One of my favorite memories of childhood was running barefoot through the grass. In the summer, my sister and I would wait patiently for the neighbor’s mulberry tree to bear fruit. Much to our delight many of the branches hung over Mr. Fuhrman’s yard into ours and with them would be the reward for our patience.
Still barefoot we stole away to that side of the yard, giggling as the ripe, fallen berries squished up between our toes. But we didn’t care. We would busy ourselves picking up the fallen gems—they were beautiful in color, creamy with a rosy purplish hue. If I close my eyes, I can still taste the honey sweetness of those mulberries. We would come in, sticky (much to our mother’s dismay) from head to toe, but satiated. Mulberry season came and went much too quickly.
Fast forward about ten years to our move from the postage stamp size yard in the city to the wooded pinelands of south Jersey. From a city child to a teenager newly planted in the Pine Barrens I was to encounter much more wild (and cultivated) fruits and delicacies than the city had to offer. Before moving to the Pine Barrens, the only blueberries I had known were in a can from Maine and canned cranberry sauce was a special treat that appeared at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The awe of seeing a flooded bog filled with garnet hued jewels is something to take your breath away. As a teenage I swam in those clear flooded bogs at the end of summer.
At seventeen I had my working papers and my first job, blueberry picking. My girlfriend and I headed out to the blueberry fields of Chatsworth New Jersey. The fields were huge, lined with bushes taller than we were and filled with blue as far as the eye could see. We picked by hand, using the special method of gathering the berries quickly and methodically with our thumbs. Under the hot sun we worked diligently to fill our buckets and to avoid the occasional snake that might be enjoying some shade under a bush.
One of the benefits of picking was being able to eat as many of the berries as you could. I was astounded by the size of those giant berries; they were like nothing I had ever seen before. Certainly, nothing you would ever encounter in a grocery store in the city. Putting a blueberry nearly the size of a quarter in my mouth was a memorable experience. It was an explosion of sweetness I remember to this very day. One of the best parts of picking the berries was being able to eat as much as I could; the second best part was filling my bucket as fast as I could so I could head back to the packing house and see my first true love that worked there!
My memories are meant to spark your imagination . . . what if you could grow those delicious blueberries right in your own backyard. But don’t stop with just blueberries. I am going to share with you some other fantastic fruits that you might not encounter at your local grocer. If you are thinking that you need to plant a multitude of bushes to get berries or an orchard of trees to taste some of the more unusual fruits, guess again!
Where to Begin: Making Choices for the Homestead
Become familiar with the topography and lay of your land. Are there hills, meadows, swampy areas, woodland? Each of these areas will have a different soil texture, receive a certain amount of sun and drain differently than other areas. By familiarizing yourself with your land; you are basically letting the land speak for you. In her book, The Complete Guide to Growing Your Own Fruits and Berries, author Karen Szklany Gault tells us, “The most important feature of your land is whether it is prone to standing water; water needs to drain well for it to be beneficial to your plants.” No one likes wet feet, least of all your plants.
Vine fruits will save on space and also provide privacy. Bramble bushes/shrubs will become natural barriers and offer four season interest. Adding a few fruit trees not only adds beauty but also provides cooling shade. If space is a problem for trees, look for dwarf varieties, some which can be container grown. Regardless, it is important to remember that until established, your fruit choices, whether bramble, bush or tree can take a year or so to produce fruit.
Do you have adequate sunshine? Sunshine and pollination go hand in hand and are necessary for success. Also, you will want to check with your local extension service to see if there are any planting restrictions on bringing in any fruit, i.e., while the 1960s raised many bans on gooseberries and currants, they might still be monitored in some states. Not to say that you will be arrested for growing a gooseberry! It is important to ask questions. Gooseberries were banned in the 1930’s because they carried white pine blister rust that threatened to wipe out the timber crop.
A deciduous ornamental tree, the crabapple (Malus) is easily recognized by the fruit it bears in the autumn. Crabapple grows well in zones 4-8 in full sun and moist well-drained soil. It is a delight to see in the springtime where it is covered in blossoms ranging in color from white, pink, mauve and many shades in between. If you are considering a crabapple it is a fast growing tree however it seldom lives beyond twenty years. In the spring, the flowering fragrant branches can be brought inside and used in floral arrangements.
In the fall, the flowers are replaced by clusters of pendulous small orange/red fruits that can be used to make jellies. When I was first married, I did make crabapple jelly and it was a daunting task as I recall but well worth the effort for the tart-sweet taste that embodies autumn. Crabapple contain a natural source of pectin which in useful in jelly/jam making.
When choosing a location for a crabapple tree be sure where you place it, as it is going to be there awhile. On the average, the crabapple will reach a height of 20 feet and in accordance with the variety will have blossoms of varied hues. Here are just a few of those available: ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘Strawberry Parfait’ and ‘Holiday Gold’. For smaller garden areas consider dwarf rootstock varieties ‘John Dowrie’, Malus x zumi ‘Golden Hornet’, Malus x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’. Once again, you want to be certain to choose disease-resistant varieties.
The mere mention of a gooseberry, still gives me a thrill. For some reason or another I became entranced with gooseberries and currants in the mid 1970’s. I searched out specialty stores for red currant jelly and wanted my mother to grow gooseberries.
Gooseberries were all the rage in the 1800s in Europe. There were gooseberry clubs and contests from Lancashire to Nottinghamshire and all the way to Cotswold. Those shows attracted scores of people to see who had grown the biggest gooseberry. In fact, the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society still holds the celebratory gooseberry show yearly!
A member of the genus Ribes family gooseberries, American (R. hirtellium) and European (R. uva-crispa) are an excellent choice for the home garden. Gooseberries come in shades from green to pink to reddish purple. American varieties are smaller but are more resistant to mildew.
Cold weather hardy they will do well in zones 3-7; the best areas being the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Protection from direct sun is necessary avoiding too much shade as it will make them prone to mildew. Keep roots moist and provide for plenty of air circulation to keep mildew at bay. Keeping plenty of air circulation towards the center of the bush is also necessary when pruning. Only one bush is needed to produce fruit. Gooseberries can be as tall as 4-5 feet in height. If growing more than one bush space 3-5 feet apart.
Choices for the home garden are ‘Poorman’ a vigorous and productive bush that is highly resistant to white pine blister rust, mildew and leaf spot; it bears midseason berries that are tear shaped and wine in color, ‘Pixwell’ is widely available and has few thorns. It is easy to propagate and is disease resistant. ‘Captivator’ (a cross of an American and European gooseberry) is another variety that is nearly spineless. Fruits have a purplish pink hue and a savory flavor.
Culinary uses for gooseberries include jams, jellies (they are naturally high in pectin), tarts and pies. They provide an excellent source of vitamin C and bioflavonoids.
Currants another member of the Ribes family comes in an array of colors. You will find red, white, pink ‘Pink Champagne’ and black and clove currants. The rewards of growing members of the Ribes family are that they bear fruit at an early age and that they yield big crops seasonally. Currants are self-fertile so only one is needed to produce fruit. Clove currants however do require cross-pollination. They will also propagate easily by self-layering. They are suited to zones 2-7 (actually are extremely cold hardy) and should be planted in spring on a northern slope out of direct sunlight. Space at least 3-5 inches apart.
Because of white pine blister rust, when purchasing currants, make sure that they are certified as virus-free. They prefer a soil that is rich in organic matter. Keep moist and mulched and prune as you would the gooseberry until they are a few years old and start to branch out from the center gaining their cascading shape. Author of The Edible Garden, Alys Fowler says “You have to be cruel to be kind when you plant a black currant. Cut back all stems to one or two buds in the first year which seems drastic but encourages the roots to go down and new strong shoots to appear.” You can begin harvesting currants in mid to late summer.
As with gooseberries, check with your local cooperative extension group to see if there are any restrictions on growing them in your region. They have remained very popular among Europeans and are enjoyed as beverages, liquors, desserts and candies. Black currant jam is delicious and I find it regularly in the specialty section of my grocery store.
Currants can be sweet or sour depending on color, pink being the sweetest and can be eaten fresh. Those with a more sour taste can be used for cooking, jams and jellies. They contain a high amount of pectin and are also high in vitamin C. Black currants (R. nigrum) are said to be musky in scent and flavor and they contain up to five times the vitamin C as oranges! Clove currants (R. odoratum) put on quite the show in the fall with foliage that is purplish red. They live up to their name as the trumpet shaped yellowish with red tinged flowers emits a heady intoxicating scent of clove and vanilla. Its graceful non-fussy manner makes it a natural in an informal setting. The clove currant is cold, heat and drought tolerant. The American black currant (R. americanum) shares the same arching graceful growth but has inconspicuous flowers. The leaves are showy in autumn in tones of crimson and yellow.
A few choice cultivars of black currants would be as follows: ‘Consort,’ ‘Cornet,’ ‘Crusader,’ and ‘Goliath.’ ‘Consort’ being the most widely available.
I have never seen a pawpaw in the grocery store and this is not surprising as they are a delicate fruit that does not travel well. Native to the Midwest (zones 5-9) the deciduous pawpaw (Asimina triloba) grows in the full sun and prefers a soil that is slightly acidic. Use mulch to maintain moist cool soil and also the mulch will help to protect the fruit when it falls. There will need to be two trees of another variety so that cross pollination takes place before it will set fruit. It is the largest native fruit grown in North America. The pawpaw can reach a height of 25 feet but with pruning can be maintained at lower heights. It is best to purchase your two varieties (try Raintree Nursery) healthy grafted in deep pots with bare rooted trees.
Ornamentally appealing it has a showy pyramid shape and lush tropical looking leaves in the summer. When fall arrives the leaves turn a tawny golden hue that adds to its beauty. The fruits of the pawpaw are described as “filled with creamy custard flavored like banana, mango, and pineapple with hints of vanilla” Michael Judd said in his book Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist. The fruit is relatively large, 3-6 inches long and 1-3 inches wide with a thin skin that is smooth, green and fragrant. The inside flesh can be a creamy white to a golden yellow. The interior contains two rows of dark, flat seeds. Neither the skin nor the seeds are edible.
Life for a ripe pawpaw is short-lived. If you do not gather it quickly enough, neighboring wildlife will! Gather and use the ripe fruit quickly. Refrigerate or freeze for later use. Pawpaws make delicious ice cream and are a tasty addition to smoothies.
A native from Asia and a relative of the blackberry is the Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius). It was introduced in Eastern Pennsylvania in the late 19th century according to famed forager, Euell Gibbons. As far as I know, it has never been introduced as a cultivated plant. It grows freely in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
I found it quite by accident in the woods surrounding my house. It bears large bristly canes up to 10 feet long and creates quite the briar patch if you ever happen to step in between it, it can be quite tricky to get out. Wineberries are known for their habit of bending and taking root. Author Alys Fowler best describes them, “They glow in the sun on lovely pink stems covered in prickles so gentle that you can run your hand up them. They also look wonderful on a cold winter’s morning.”
The flowers are insignificant with a husk-like calyx from which the berry begins and is orange in color. They continue to ripen and become a deep wine red from mid-July on. The berries are very sticky to the touch. Their taste is lightly sweet and tart. They are a treat with fresh cream, or add them to your morning bowl of oatmeal. Freeze individual berries on cookie sheets and store in zip lock bags to enjoy during the winter months.
Katherine Weber-Turcotte writes and gardens from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Her articles have appeared in Herb Quarterly magazine.