Thursday, January 14, 2010

Backyard fruit-o-rama

If you are looking to impress friends and relatives with your culinary green thumb, fruit is the way to go. Last summer, people who yawned at my piles of green beans and eggplants would invariably perk up at the sight of strawberries. "You GREW those?" they would ask, as if somehow this required a super-secret level of gardening prowess. Folks who gave not a second glance at my beautiful herb bed would rush over to the grape arbor and sigh with delight. This is all particularly amusing since these fruits are actually some of the easier things to grow in my garden.

I am a recent convert to growing fruit in a small urban area. Initially, it was hard for me to banish visions of rolling orchards, replete with hundreds of neatly planted trees. My garden can't even support one full-size tree, at least not without sacrificing the entire area to eventual shade. Even my research into smaller-scale backyard fruit growing intimidated me -- check out this local guy on the Midwest Fruit Explorers website!

An impulse purchase of a Concord grapevine started me off on my fruit forays, and the grapes were followed last year by strawberries and a fig tree. This year, I'm widening my scope even further. I have a sunny patio that my husband does not want me to remove, so I figure it is a great spot to launch some container-grown fruit experiments. Even if you have no yard and just a balcony, you can try some of these. And you'll get nothing but honor and admiration from your non-gardening friends -- the type of glory you will never receive for producing a cabbage, no matter how perfectly formed.

So, here are the 2010 fruit plans:

Tried and True

Strawberries (alpine and Ozark Beauty) -Last year was my first season growing strawberries, and they were a runaway hit. I am partial to the alpine strawberries, though the yield is so low, it would take a field to produce a pie. The Ozark Beauties were great, only problem being that a few weeks of neglect led to a lot of runners everywhere. Last year was my first summer, so we didn't get a full harvest in the interest of pinching back flowers to make the plants stronger. Even so, we did get a fall flush that was delicious. We'll see if they successfully overwinter -- I did mulch generously.

Concord Grapes - I love these grapes -- they are tasty in preserves and the leaves are beautiful, especially as they fade to an autumn gold. My only mistake was to plant them next to a flimsy plastic arbor. This is a seriously strong vine. Build a good arbor.

Fig - Carla Emery's quirky and essential Encyclopedia of Country Living gave me the inspiration to try a potted fig, and I posted in October about my container-grown fig tree. Admittedly, the fig had a tough first summer. I blame the lack of ripe fruit on the rain and cold -- from what I've read, figs this far north are a crap shoot. You'll get fruit, but only in warm, long summers will it actually ripen. The tree is overwintering in the unheated area of my basement, and receiving a bare minimum of water. I will haul it out of hibernation as the weather warms.

New experiments:

Blueberries - I'm from New Jersey, land of acid soil. Our childhood house had beautiful azaleas and rhododendrons as foundation plantings. Blueberries were easily found on hikes along the Appalachian trail. Here, with Chicago's Midwest alkaline soil, I can either amend aggressively or container-grow. I've opted for three different varieties, billed as "patio plantings". They come with some kind of special acidifier supplement I am supposed to add to the container. Any fruit will be better than the mealy marbles sold at the grocery store.

Cherries - I'm going for a dwarf tree billed as "small but mighty"... I will likely plant this in the ground, although it can also be a "patio plant".

Kiwi -I needed a new vining plant along my north fence, so I thought I'd try a hardy kiwi. I found one billed as self-pollinating. I wish I could have tasted a hardy kiwi before actually planting it...but I like regular ones, so hopefully they will come close. One alarm research revealed that the plants have a "catnip-like scent" - will this mean I will have more alley cats in my yard? At least that will keep away the rats.

Peach - Okay, this is my most embarrassing one -because I fell for the gimmicky "patio tree" that looks like one long skinny branch sticking out of a pot. I always stare at these in the catalogs...they look so wrong, yet I have been dying to try one. The price scares me...not sure I buy 25 bucks worth of peaches in a given season.

If I had the space, I would do raspberries, a quince tree and hazelnuts. But I will settle for (in a few years) a ripe fig and some kiwis...if the alley cats don't get them first.


  1. Very impressive list of fruit plants! I am not so brave. There are only "easy" ones in my garden: strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and grapes. Good luck to you!

  2. wow - go for it! and a fig? you're lucky... I keep running across people saying that the self-pollinating kiwi is much less successful than 2 vines, so let us know what you get (in 8 years...)

  3. Hardy kiwis are pretty close, so you should be fine. It is sometimes better when you have more than one vine, but it should do fine!