This is the fourth in a series of articles on our progress in devising a resilient personal food strategy. Monday we talked about bread and grains; yesterday we dealt with vegetables; and today, our focus is on fruits.
Now we’re getting close to home. In our marital division of labor, Amanda is the Farmer-in-Chief related to vegetables, but I have dominion over the orchard. If you’re unhappy with what we’re doing in fruit production, I’m the farmer at whom you should fuss. It won’t do you any good, but fuss away. It’s probably breaking some taboo for us to tell you our plans for advanced master gardener status before we’re even master gardeners, but here goes. When we graduate August 9 and become master gardeners, Amanda and I will scarcely take a deep breath before we resume our work. Our plan now is that she will pursue advanced master gardener status in organic home-scale vegetable production, and I will pursue mine in organic home-scale fruit production. Practically from the moment we decided to begin subsistence farming, we knew we wanted to grow fruit. As things stand now, we have 114 fruit trees. We would have more, but we lost several to the cold winter, to general puniness, and most recently to the construction of the lodge. The last kill-off from the lodge construction wiped out all three of our pomegranate bushes. Actually, when I drafted this a couple of days ago, our total fruit tree count was 113, but I just discovered yesterday afternoon that one of our “dead” fuyu persimmons isn’t dead after all. Yea! We have thorny blackberries (yes, the thorns are formidable, but they are hardier and produce better), thornless blackberries, plums, peaches, persimmons (Oriental persimmons, not the astringent common persimmons that southerners have learned to avoid), muscadines – lots and lots of muscadines, apples, pears, figs, blueberries, and strawberries. We have three spots reserved for kiwis when Auburn University gets its license to sell us the Golden Kiwi it has developed for use in the South. We plan to use Dr. Arlie Powell’s “T-PUPS” (Trellised Production Using Primocane Suppression) system for maintaining our blackberries. Using this method, we will dismantle the old floricanes each year after they have borne and allow new primocanes to develop. It’s not a pleasant job to do this heavy pruning with thorny blackberries in the heat of the summer (the heavy pruning happens about now each year), but it’s the way to keep plants healthy and producing usable fruit instead of just setting up a thorny fort to make their fruit harder to pick. There are two fruits that grow easily and in great quantity in central Alabama: muscadines and blueberries. Those are the ones we’re gearing up to produce in quantity. We have 17 blueberry bushes planted now, and we hope to expand that to 40 before we finish planting. We have 19 muscadines planted now. We’ll fill in the one that has died to bring our total to 20, and we have no plans to plant others. We hope and expect to have enough blueberries and muscadines to make preserves, jam, and wine. We hope and expect to have enough of the other fruits to enjoy them when they’re in season and to have lots of fruit to give away, but we’re not basing our strategy on processing these other fruits. If we have enough to make jam or preserves, that will be a moment of serendipity. If it looks like we’re going crazy with fruit, we kinda’ are. As you already know from reading about
our preparation to function in the gift economy and reflections on what we can contribute to it, Amanda and I are attentive to what we will be able to give away to others that will enhance our relationships with friends and family. A nice jar of muscadine jam or a bottle of blueberry wine sounds like a good candidate. So does a live blueberry bush that we’ve grown from a cutting, but that’s a project for another day. We have trellised all the fruit we can. We trellis blackberries, peaches, plums, persimmons, muscadines, apples, and pears. Only the figs and blueberries (and of course the strawberries) are entirely untrellised. To our knowledge, we are growing the only trellised persimmons in Alabama. Our logic is that fruit orcharding requires regular tree maintenance to maintain good productivity. We expect Lee to be a fat old farmer, not particularly well suited for scampering up ladders or reaching out from tractor buckets. For me, the prospect of being able to do most of our tree maintenance with my two feet planted firmly on the ground is tantalizing. Couple that with our concern that we humans are facing an era of more severe storms than we have been accustomed to seeing in the past; having a structure to help protect our trees from losing a fruit-laden limb also seems like a good idea. This means that a given tree may produce less, because we will never let it get to its “normal” (say 40 foot) height. But it also means that the orchard as a whole should be more productive, and that Amanda and I will enjoy a higher proportion of the fruit instead of consigning it to the birds and the squirrels. We have carefully chosen fruit trees to stretch out the harvest season. Strawberries begin ripening in mid-April and continue until the blueberries and blackberries are bearing in early June. From then until into early December when the persimmons finally need to be pulled off the tree (they can take a light frost but nothing below 29 degrees), we hope to enjoy fresh fruit, and the apples and pears should last in storage through January. So that means we will need to use fruit we have “put up” only during the months of February, March, and part of April. Like asparagus, growing fruit is an exercise in delayed gratification. We planted some of our trees in the spring of 2010 and most of them in the spring of 2011. We will plant the rest of them this fall, and yes, that will include replacing those pomegranates we lost. We’re just now beginning to get the tiniest bit of usable fruit, and it will be 3-5 years more before we expect to be enjoying fruit in significant quantities. We expect our patience to be rewarded over the years, however, as the trees mature and production ramps up. So far, every fruit tree we’ve planted has been one we purchased from a nursery or grower in a form ready to plant. We’re getting close to being fully planted with our orchard, so learning to propagate our own fruit trees won’t be a big help to us. However, it does appear likely that we would want to be able to propagate new trees to give away to others. For blackberries, blueberries, and muscadines, this is simple, just a matter of rooting a cutting and taking good care of it. For some of the others, like peaches, persimmons, apples, and pears, it will require that we learn grafting skills. Strengths: quantity and variety of fruit expected, ease of maintenance Weaknesses: ** can’t propagate on-site, no experience with wine-making, present production is small Key Projects:*** ** Learning to make wine, learning to propagate fruit trees** ** ** ***Overall grade: A ** ** ** Tomorrow’s focus: (4) milk, yogurt, and cheese** **