Saturday, February 06, 2010
A Veritable Forest
I've been spending a lot of quality time with a shovel lately.
What's Already Here:
Two lonely fruit trees lived on this property before we got here: a Meyer lemon and a (Giant?) Fuyu persimmon. They needed company. Though I have many subtropical fruit trees in pots awaiting permanent homes (these will get another post on another day), in the past year and a half I added only a few trees of any sort to the fruiting neighborhood. I put in an Owari Satsuma, two apples, and two plums. The satsuma grew really well for me in its first year, giving me many more fruit than I expected, though still not enough to satiate the six-fruit-at-a-time habit. The deciduous fruit trees grew well for me too, and I may even have a decent flowering this year from the apples.
Tempted by the possibility of brewing my own cider (somewhere I must have bootlegger ancestry), as well as having darn good eating apples, the two apples I planted last year are a Golden Russet and a Wickson Crab. Golden Russet is an old (dating to the 1700s) American variety, perhaps the seedling of an English russet of some sort, and traditionally used as a dessert and first-class cider apple. Introduced by Albert Etter, Wickson is a California "native," or at least as Californian as an apple tree can be. This little apple, at least according to everything I've read about it, has a remarkably high sugar content but has a flavor balanced with aromatics and acid. Supposedly, it makes a great single-variety cider as well as a "fun-sized" snack apple. While not every apple will grow well in Southern California, quite a bit of recent research shows that we have more options than we once thought. Both russets and crabs are selections that have proven their ability to create high quality fruit, even with our high heat and lack of chill.
The plum trees I planted last year have grown well for me too, but are probably still a year or two away from fruiting. The two trees I planted last year are an Elephant Heart plum (an Asian plum, another California "native," introduced by Luther Burbank) and a Bavay's Green Gage. On the little ranch my family lived on in the Central Valley while I was growing up, we had an Elephant Heart tree, and when I think plum, this is the fruit I see and taste in my head. It's large, dusted with an elegant silver blush, and the flesh is the darkest, bloodiest lusciousness I've ever tasted in a plum. Some people pick and consume it far too early; it is best when it is soft and dripping its juice. The Bavay's Green Gage is a European plum, an oldie, and one I've never tasted. According to reports, it is firm-fleshed and sugary, true to its European plum heritage.
What's Going In:
Asian plums and European plums don't cross pollinate, and since most fruit trees produce much more readily if cross pollinated, I needed to provide something for the Bavay's Green Gage to be get down with to be able to have fruity babies. I want lots and lots of plant sex to be happening up here at the ranchito. Luckily, a friend has a gorgeous Italian Prune plum and offered me scionwood to graft to my tree. I took her up on the offer and embarked on my first attempt at grafting. In case they don't all take, I tried grafting in three different places on the little tree. Let's hope at least one graft takes so Bavay's and the Italian beauty can make sweet plummy babies.
I also planted another Asian plum, a Howard Miracle, a plum that my mom tells me is the greatest plum of all time, one that she grew up with; this plum hails from Montebello, CA, so it should grow well for me here in Altadena. It should help the Elephant Heart produce plentifully. All of the plums are planted ten feet apart in Plumville, the north side of our driveway.
We have a large front lawn here at our little corner of the world, and we've both been dreaming of the orchard it could be. Wanting small trees but lots of variety and lots of continual production, we decided to try high density planting. Here is how we went about it. We have two rows eleven feet apart. In the row farthest from the house, we have three "beds" spaced ten feet apart from each other. In the first bed, I planted a White Tiger Nectarine and a May Pride Peach, planted two feet apart; in the second, an Arctic Star Nectarine and a Desert Delight Nectarine; and in the last, an Eva's Pride Peach all by itself. The closer row has two beds: in the first are two low-chill cherries, Minnie Royal and Royal Lee, and in the second are two apricots, Royal Blenheim and Goldkist. This approach is based on three guidelines: 1) the gardener must prune mercilessly to help keep trees "human-sized" and harvestable by hand; 2) the competition over root space helps to keep the closely planted fruit trees smaller; 3) planting a variety of trees in a smaller space allows for fruit to both cross pollinate more easily and to ripen at different times in the summer season, encouraging constant summer fruit rather than a one-time, overwhelming glut. We've planted a mix of heirlooms and modern introductions, hopefully balancing the best of both.
Finally, I have two more apples on order that have not yet come in. One is Lady Williams, the mother of Pink Lady, and from all reports, a great Southern California apple. The other is one of the oldest apples in continual cultivation (grown at least since the 13th Century, perhaps longer), a Winter Pearmain, that sounds like it might make it down here in our climate. How can I not try growing something that farmers have found worthy to grow for hundreds of years? The apples are in a different part of the front yard, closer to the house, and are spaced ten feet apart.
It's all an experiment at this point. Will the high density planting work well? Will all of the trees grow well in our microclimate? Will I be cursing the day I ever set about this orchard? Hell if I know.
What I do know is this: I want homegrown pie. Jams, jellies, they're great, but it is the pie that I can smell in my dreams.
Resources for heirloom fruit trees and scionwood in California:
Trees of Antiquity
CRFG (California Rare Fruit Growers)
About the peacocks: They're beautiful despite the rain; I had a chance to be in close proximity to them; and, right now the trees are just sticks, not much to look at. These birds, on the other hand . . ..