). In digging it out I discovered their roots reach down and down and down, almost to China. But with successive savage attacks it ultimately succumbed. Now, of course, I wish I had that second rhubarb plant, although the one survivor (of me) produced 15 pounds of rhubarb this year. Compare that to the new rhubarb I planted three years ago which is barely surviving.
Our old faithful, the inherited rhubarb
The apple tree has been obliging in its dotage by finally producing a progeny. Time will tell if it actually is the same kind of tree. The apples are small and quite green with a red blush, a very white flesh and tart flavour. Every few years the fruit is almost blemish free and makes for good eating. But more often they make their way into applesauce.
The original apple tree complete with downed but hanging-on-by-a-thread limb still producing fruit 
The new little apple tree, badly in need of liberation from the surrounding quackgrass
Three years ago I decided I wanted to grow more fruit. First of all I planted a raspberry hedge along the west side of the new vegetable bed in the field. Then the following spring I went to a workshop on hardy tender fruit and, inspired by what I learned, planted three haskaps and four of the new hardy Romance shrub cherries, developed at the University of Saskatchewan. They are called "sour" but they have a Brix (the scale used to measure sugar content of fruit) of 22 while most commercial tree cherries have a Brix of only18! Alex tells me haskaps are an "indicator species" providing information on the characteristics of a specific area's soil, climate and conditions generally. I understand they are indigenous to every province except British Columbia and are known for being the first to bear fruit, in June. I have yet to see that since they have not yet produced their white flowers for me.
One of the shrub Romance cherries
A two year old haskap
I also heard at Ken Taylor's workshop about the hardy table grapes he had bred and ordered 50 from his nursery. Most of them survived and when I ran into him at the Guelph Organic Conference in January earlier this year he told me not to bother yet with pruning - very good news. I became very excited when one of his grapes seemed to be growing extremely vigorously. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it was a new wild grape dwarfing its two year old, more highly bred cousin.
One of Ken Taylor's Hardy Table Grapes 
The vigorous wild grape honing in on its more delicate domestic relative 
Many years ago I was very excited about growing (and maintaining the genetics of) relatively rare heirloom apple trees. What a process to select the trees from the catalogue! Did we want Standard, Dwarf or Semi-dwarf? Were we interested in early, mid or late season? For their intended use did we like dessert, eating, cider or sauce apples? Should the rootstock (since all fruit trees are grafted) be hardy, semi- hardy or suitable for the sub Arctic? We finally selected, ordered and eventually received and planted our 8 tiny whips; six survived until this winter when two more died. For the first time ever we actually have some apples, at least until the few remaining on the tree join their siblings on the ground.
One of our heirloom apple trees bearing fruit - finally
The same tree dropping most its fruit on the ground
For years my mother has picked her red currants and given them all to me to make into jelly. Last year she read that thinning and pruning the bush would give it renewed vigour. I understand that because we just did the same thing, for the same reason, to our mock orange. But this is a case of being in it for the long haul. The mock orange is now about a third of its former size and my mother's red currant has spent all its energy on new growth at the expense of producing fruit. Other years she picked about ten 500 ml containers. This year she got two. I planted three red currants and another three black currants three years ago. The red currants produced some fruit for the first time this year -  a minuscule 250 ml.
Our three year old red currant, the fruit tends to be hidden behind the leaves close to the ground
All to say I think it is very challenging to grow fruit. From selection of the specific plant to protection against rodent damage to the trunk in the winter, to spraying (we don't), to hoping for pollination in the spring and then anticipating all that effort will produce even just a little fruit. And sharing whatever little bounty there may be hasn't even been mentioned. My raspberry bushes are finally producing for the first time and I was so excited to come up and see if the berries were ripening. Well, if possession is 9/10th of the law, then the permanent residents have already staked their claim.
I hope whoever ate those two raspberries enjoyed them as much as I would have
A much older purple raspberry planted in the original vegetable garden
The local wild raspberry known as "blackcaps" which I make into raspberry vinegar
And the raspberries are not the only victims. Someone has been eating my sugar snap and snow peas. Some of the ravaged peas are low hanging and others are up at least four feet. I'd like to know what is going on. Is it a variety of animals? Or birds? The place has become lousy with chipmunks and red squirrels. I only see them in the garden around the house, never in the vegetable beds. But just because I don't see them doesn't mean they're not having their way behind my back. I kind of feel like Allan Lamport, Toronto's mayor from 1952 to 1954 and known for his malapropisms, who famously said "If someone's gonna stab me in the back, I wanna be there". I feel "If someone's gonna cheat on me I wanna be in on it!"
An heirloom Golden Snow Pea enjoyed by our resident wildlife
At least our dinner guest has both good and varied taste - here Sugar Snap peas provided a delicious snack
But there is the occasional success. I'm glad that tomatoes are a fruit. I can grow them! And years ago we had a mulberry tree at the city house. Whether we intended to plant one of its seedlings here at the farmhouse or whether it piggybacked in the compost I brought up, I can't remember. But we now have a beautiful mulberry tree. While we don't eat its fruits, the birds do. And what birds; flocks of Cedar Waxwings, Orioles, Bluejays. and of course Grackles and Starlings.
The tomatoes have almost reached the top of Josh's 6 foot frames
The mulberry tree, full of birds at this time of year when it is laden with berries

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