Apples a Bust, Pears a Success, Gooseberries a Bust, etc.

Early autumn is a good time for me to find a sunny spot on the terrace with a comfortable chair, pluck a bunch of grapes from the arbor overhead, and ponder the fruits of this year’s labors. And I mean “fruits,” literally: what were my successes, what were my failures, and what do future seasons hold?

In good years, my apples are very, very good; Hudson's Golden Gem here.

In good years, my apples are very, very good; Hudson’s Golden Gem here.

To many people, to too many people, “fruit” means apples, the equivalence having deep roots since pomum is Latin for both apple and fruit. My apple crop this year, whether measured in pounds or number of fruits, is zero. Among my excuses are the wrong rootstock for the site, trees still recovering from last year’s onslaught of 17-year cicada egg-laying, apples’ pest problems making them among the most difficult fruits to grow east of the Rocky Mountains, and my low-lying valley location and surrounding forests further exacerbating pest problems.

Still, the rich flavor of the apples — when I do get some — keeps me trying. Next year I’m replanting with five new trees: Hudson’s Golden Gem, Macoun, Ashmead’s Kernel, Pitmaston Pineapple, and Liberty, all on Geneva 30 rootstocks. This year, I welcomed the time not needed in caring for the trees.

Pears did surprisingly well considering the extensive cicada damage they also endured. But pears always do well, especially the Asian pears. The challenge with European pears is ripening them to perfection. They need to be picked before they are ripe, chilled for a couple of weeks if they are an early maturing variety, then ripened in a cool room. As soon as the first fruits drop, I keep an eye out for a slight change in skin color for those fruits still hanging from branches, then take them if they separate with an easy snap when lifted and twisted from the branch.

Despite being relatively easy to grow, pears are underappreciated as  garden fruit — these days, at least. One-hundred and fifty years ago, you might have perused 70 varieties in a nursery catalog; a hundred years ago, perhaps 30 varieties; in today’s catalogs, I count a dozen or so varieties. Not all my two dozen or so varieties are bearing yet. So far, the best of the lot are the buttery sweet Magness and spicy Seckel.

And More Failures

But let me get back to my failures; get them out of the way. Hardy kiwifruits, both Actinidia arguta and A. kolomikta had uncharacteristically light crops. The same goes for pawpaws, whose branches have, except for this fall, every year been weighted down with a heavy load of fruit, some branches even breaking. It’s most convenient to point my finger at the weather, the winter cold, for barren kiwi vines and pawpaw trees. Not that it was as cold as many past winters, but it did stay cold for longer periods.

The gooseberry crop looked very promising until late June, which is when my chickens discovered them (or remembered where they were). Gooseberries are usually very reliable so I’m optimistic about the future of eating berries from the two dozen or so dessert varieties I grow. I downsized my flock from seven to three chickens (and added two ducks), and plan to erect temporary fencing during the few weeks that the berries ripen in future years.

Big crops presented themselves, as usual, on various mulberry varieties and gumi. Birds swooped in to gobble them up. Last year, with all the cicadas to feed on, birds ignored both these fruits. Geraldi Dwarf mulberry grows only a few feet high so I’ll throw a net over it next year and let birds enjoy the other mulberry varieties, if they so choose.

The Very Sweet Taste of Success(es)

Enough talk about failures. On to successes . . . blueberries, my favorite and most reliable fruit, bore in abundance, as always. Sixteen bushes; about 150 quarts. Mmmmm.

Bagged grapes next to a bunch of grapes that weren't bagged

Bagged grapes next to a bunch of grapes that weren’t bagged

Rain earlier in the season threatened grapes with disease. I enclosed about 75 bunches in white bakery bags, stapled shut, to fend off bees and wasps, diseases, and birds. The crop was in such abundance that harvest has been aplenty even from unbagged bunches. Actually, too “aplenty” from the variety Swenson’s Red, causing individual berries in bunches to ripen unevenly. Next year, I’ll prune more severely, sacrificing total yield while increasing quality and even ripening of fruits that remain.

Once unbagged grapes of a given variety have been harvested and eaten, we move on to the bagged grapes of that variety. Peeling back the white paper has generally revealed bunches that look perfect and taste delectable. Particularly tasty this year have been Glenora Seedless, Somerset Seedless, Mars, Swenson’s White, and Brianna.

Szukis American persimmon ripe on branches

Szukis American persimmon ripe on branches

And finally, another of my no-fail, no-spray, no-prune fruits: American persimmon, specifically the varieties Mohler and Szukis. Mohler has been ripening for about a month, dropping a dozen or so fruits daily, which I pick up from the ground.  My ducks are especially fond of these fruits, and waddle, staring longingly within, around the outside perimeter of the low, temporary fence that keeps them at bay. (They do get to eat fruits that drop beyond the fence.)

Frustrated ducks admiring my persimmons.

Frustrated ducks admiring my persimmons.

The soft fruits taste like dried apricots that have been plumped in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice. Mohler and Szukis are almost totally lacking in the puckery astringency common to many American persimmons. To remove any last traces of astringency, I subject fruits to a treatment used in Japan with Asian persimmons: alcohol. Freshly harvest fruits go into a bowl with a tablespoon of rye (locally made Coppersea Raw Rye), covered, for a day. The alcohol finishes ripening the fruits, keeps fruit flies at bay, and adds a nice punch to the flavor.

Grow Fruit, Many Kinds!

Too many people shy away from growing fruits because they are perceived as too difficult to grow. They can be; or not. Success comes from choosing the right fruits to grow, looking beyond apples, peaches, cherries, and the other usual fare. Success also comes from growing a wide variety fruits. (All this is covered in my newest book, Grow Fruit Naturally.) This year’s apple and gooseberry failures are hardly noticed with the abundance of blueberries, persimmons, and pears. And did I mention European black currants, red currants, and strawberries?


  1. MB
    Posted October 4, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t done multiplication in a long time. Today, thanks to your spammer test, I can’t say today that “another day went by and I didn’t use multiplication once”!

    We didn’t get many apples this year either. Our trees were covered with them last year. We have maybe ten, maybe, this year. I remember a friend telling me last year that apples are an every-other-year crop. I didn’t believe her, but I do now.

    • Posted October 6, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Some fruits, but not all, do behave like that. Even for those fruits that do tend to biennial bearing, pruning and fruit thinning can even out that feast and famine cycle.

  2. Bonny
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    It has always been our observation that the fruits and especially the nuts are cyclical. They are saving up their energy for an especially big year next year.

    • Posted October 6, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Some fruits, but not all, do behave like that. Even for those fruits that do tend to biennial bearing, pruning and fruit thinning can even out that feast and famine cycle.

  3. Kathy Violet Fern
    Posted October 6, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I am one of those people who believe fruit is too difficult to grow! I will try out your new book as I enjoy your books and we’ll see. I have a struggling blueberry bush, some raspberries – now completely overgrown behind a small greenhouse and tangled in wild grapes, some wild blackberries I wrap on bamboo canes, and an alien strawberry that’s threatening take over. (Not really alien, but the takeover is imminent.)

    • Posted October 6, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Each fruit does need some attention. For instance, the soil for the blueberries. Nothing is hard to get right for these fruits, but you do have to do something. The blueberries probably are suffering from insufficiently acidic soil (corrected by sulfur), too many weeds, too little organic matter or water. My book details the “prescription” for blueberry soil safe. Raspberries probably need more and correct pruning, also easily spelled out.

  4. Patrick
    Posted October 6, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Sadly I haven’t been able to harvest any fruit from my currant bushes in 3 years. Cane borer and Spotted Wing Drosophila conspire to spoil all the berries.
    Any advice, other than netting?

    • Posted October 10, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Religiously cutting away and destroying (burning, e.g.) bored canes helps control borers. Also, keep plants vigorous. SWD didn’t seem to affect my currants, perhaps because of the abundance of honeysuckle berries, their preferred fruit, at that time.

  5. Jesse
    Posted October 10, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    What kinds of kolomiktas are you growing? Do you think that their less-aggressive growth habit and precocity might make them a better candidate for backyard orchards?

    • Posted October 10, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      My female varieties are September Sun and Aromatanya. I’m tending to suggest them more and more. Their downsides are smaller fruits that drop more readily when ripe. Also, they begin growth, which is subject to late frosts, before the argots. Taste is excellent, though, and they are beautiful plants.

      • Jesse
        Posted October 11, 2014 at 5:48 am | Permalink

        I harvested the first kiwi from our 2nd year ‘Red Beauty’ artic kiwi this year, tasty yet small, now looking into other cultivars selected for fruit. Do you remember your source of ‘Aromatanya’?

        • Posted October 11, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

          I never heard of Red Beauty arctic kiwi although I do grow a red Actinidia arguta (Ken’s Red) which does not particularly impress me in terms of flavor or production. Also, my guess is that it’s more attractive to birds than the green ones. I probably got my Aromatanya from either or

  6. Daniel
    Posted October 24, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Hello Mr. Reich,
    I am considering planting Magness and Seckel pear trees this fall and was wondering if they cross-pollinated well?

    I have really enjoyed reading your blog; thank you for writing!

    • Posted October 24, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      Magness is pollen sterile so cannot pollinate any other pear. You need a third variety to get fruit and then get fruit from all 3 treed.

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