With growing interest in eating healthier, safely producing your own food, and teaching children where their food comes from, there’s never been a better time to try your hand at fruit and vegetable growing. While the easiest choices will be those that best fit your growing conditions, most gardens and balconies can suit multiple food crops and even the more time-consuming options are well worth the effort for the immediate gratification of a fresh, home harvest. In general, your best prospects for growing the widest array of foods are with lots of sunlight and well-drained soil. Though few, there are foods that will tolerate less sun and tougher soils and still produce a respectable harvest if matched to the conditions that suit them. Long-term producers like fruit trees can be a bigger investment of time and effort, but the returns are lengthy and sweet. Short-term producers have more immediate benefits but may need to be replaced or rejuvenated after a few years. Due to the fortunes of our mid-Atlantic climate, our area can grow a plethora of herbs, vegetables, berries and tree crops throughout the growing season.
Asian Pear ‘Chojuro’
Probably the most daunting for people are the shrub, vine, and tree fruits, as these plants grow large (compared to thyme or tomatoes) and need time to mature. They can be quite manageable, however, especially if given a good start in life and enough room to grow. Pollination issues are another point of concern and confusion, but most berries and several tree fruits are self-fruiting (no pollinator required) and the others are easily paired with compatible companions; our information signage will tell you which is which. If you don’t need a large number of any one type of fruit, try a mixed orchard, or a planting where the trees are scattered among smaller fruiting and decorative plants. Using native wildflowers that bees visit will encourage them to pollinate your plants and give the biggest harvest possible, and birds and insects that feed on pests will also be attracted by the diversity. Berry crops tend to take up less space than tree crops, and several dwarf types of berry bushes lend themselves to growing in containers. If you want to experiment with our various locally native foods, there are American versions of hazelnut, persimmon, elderberry, and plum; you can also try beach plum and the uniquely American pawpaw. More exotic choices include jujube, currant, gooseberry, and hardy kiwi. Some of the fruits we associate with warmer climates, such as figs, will grow outdoors here in protected spots; others, such as citrus, mango, avocado, and pomegranate, are more challenging because they need winter protection indoors while still having enough space to mature. (If you have a greenhouse, go for it!)
Spring is the ideal time to put in perennial vegetable crops such as asparagus and rhubarb – both of which have attractive foliage that should be used for garden decoration too. Traditionally planted bare-root, we pot most of them up so the roots don’t get too dry, but you should unpot them and plant them in the ground as soon as you can to minimize disrupting their growth. As with many long-lived foods, they can take awhile to establish before being old enough to harvest, so sit back and appreciate their beauty while you’re tending to your salad greens, summer veggies and fall gourds.
The internet is replete with ideas on how to creatively grow small foods such as herbs and strawberries, and you certainly can try your hand at any of them that give the plants the tools they need to thrive – good sun (without baking in a hot container), moisture when needed, and good drainage. Spring is the time to get those strawberries started, and young, very affordable starter plants are available for a short time. Herbs can be introduced to the outdoors as the temperatures moderate (although some will survive winter, all of the young plants are greenhouse-grown and not yet fortified against freezing weather), but for now can be kept indoors in bright light. Summer vegetables started from seed can also be started indoors in spring – check the suggestions on the package, because they sprout at different rates and tolerate different temperatures – and put outside once the weather is appropriate.
‘Chester’ Thornless Blackberry
Don’t know what to try? Here’s a sampler of the fruits and berries we often have: apple, apricot, cherry, fig, nectarine, pawpaw, peach, pear, persimmon, plum, beach plum, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, grape, stawberries, and elderberry; when we can find them, we also get gooseberry, currant, kiwi, jujube, huckleberry, hazelnut, and the hybrids marionberry and boysenberry. Perennial vegetables include asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish.
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer