Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Growing Fruits, Nuts & Berries

My favorite nursery catalog arrived today. It's from St. Lawrence Nurseries, a family-run nursery in far northern New York state, about 20 miles from the Canadian border.

The nursery specializes in cold-hardy fruit and nut trees and claims to be one of the few fruit and nut tree nurseries growing their stock in a zone 3 location (-40 to -30 degrees F. average annual minimum temperature).

If you've been less than satisfied with the survival rate of your seedlings, it's a pretty safe bet that St. Lawrence stock will be winter-hardy.

St. Lawrence sells 152 apple varieties, from Adanac and Adirondack Crab to Winesaps and Wolf River. They also sell quite a few pear, plum, pie cherry and cherry plum varieties, although because my space is limited, I'm more interested in their fruiting shrubs and ground covers.

Over the years, I've purchased quite a few of their plants:

  1. Gooseberries, Pixwell variety (Ribes sp.): A a tough plant that's reliably produced plump, green fruit that turns purple when ripe with very little care and not a great deal of sun. I prefer eating the gooseberries when they're still green and quite tart. They turn sweet as they ripen.

    In early spring, the same little green worms that have denuded my serviceberry trees (see below) also go after the gooseberry. According to Lee Reich, author of Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, these are currantworms, which can be controlled by insecticides. (I prefer handpicking, but you've got to catch them early.) Beware of the thorns.

  2. Juneberries, aka Serviceberry or Shadblow: The berry is similar to a blueberry in appearance and, depending on who you talk to, taste. My two tree seedlings had a very slow start and were stunted for years by the one-two punch of early spring attacks by leaf-eating green caterpillars followed by persistent deer browsing all summer long.

    Then last summer, one of the two trees really took off and now has a nice canopy of foliage about eight feet high. Oddly, although the trees are spaced just 10 feet apart, the larger tree escaped the usual caterpillar devastation while the smaller one did not. I handpicked as many of the worms as I could, but the damage was largely done. They can defoliate a seedling in no time.

  3. Blueberries: My lowbush blueberry bed needs to be rescued from spreading brambles and other invasives threatening to engulf them.

  4. Nanking dwarf cherry trees: I planted three of these about eight years ago. They put on a lovely show of pinkish white blooms in the very early spring, but the birds get most of the cherries; I discovered they were too small to be pitted using an antique cherry pitter my sister gave me as a gift one year.

  5. Northrop Mulberry: Because mulberries are among the last trees to leaf out in spring, I know when mine starts growing that all danger of frost is passed. Since planting one tree seedling a number of years ago, I've been rewarded with volunteer mulberry trees elsewhere on the property, courtesy of resident birds spreading the wealth. One of the volunteers is now about 20 feet high.

    If you've got a mature mulberry tree in your yard and children in the neighborhood, they'll likely compete with the birds to get at the berries. Historically, mulberries were made into wine. Author Reich notes that mulberries were also used to cook murrey, a puree added to spiced meats or used as a pudding in medieval England. Dried mulberries, he notes, were a winter staple for the people of the Himalayas. Black mulberries have been known to produce fruit for 300 years.

  6. Viburnum: This is one of my all-time favorite shrubs, and over the years, I've planted Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), Wayfaring Bush (Viburnum lantana), Nannyberry, aka Wild Raisin (Viburnum lentago) American Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and one of my greatest success stories, the massive doublefile Viburnum. Most of these shrubs don't exceed 15 feet high when fully grown so they'll do well in a confined environment, although they will appreciate well-drained soil and full sun. They are all characterized by attractive foliage, lovely flowers and berries the birds will love.

  7. Corkscrew willow (Salix sp.): I planted two of these in areas of my lawn that tend to stay wet in early spring due to a drainage system that funnels water away from elsewhere on the property, but the area doesn't get enough sunlight and the plants haven't done so well. I meant to move them to another location last fall, but ran out of time. If they're still around in the spring, and the deer haven't nibbled them to death, they will be relocated.

  8. Potentilla (Potentilla fruticosa): This is a small shrub reaching just two or three feet high with small yellow flowers all summer long.

  9. Dogwoods: I've planted gray (siky) dogwood and red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). Both do well in damp areas and tend to spread by sending up suckers.
I'd love to have a few nut trees on the property but have been reluctant to commit to a tree that takes so long to produce nuts. However, if you're interested, St. Lawrence offers Hazelbert, Bur Oak, Red Oak, Korean Nut Pine, Black Walnut, Butternut, Shadbark Hickory and American Chestnut.

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