An excerpt from Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City
by Eric Toensmeier with contributions from Jonathan Bates
August is the beginning of our fruit and nut harvest. Since we have little room for fruit and nut trees, we had to prioritize the species we most love to eat, with the prime fruit growing space going mostly to underutilized native fruits. Still fruit and nut season is something we look forward to every year.
In dry years, we have phenomenal yields of grapes. Our grapes are hybrids of the native labrusca ‘Concord’ type, and European vinifera grapes. All of our varieties are seedless. I don’t think I had ever had a really fantastic fresh grape until these three vines began to bear. There’s nothing like the sweetness of our green or pink seedless grapes. Our seedless ‘Concord’ grapes are also fantastic fresh eating.
Most years, however, are not perfectly dry and we battle fruit rots with some cultural controls. In a few years early on we sprayed hydrogen peroxide, although we had to begin doing it as soon as the flowers bloomed and are just not dedicated enough to spray anything at all, let along perform repeated applications for a month. The strategy we settled on instead is to prune away all the leaves around the fruit so that sun and breeze keeps them as dry as possible and minimizes fungal and bacterial growth. In a year with typical rainfall we harvest about twenty to thirty good bunches and some additional partial bunches. One epic dry year we had about three times that amount. Grapes are the only fruit we grow that we put this much work into but we think they’re worth the effort. We have trellised our grapes on a wrought iron fence with a little bit of additional structure strapped on to keep from having to build something fancier. We selected varieties using a disease-resistance chart in Lon Rombaugh’s The Grape Grower. Sadly, we had a splendid ‘Interlaken’ green seedless variety that perished one winter, although our pink ‘Glenora’ and purple ‘Reliance’ soldier on.
Coming in just after the first grapes are our beach plums. This is a native species that can be found along the coasts from Maine to New Jersey. The wild forms can be astringent, but our improved varieties make for nice fresh eating. But it is in the kitchen that beach plums come into their own. Beach plum jam is famous from Maine to New Jersey along the coast. After one of our beach plums was hit by a peach borer and killed back to the ground, it re-sprouted, but not vigorously and as result we have not had excellent pollination since then. During the few years when everything has gone right, however, the branches of the plum are loaded with fruit and are a testament to the potential of domesticating native wild edibles.
Jonathan is a big fan of edible nuts. Of course, one of the biggest drawbacks of purchasing the house is that there’s not room to grow chestnuts, walnuts, or other large sized nuts. Hazelnuts are an exception. We have two dwarf hazels (Corylus hybrids) that took some time, but eventually began bearing decently. Though the nuts are somewhat small they represent one of the best forms of perennial protein we can grow in our garden.
Towards the tail end of August we start eyeing our Asian pears to see when the fruit will ripen. Since we have limited space and Asian pears require a pollinator we splurged on a semi-dwarf tree with three varieties grafted on it. All three varieties flower at the same time and pollinate each other, but one of the varieties is early-, one is mid-, and the third is late-season ripening. This strategy maximizes fruit in a small area. We have kept the tree to about ten feet high with pruning and it is no more than eight feet across, but it yields well.
Like our grapes, we have to do a bit of work for our Asian pear tree. Every spring we face the heartbreaking task of thinning the fruit by hand. It’s so difficult to remove a fruit that will grow up someday and become an Asian pear, but in years that we don’t do this the tree produces a large amount of small fruit, so it pays to thin the fruit and yield fewer, but larger fruits. We lost the tags and no longer remember the names of the varieties. The earliest one is small and green, and though sweet, it is bland. However it is certainly welcome in the last week of August, when few other fruits are bearing. The second variety, which I believe is ‘Chojuro’ is crisp, juicy, and has a caramel flavor and russet skin; this is a sublime contributor to September harvests. Our small tree produces perhaps fifty or sixty fruits of this variety per year — it would be nice if there were more. We are still getting the hang of pruning a tree with three different genetic individuals grafted to it, and our late-season type has suffered as a result. This variety, which may be ‘Korean Giant’, puts on vigorous vegetative growth and doesn’t seem to fruit much. It grows more rapidly than the other grafted members of its shared tree, so we have pruned hard in subsequent years so that it doesn’t steal all the energy. Unfortunately, this has meant that we don’t get much fruit on it, about a handful every year.
Asian pear (nashi)
October brings a moment we wait for all year: pawpaw harvest. In the spring, the brick-red pawpaw flowers open and we hand pollinate them to ensure a perfect harvest. Unlike most of the fruits we eat from our garden, honeybees are not interested in pawpaw flowers. The flowers’ fetid odor is intended to attract carrion insects like flies and beetles. This is a vestige of the early days of pollination; the Magnolia order of plants, to which pawpaws belong — evolved before the origin of honeybees. Some commercial pawpaw growers hang roadkill or buckets of fish guts in their trees to improve fruit set. Needless to say, this is not an appropriate strategy in our neighborhood. We have made some effort to plant other carrion-insect pollinated species around and beneath our pawpaws, but we always hand-pollinate regardless.
Gender in plants is complex and interesting. Flowers can be male, female, or perfect, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs. An individual fruit tree might have one, two, or even all three of these flower types, which does not necessarily correlate with whether or not a tree pollinates itself. In the case of pawpaw, each flower begins female and then becomes male, but the trees are incapable of pollinating themselves. So every spring, when the first flowers have become male and are shedding pollen, Jonathan and I head into the garden with a tiny watercolor brush and a little dish and collect the pollen from one of the trees. We then walk over to another variety (we have three) and lightly paint the pollen onto the green sticky bulbs of flowers still in their female phase. Each tree gets some fresh pollen from another tree several times over the course of the two to three weeks that they are in flower.
Pawpaw (hardy custard apple)
Our pawpaws will set some fruit without hand pollination, which we discovered when we saw a few fruits higher in the tree than we are able to reach with our brush. Because of this, we also learned that hand pollination will result in numerous clusters of four to six (or more) fruits, instead of the sporadic single or double sets with carrion insect pollination. One year, we had a cluster with twelve fruit, after we hand pollinated that spring.
By October, pawpaws swell to an enormous size. They seem to me as large as mangoes, though realistically a potato is a better analog. Their green skin takes on a slightly yellow blush and some brown streaking like a ripe banana. When they become a little bit soft and aromatic, we pick the fruit and bring them inside for a day or two to ripen. (Sometimes we eat them right off the tree.) Different varieties of pawpaw have different flavors. Our seedling tree has orange flash and a strong flavor like an overripe banana with a bit of mango. This almost raunchy flavor can be reminiscent of the ultra-tropical durian. Our grafted ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Rappahannock’ trees were developed by a hard-core pawpaw breeder in Pennsylvania named Neil Peterson and have larger fruits with fewer and smaller seeds. Some days I think I prefer the white-fleshed types, which have a milder flavor and a creamy texture and tasted to me like a mix of avocado and pear the first time I tried them. Now I would say they resemble their tropical relatives cherimoya. Few visitors to our garden can believe pawpaws are actually native as far north as New York City and Michigan!
Recently, we had so many pawpaws we could not eat them all fresh. Meg, Marikler, Jonathan, and I spent a long night cutting them open, removing the seeds, and scooping out the flesh to freeze. (Still, Megan ate so many that she could hardly bear to look at them the following year.) We served them in smoothies a few weeks later at a backyard workshop and people went nuts for them. Meg also made a pawpaw pudding that year and served it to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture who was visiting a farm business-planning course that she and Jonathan were attending. He was impressed by how tasty the pudding was and could not believe that this fruit can be grown in Massachusetts but is not yet in commercial production.
The next serving in our fall banquet of fruits is the hardy kiwi. We haven’t actually been able to eat these yet in our own garden though one of them did flower and we have high hopes of them setting fruit soon. Our friend Steve Breyer at Tripple Brook Farm is generous with his kiwis, though, and somehow we usually end up visiting around this time of year. In fact, Jonathan and I do a workshop every fall, which teaches forest gardening through feasting on fall delights right off the tree. Last year our class of twenty people arrived at the peak of kiwi season. Steve shook down fruit from the trees and students were amazed at the explosion of flavor in a perfectly ripened kiwi. Kiwis need to be a little wrinkly and always look to my eyes like they are overripe, but that is when the aroma and flavor is perfect.
Steve has a lot of room and is able to plant his kiwis on large established nut trees that turned out to be bad varieties or on maples he doesn’t need. But with limited space, Jonathan and I cannot allow our kiwis to grow seventy feet tall. We constructed an arbor and keep them fairly tightly pruned. I have read that under this kind of pruning regime, trellised kiwis can yield one to two pounds per square foot. Given the size of our arbor that should give us one hundred fifty to two hundred pounds of fruit per year once mature.
The hardy kiwi is not just a novelty fruit that can be grown in Massachusetts. This is truly one of the world’s finest fruits. I’ve traveled in the tropics and eaten fresh rambutan, mango, papaya, mamey sapote, and many other fruits of the highest quality. The hardy kiwi ranks up there with the best, perhaps only slightly below a perfectly tree-ripened mango. Every fall Jonathan and I kick ourselves for not having planted our kiwis first thing, as we knew they take three to five years to bear.
Chestnut season always makes me a little sad. Mature Chinese chestnuts are about thirty-five feet across, and two of them would just about fill our entire garden. If we could have swapped out those Norway maple trees that hang over the north side of our garden for anything it would be chestnut. We did, however, identify some chestnut trees in the neighborhood that we began to harvest from every year. Jonathan and Megan refined a technique for processing them. First, they immerse them in water heated to one hundred twenty degrees Fahrenheit [49°C] for about twenty minutes. Then, they dry them for two days and put them in the refrigerator. They bring them out and let them season for four to six days before cooking. This allows the chestnuts to dry a little more and makes them both tastier and easier to shell. When it comes time to cook them, we cut an ‘X’ in the top, or a diagonal cut through the base of the nut, and bake them for about twenty minutes. Once or twice we have forgotten to cut one or two of them and were treated to dramatic explosions in the toaster oven.
A perfectly cooked chestnut it is a must-have experience for anyone who lives where they will grow. Often in the fall we will all sit down and each eat ten or twelve at a time. The aroma is wonderful and the flesh cooks to golden yellow. Before the arrival of chestnut blight, American chestnuts were the primary canopy species for much of the eastern forest. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have the forest floor littered with chestnuts in the fall.
Since we don’t have room for full-sized chestnuts, we grow a shrubby native relative: chinquapin. Chinquapins are small and precocious. We have two that began fruiting when they were about four feet tall. They maxed out at six feet, producing about two hundred nuts from the two little bushes. Unfortunately the nuts are fairly small, about hazelnut size, and though sweet, they are a bother to shell. Recently I visited the Gold Ridge Experiment Farm in Sebastopol, California, a plant breeding trial area established by the famous plant breeder Luther Burbank, where many huge trees he bred are on display. There were chestnuts more than one hundred years old, each with multiple branches grafted onto the stock to test out the varieties he developed. One had seven nuts in some of the burs, as opposed to the typical three or four. Seized by inspiration, I hopped on the internet on my phone right then and there and learned that chestnut can be grafted onto chinquapin. Jonathan and I are planning to try it even if it only results in a small numbers of chestnuts. The thought of having a bush-sized chinquapin with large chestnuts grafted on to some branches would be a fine feather in our plant geek hats.
By mid to late October, our American persimmons are in full swing. This species exemplifies the permaculture approach to food production. Ours is growing in some of our worst compacted clay soil, yet it puts on four or even five feet of growth every year. This underutilized native species has received a little breeding attention, but should be much more widely grown. For us, it has no pest or disease problems. The fruits are smaller then Asian persimmons with a more date-like consistency. When underripe, they leave a horrible chalky, astringent taste in your mouth. But a truly ripe American persimmon, with the texture of an over ripe tomato, is a marvel of the culinary world. For me they combined the best of a perfectly cooked winter squash or apricot and a Mejool date. We eat them off the tree well into November.
Our persimmon tree is about twenty-five feet tall and with luck it may someday be forty feet or even higher. When I saw a mature American persimmon the size of an oak tree at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, I was reminded that our forest garden is still young and we really have yet to see what kind of yields it could provide.