Saturday, May 03, 2014

Hot Cherries

It was 94F Thursday, far too hot for this time of year. The forest fires have already begun after our dry winter, and staring down the smoky, oppressive summer and fall hurts my head. In the hottest parts of the day, my dog and I sought out shade and cool water. It was another day in another season of drought.

Those of us who grow fruit in warm climates are familiar with the term "chill hours." Chill hours refer to the number of hours between 32F and 45F in the fall, winter, and spring that stimulate the trees to release their leaves, go dormant, then break dormancy. Stone fruits and apples are particularly picky about chill hours, and some varieties are impossible to grow for fruit in our warm climates.  

This winter was hardly a winter: so little rain, only a few frosts, far too many warm days. The lack of chill hours shows in my orchard this spring. The apples, apricots, and one of my plums are struggling to break dormancy. The apricots started to break dormancy at their regular time, but have slowly woken up a branch at a time—some branches are still bare while others are loaded with fruit and leaves, and others have sparse blooms right now. While it isn't the most attractive look for a tree, it may end up leading to a nice crop, a few fruit ripening each day rather than the whole tree needing to be harvested at once.

Cherry trees have been, for most of their history, resistant to warm winters. Until recently, breeders hadn't found quality cherry trees that would produce reliably in a warm winter climate like my own. In 2002, breeders patented a pair of low-chill cherries, Royal Lee and Minnie Royal, that bloom even after the mildest, wonkiest winters. I planted this pairing four years ago, and each year, I've gotten a few fruit. The first year they bloomed at such different times, only a couple flowers had a chance to cross pollinate (necessary since neither are self-fertile) and set fruit. But each year, the flowering of the two trees overlaps more and more, and this year was the pair's best year yet.

In order to keep the trees' vertical growth habit in check and to encourage development of flowering spurs, I prune the trees hard in the winter and cut back vigorous branches during the early summer growing period. I haven't encountered any disease or pest pressure yet on these trees, other than the birds when the fruit is ripe, and I solve that by covering the trees with bird netting. Deep mulch surrounds the trees and a drip line gives them a soak once a week, but in the late summer, these trees, unlike the rest of my orchard, suffer if they don't get a little additional water.

Minnie Royal begins blooming profusely first; it's also a more vigorous grower and fruiter of the two trees. The fruits hang, dark red, on long, elegant stems, and they are intensely flavored, sweet, and a little wild. Royal Lee starts ripening about a week after Minnie Royal, and the fruits are smaller and shorter stemmed. They're intensely sweet and firm-fleshed, almost crunchy. Most venders describe Royal Lee as the better tasting of the two, but I prefer Minnie Royal and its forest-edged bite. When there is a bowl of either in front of me, I can't stop eating them.

I don't know how many pounds my trees produced this year, but since April 17th, I have picked a bowl full of cherries, just like this one, every day. Thursday, the hottest day of the year so far, gave us this, our last bowl for the season.


Kate said...

The fruit trees are what I worry about most this year. They didn't get enough cold, that's for sure. Water later is unknown. I'll just be happy if they live, never mind about the fruit for this year. What do you think, El Nino or no?

Christina said...

Hi Kate. If I didn't have my fruit trees on a drip irrigation system with the thickest, deepest mulch imaginable, I wouldn't be able to have fruit trees any year, let alone a drought year. In Southern CA we don't get any rain usually from May to November, so to keep things alive, some irrigation is necessary. So, I think my trees will make it. But, the production is very limited: almost no apricots this year, few, if any plums. I don't think I'll have apples; they're really struggling to leaf out still. The cherries were great, my peaches look like they'll be good. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for that chance of an El Nino. We need it so badly.