In the Garden:
Upper South
February, 2012
Regional Report

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Fresh strawberries are one of many fruits you can grow in your garden.

A Fruitful Future

Is getting healthier on your to-do list this year? Among the most pleasurable things you can do to improve your health is to eat more fruit. If the price of fruit at the supermarket gives you sticker shock, then maybe this year is also the time to start growing at least some of your own. You may not get instant gratification, but the long-term results are immensely satisfying.

Many people may feel intimidated when thinking about growing fruits, and, to some extent, with good reason. You'll need to consider the sunlight, soil, climate, pollination needs, rootstock, space requirements, pests, and maintenance. Think about it, though; these are not much more than what you'd have to take into account with any other group of plants -- and you get great things to eat as the reward. It's true that with many fruits, you'll have to wait at least several years before they begin bearing, although there are exceptions. The good news is that most fruits, once they start producing, will grow and bear for many years to come.

Getting Started with Fruit
The most important consideration in choosing which fruits to grow is to first decide what fruits you already like best and wish you had more of to eat. Start with those. Then, over time, as you gain experience, add others to your garden.

Find out what varieties grow well in your area and what requirements they have. Talk with neighbors, friends, or family members who have experience growing fruit in your area. Learn what has worked for them and what hasn't. Next, turn to your county's Cooperative Extension Service. People there will be able to give you advice, plus most states have free publications with information on the best fruit for your area, plus how to grow them. Of course, the Internet also offers a wealth of information.

In addition to the book by Michael Phillips highlighted with this column, two other books offering great advice on gardening with fruit include The Fruit Gardener's Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruits and Nuts in the Home Garden by Lewis Hill and Leonard Perry and Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Home-Grown Fruit by Lee Reich.

Taking the Plunge with Fruit
Over the years, I've grown a wide range of fruits, including apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries, mulberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, figs, currants, gooseberries, elderberries, rhubarb, jujubes, kiwis, persimmons, pawpaws, and grapes. Some have been highly successful, while ones not listed are but memories. Still, I will try again as well as add other different kinds of fruit. I relish the challenges and certainly delight in the fruits of my labors.

Following are some of my own experiences and observations with growing some of these fruits. I don't use any pesticides, but I am gearing up to try some of the organic materials available.

Apples There are two apple trees in my garden that are over 25 years old. One is the old-fashioned "June" apple that is best used for making applesauce. The other is a seedling tree that bears great quantities of sweet fruit with pink-tinged flesh in August. Although the recommendation is to never let seedling trees grow as they'll be inferior, I've had much more success with this tree than with any that I've purchased. Not that I won't continue to try. Without spraying, you'll have to learn to cut around "bad spots" in your apples, which means they won't store well fresh but can be dried, frozen, or canned.

Pears This is the ultimate low-maintenance, easy-to-grow tree fruit as long as you choose a variety that is resistant to fireblight. Of all the pears, my favorites are the Asian ones. I have no idea why they're so frightfully expensive at the grocery, as they're very easy to grow.

Plums Two words, plum curculio, the bane of growing plums in our region. Sprays of powdered kaolin supposedly will help keep these insect pests at bay. My three young trees have yet to bloom, so I don't have firsthand experience, but I'm hopeful.

Blueberries Always high on the list of super foods, blueberries are worth the effort for me. This includes preparing the soil adequately to lower the pH when planting, feeding with a fertilizer for acid-loving plants, and going to great lengths to keep the bird's share to a minimum. For me, this has involved building a cage encased in mesh fencing around my plants.

Raspberries For those who love raspberries but seldom indulge because of the cost, these might just be your first choice to grow. For ease of maintenance, choose an everbearing variety. Don't worry about figuring how to prune, just cut all the canes back in winter, and you'll be rewarded with one large late-summer crop. 'Heritage' is the most-often grown variety, but consider 'Caroline', which has the highest vitamin content. And don't overlook the yellow-berried variety 'Anne', which is luscious. Best of all with raspberries, you'll start to get fruit the year after they're planted and maybe even the first year.

Blackberries I grew up getting chiggers and scratches from gathering wild blackberries. It's much more pleasant to saunter to the garden and pick big, fat berries from my thornless 'Triple Crown' blackberries.

Strawberries At one time, I grew spring-bearing strawberries quite successfully, but not lately, perhaps because I'm not patient enough to maintain them properly. Now, I turn to the day-neutral everbearing types that provide fresh berries over a prolonged season. If you plant them this spring, you'll start having berries in July.

Grapes Okay, I'll admit to trying to kill my mother's Concord grape plants only to be foiled. Or, in other words, they're nearly indestructible. So last year, I had the support system rebuilt and was rewarded with 30 pounds of fruit from just one of the plants. There are newer, better varieties, but whichever you choose, you'll have grape jelly or juice or jam ad infinitum.

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