In the Garden:
Home-grown blueberries are easy to freeze and make into luscious, healthy desserts.
Strawberry shortcake, blueberry pancakes, raspberry anything. Life might go on if we didn't have these foods, but it sure would be a lot less pleasurable. And a lot less healthy. Berries, grapes, and other fruits have a wide range of health benefits, including improving heart health and reducing cancer risks. Besides vitamins and minerals, fruits contain fiber and polyphenol antioxidants.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion encourages us to eat 2 cups of fruit each day as part of the Food Pyramid. No, a cherry toaster pastry doesn't count. Real fruit, preferably with as little added sugar and fat as possible, is the goal. But have you checked the price of a tiny little container of raspberries at the grocery lately? Astronomically priced, with the added detraction of a high-carbon footprint due to having been shipped thousands of miles from who-knows-where.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that those raspberries (as well as apple, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, and strawberries) are among the most pesticide-ridden of our fruits and vegetables. We should consume organically grown options of all of these fruits.
So what's a hungry person who wants the best possible health to do? Grow your own fruits, of course. A glib answer, if I ever heard one. A recent article in the New York Times expounded on the surge of interest in fruit trees, which should be music to the ears of someone who has spent her life encouraging people to garden. But I worry. Here's the unvarnished truth: some fruits are easier to grow than others. I want people to have gardening success, not failure. So what's the logical solution?
There are various permutations to this conundrum, depending on the amount of time and effort you want to expend, as well as your own personal food preferences. Some fruit plants thrive on neglect, while others need what feels like never-ending coddling. Are you ready to take the time for regular pruning and spraying? To figure out the best organic methods for pest control? To live with some worms in your fruit?
Here are some of my own compromises. For apples, I buy fresh organic ones at the grocery for regular consumption. A June apple (early-ripening variety) in the garden supplies enough fruit for the copious worms as well as my need for applesauce. In a twist on the theme of an apple for the teacher, one little boy years ago gave my mother an apple seedling. Now 30 feet tall and at least as old, it provides surprisingly good apples that I freeze as slices for winter pies and other cooking.
Pears, both European and Asian, are relatively easy to grow and can provide a very adequate crop with only an annual pruning. The Asian pears store well in a second refrigerator. The European pears either get canned or made by a friend into some dynamite perry.
Peaches are trouble waiting to happen, whether from late frosts, insects, or diseases. I buy frozen organic ones, or whenever there's a good year for peaches locally, I'll buy and freeze lots of them and also make preserves, chutneys, and so forth.
Cherries aren't easy, either, mainly because of birds getting to them first, but both sweet and sour cherries are worth a try.
I also grow fruits that are difficult or impossible to buy anywhere, such as June berries, gooseberries, currants, persimmons, and pawpaws. One of the best sources for information on the less widely grown fruits is the book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, by Lee Reich (Timber Press, 2004; $24.95).
The Big Four
All of this may seem pretty negative so far, but now we get to the fun part: berries. More specifically, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Certainly, there's some work involved in growing these, but the ratio of reward to effort is definitely in your favor.
Blueberries are long-lived (mine are at least 25 years old), and the four plants produce about 60 quarts of berries each year. To preserve, I simply measure them into freezer bags. They get washed when I'm ready to use them. What could be easier? (I preserve all the various berries this way.) Now for the downside. Birds absolutely adore blueberries. Because it's worth the effort to me, a cage made of pipe and covered with plastic netting is constructed around the bushes every year. An annual feeding of 2 ounces of ammonium sulfate per plant at bloom time and again one month later maintains the requisite acid soil and fertility.
Raspberries themselves may be fragile, but the plants are practically indestructible. No reason whatsoever to pay those high grocery prices. Besides the standard red color, there are varieties with yellow, purple, and black fruit. Some varieties produce only a summer crop, while those referred to as "everbearing" produce both in summer and fall. Raspberries need an annual pruning and a single-strand wire fence around them to hold the canes up. For years, the variety 'Heritage' was the favorite, but 'Caroline' has usurped that position because of productivity, flavor, and higher nutritional value.
Blackberries have won my heart in recent years. As a child, we picked our blackberries in the wild. A romantic concept, but it's much more pleasant to gather them in a neat, tidy garden area, especially with the thornless types, such as 'Triple Crown'. If you don't mind the ferocious thorns and want both a spring and fall crop, consider 'Prime Jan'. Blackberries are vigorous plants that need some serious annual pruning as well as posts and wires.
What would spring be without strawberries? Weeding is an issue, plants have to be replaced every couple of years, but this is another berry well worth the effort. With the day-neutral varieties, such as 'Tribute' or 'Tristar', you can have berries up through frost.
Things To Consider
As you think about adding fruit plants to your garden, do some research; there are lots of books on the subject. Also, check with your state's Cooperative Extension Service for publications on growing fruit. Order catalogs from nurseries that specialize in fruit plants. Most of these have detailed growing information as well.
In choosing fruits, you'll soon find yourself learning about what does best in your area, ripening times, pollination requirements, rootstocks, and so forth. In choosing where you buy fruit, the best selection will be from mail-order specialists. There are thousands of varieties. To learn about these, peruse Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, Third Edition, edited by Kent Whealy and Joanne Thuente (Seed Savers Exchange, 2001; $24.00).
As your interest increases, consider joining the North American Fruit Explorers (http://www.nafex.org). Among a wide variety of information on their Web site is a listing, with links, of fruit nurseries. Another group to check out is the Home Orchard Society (http://www.homeorchardsociety.org). Their site has a number of articles on growing fruit.
If All Else Fails
Remember to utilize U-pick farms and farmers' markets in your area. Organic frozen fruits are another source worth considering. Frozen produce has been found to have more nutrients than the fresh-shipped option because it's processed at the peak of ripeness.
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