This year we’re seeing more interest than ever in growing fruit, so we asked Miri Talabac to share her tips with customers during our recent Spring Open House. Titled “Uncommon Fruits,” her talk covered these easy-to-grow fruits for our hot, humid climate. They all yield the most fruit when given at least 6 hours a day of sun and organic, well-drained soil.
There are two great options among persimmons, one of them a regional native. The only tricks to growing them are to avoid using fertilizer that’s high in Nitrogen fertilizer (like lawn food) and to avoid overwatering, which can cause an abnormally high amount of summer fruit drop. Some amount of fruit drop is normal.
Persimmons need to be harvested with the stem attached, so use pruners instead of pulling the fruit off the stem. Persimmons chill well, and can be stored for months (except the really soft ones).
The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is either male or female, so you need one of each for pollination. The fruits are astringent unless they’re ripe. They grows to 35 to 50 feet tall and 35 feet wide. Dwarfs are available that are closer to the size of the Asian. They produce fruits typically in their sixth year.
Asian persimmons (D. kaki) are of two types – either astringent or non-astringent. The astringent type must be soft and ripe to eat (usually with a spoon), while the nonastringent type can be eaten like a crisp apple when not fully ripe. They’re self-fruiting, so you can grow just one if you like and you’ll have fruit. The trees grow to 25 feet tall and wide, and they’ll fruit in the second year, though it’s best to remove the first harvest before ripening so that the plant can concentrate its energy on developing good root system.
Figs are probably the most popular fruit trees grown in our area because they do so well here. Plus, they’re self-fruiting, so they don’t require pollination and the multiple plants usually needed for it. The most poular, most cold-hardy varieties, Brown Turkey and Celeste, grow to 10 feet tall and wide – or more, depending on pruning. They may need the occasional liming to keep the soil pH around 6.0-6.5. Figs are marginally hardy here in Zone 7, so should be protected from unusually cold spells and winter winds. Their cold-hardiness increases with age, however. Brown Turkey is the most cold-hardy of all fig varieties, though it’s not as sweet as Celeste.
Great news on the pest front – figs are quite pest and disease-resistant. (They’re often seen with ants crawling on them; just knock them off before eating. They do no harm.) Also, they’re drought-tolerant – with the exception that just as fruits are ripening, they may split open if not watered then, assuming no rainfall.
There’s not much to caring for figs, except to NOT over-fertilize them, especially with fertilizers high in Nitrogen.
Figs produce two crops. The first, in spring, is a smaller yield on old wood (buds formed the previous year). The main crop comes in late summer on buds formed in the spring.
Figs are ripe when slightly soft and starting to droop at the neck. They won’t ripen further once they’re picked. They have a short shelf life, just 2-3 days if chilled, but will store well – up to 8 months if they’re dried first. They can be sun-dried in four to five days.
The first year in your garden, it’s best to remove the fruit so that the plant can focus its energies on root development. But the second year, let it fruit and enjoy the results.
Pawpaws are suddenly in demand in our region. As a regionally native plant that produces delicious fruit, what’s not to love? They’re also Miri’s personal favorite, and she grows them at home, enjoying the Zebra Swallowtails that are attracted to it.
First, you have to have more than one because they need at least two individual plants to fruit (any type will do, however). They grow typically to 15 or 20 feet tall and wide, tolerate consistently moist soils, and – note! – tolerate either sunny OR shady spots. In the wild they grow in the shade at the edge of woods. In the DC area they can be seen growing along the C&O Canal. In full sun it’ll need more watering.)
If you lime your lawn, don’t apply lime near your pawpaws.
The reason we don’t see pawpaws in the grocery store and only rarely at farmer’s markets? Their very short shelf life, even when chilled. The fruits are ripe when they’re slightly soft and aromatic. The skin may be green or turning brown. And brown is fine – go ahead and eat it. Their flesh is very soft, so many pawpaw lovers eat them with a spoon. The taste is somewhat like a banana, and the consistency is custardy. It’s very nutritious, even more than bananas or apples.
Somewhat more difficult to grow in our area are pomegranates – because they need such a long growing season (5 to 7 months after flowering) and they’re only marginally cold-hardy so need protection from cold snaps and winter winds. The good news is that they’re self-pollinating, drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant and pH-adaptable. Plus, their flowers often attract hummingbirds. They’re also a nice manageable size for the suburban garden – just 8 to 12 feet tall and wide – and even smaller, dwarf varieties are available. The dwarfs are more useful for their decorative value than in producing edibles, however.
Serviceberries (Amelanchier) have become a favorite of local gardeners because they’re native to this region, but usually their fruits are left to the bird population, which is happy to get them. Another great tree for the small garden, they grow to between 8 and 20 feet tall, and if you’ll be harvesting the berries the short, shrubbier type will be easier to harvest.
Serviceberries, like pawpaws, are edge-of-forest trees, so will grow in part shade. They also tolerate consistently moist soils, and prefer slightly acidic soil. Oh, and they have fabulous fall color.
Serviceberries ripen in June or July and are reportedly delicious, much like blueberries.
Hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta) is a vigorous deciduous vine that I’ve grown for years for its leafy beauty, but always pruned too much and too soon to enjoy its fruits. Pity, because everyone says these small, berry-size fruits are quite tasty. An audience member said she’d found them at Trade Joe’s – for a heft price – and they were indeed delicious. Most varieties require male and female for pollination; the ‘Issai’ variety, which we carry, is self-pollinating. Hardy kiwis are smaller than the brown, hairy nonhardy kiwis we find in the market.
To see hardy kiwi in all its fruiting glory, visit the Youth Garden at the National Arboretum, where they grow kiwis on a sturdy trellis, and don’t prune until after harvest. Hardy kiwis require good support because they’re sooooo vigorous, much like wisteria.
Posted by Susan Harris. Zebra Swallowtail photo credit. Fig photo credit. Serviceberry berry photo credit. Pomegranate blooms photo credit. Pomegranate fruit photo credit. Hardy kiwi fruit photo credit.