Add Fruit to Your Garden Palette

Many a great garden delights your senses…the sights and scents of colorful flowers and the textures of leaves, the singing of birds, frogs and crickets that move in for the bounty…but what about taste–simple edibility? While edible gardening may conjure up images of orchards, vineyards, or full-fledged farms, it certainly doesn’t have to be that extensive or monothematic. Even the foundation or structure of the garden–trees, shrubs and vines can serve both aesthetic and productive functions.

Many have showy flowers and brilliant fall colors. Some are rarely bothered by pests and diseases–especially the varieties derived from native species. In fact, mixing fruiting plants with other ornamentals, rather than keeping them in one area, can reduce disease blights and pest outbreaks. Just as with an ornamental plant, in order to select the best candidates, pay attention to how much sun the area receives (most of these plants need a lot of sun for health and productivity) and soil conditions, plus how much space is available.

Most fruit trees have showy spring flowers and, due to common grafting practices, stay dwarfed and manageable while still producing respectable crops. There are trees small enough to keep on a patio in a large pot, like dwarf peaches, or large enough to cast some shade, like persimmons. Nut trees such as pecan, hickory and chestnut grow to be large canopy trees that provide a great resource for wildlife and cast shade to cool the house and garden.

Smaller by nature, fruiting shrubs will tuck into garden spaces more easily than dwarf trees and can be even easier to care for. The most well known is probably the blueberry, and with good reason. Spring flowers, vibrant fall foliage and sunset-hued winter stems make them year round attractions in the garden. Raspberries and blackberries can sometimes be thuggish if left to their own devices, rooting about the bed, but their thorns can make a great security barrier. To free up more garden space and make it easier on yourself at harvest time, tie them up to a fence or trellis…the fruit will stay cleaner and be easier to reach. Some new blackberry varieties are more upright growing and thornless.

Fruit bearing vines are a special treat, since you can train them on practically anything convenient in the yard. Fence, arbor, pergola, trellis, wall, an old tree, a deck rail, an old swingset, a motionless sunbather…you get the idea. Grapes are certainly the most recognized and long-grown of these plants. While vineyards have perfected the art and science of grape-growing with cordons and tying and the like, worry not–the process doesn’t have to be so complicated. You needn’t aim for flawlessness, and the plants will perform admirably with less meticulous care.

For the more exotic, some kiwi vines will produce fruit here, but despite public interest they are uncommon due to somewhat invasive tendencies. They may be better suited to city or roof top gardens, where their spread will be limited. One overlooked candidate for a tasty twiner is the passion flower. Passiflora incarnata is native to the southern Chesapeake region. While not always easy to find, they add a welcome flair of the tropical to the garden and the palate.

Common fruit trees offered include peach, nectarine, apricot, apple, cherry, pear, plum, persimmon and fig. Recently we have added some pawpaw and experimented with a few jujube and Chinese chestnut. Our regular flowering tree selection includes serviceberry, a native becoming more popular as it produces quantities of sweet berries in early summer. There are shrubby and tree forms of this plant that make great additions to the edible landscape.

Our fruiting shrubs commonly include blueberry, raspberry and blackberry. Occasionally we dabble in more marginal options, like cranberry, currant and gooseberry that prefer cooler summers. Some of the species and native wild roses produce tasty and nutritious hips (seed pods) if their flowers are not removed. Several varieties of the native fox grape, Vitis labrusca, make up most of our fruiting climber selection, with occasional European varieties for those interested in trying their hand at wine-making. Passion flower will be stocked when we can find some.

Even some non-woody edibles come in the early deliveries of spring and are worth keeping an eye out for: asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries make an early appearance and sell out fast. Asparagus is best left to grow for a couple of seasons before you begin harvest, and the fine, airy foliage texture they provide is well worth scattering about the garden like baby’s breath in a bouquet. Rhubarb makes a great statement with its large leaves and is a great addition for visual impact alone. Strawberries are wonderfully nostalgic spilling out of strawberry jars on a patio or deck, but can be incorporated into the garden mixed with other groundcovers, added to mixed annual hayracks or to window boxes with herbs. They can be more short-lived compared to other fruiting plants, but this gives you more flexibility in placement and experimentation with different varieties.

The most beneficial element of this whole endeavor is, of course, the easily harvestable, tasty, nutritious, money-saving benefit of edible fruits, berries and nuts. You can grow crops as organically as you’d like; there are no gas costs in getting them to your kitchen (if they make it that far!); no bruises from shipping or lackluster flavor from under-ripe disappointments. You can’t get any better than fresh-picked, fruit from your own garden.

By Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Dept. Manager
(From Behnkes GardeNews Fall 2008 Newsletter)