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Organic Fruit Articles
© 2004 by Craig Idlebrook; for information on reproducing this article, please contact the author.
On an early October day, Ellsworth farmer Mike Macfarlane was still cleaning the buckets from his cranberry juice stand at the Common Ground Fair. Preparation for the Fair took months.
"Was it worth it? Yeah, I guess it was," Mike said. It was a busy year for Pat and Mike Macfarlane (previously featured in The MOF&G in Dec. 2002), with some adventures planned, some not.
The decision to make cranberry juice for the first time came from a practical and happy problem, a bumper crop of cranberries the year before. "We said, 'What the hell are we going to do with all these cranberries?’" Mike remembers.
Toying with a neighbor's juicer, the Macfarlanes developed a tasty juice from organic cranberries, organic maple syrup and water. The first test of their creation came at the Full Circle Fair in Blue Hill--but the weather was rainy and few people wanted cold drinks.
The Macfarlanes then developed an accompanying hot cranberry drink. They felt the real test for their product would come at the Common Ground Fair. The process was not cheap. Mike estimates that they spent $6,000 before selling the first glass of juice at the Fair, including $1,000 on maple syrup. "It [was] a crapshoot," he admitted.
They're happy with the results. "You have no idea how many people said, 'This is the best juice I've ever had,’" Mike said. They sold over 1,000 cups.
While they started the juice venture to deal with excess cranberries, they won't have that problem this winter. This past growing season, they were visited by the blackheaded fireworm, a cranberry pest. Mike saw the bug early in the season but misidentified it. By the time he realized what he was dealing with, it was too late.
"By July, we were in the process of getting wiped out," Mike said. After consulting a cranberry specialist with UMaine Cooperative Extension, the Macfarlanes decided to cut their losses. The fireworm could have been controlled easily if caught in time, but with an infestation, they had no choice but to flood the bog. For many farmers, this would have been a disaster, but the Macfarlanes are flexible and have always diversified and avoided debt. Mike said philosophically, "You can learn a lot more from a bad year than a good year."
In many ways, the crop loss will only hasten the farm's diversification: As competition in the organic market gets fiercer, they want to stay ahead of the curve. "Our little niches are getting invaded," he laughed.
Their cranberry bog should recover, and the Macfarlanes want to move forward with their juice and learn about labels, shelf life and copyrights. At the next Fair, they hope to offer both juice and cranberry-flavored snowcones!
If the juice business grows, the Macfarlanes will soon be buying organic cranberries from other Maine growers. "Instead of being in competition [with the other growers], we'd like to help facilitate their development," Mike said.
For more information about blackheaded fireworms, visit www.umaine.edu/umext/cranberries.bhf.htm.
© 2004 by Jean English; for information on reproducing this article, please contact the author.
John Harker thinks that our native cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is "probably one of the better crops to grow organically." He explained its culture at the 2004 Common Ground Country Fair. When he isn’t growing or lecturing about cranberries, Harker is a business development specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture.
Cranberries grow in low, wet, acidic areas, or in highly organic, acid soils in full sun. They won’t grow in regular garden soil, because it probably is not acidic enough and does not support the right mycorrhizae (fungi that live symbiotically with plants and help them take up nutrients). Harker suggests growing cranberries in either 100% peat moss in the garden, or in a mix of two parts peat to 1 part sand, since the mycorrhizae they need to grow are in peat moss. You can replace an 8-inch depth of sod with peat moss, then water the peat well--which may take intermittent watering for about five days, since peat moss is slow to soak up water. If you have clay under the peat moss, that’s ideal; if you have sand, Harker recommends putting a layer of plastic down, then peat moss.
Set one plant every 4 square feet or one cutting every square foot. "Throw a little extra nitrogen on the ground at first to get the runners to grow," says Harker. "Then put 1/2 inch of sand over the plants." Every two to three years, in late March--just after the snow melts--add a little more sand to "prune" the plants--i.e., to cover the rhizomes that have fallen over. The upright growth (not the runners) produces fruit. You can also prune off excess runners to keep the bed in a upright mode for fruiting.
By the fourth year, your plot should be producing fairly well. You may harvest about 1 pound per 5 square feet by the fifth to seventh year--about one-third the yield that commercial, conventional growers get. "If you grow organically, you accept some loss due to insects and disease," said Harker.
You’ll have to weed carefully until the plants are established.
When you want to expand your planting, dig out more sod, replace it with peat moss, and let the cranberry runners grow into it. Harker likes to keep his plants within a 4’ x 8’ bed so that he can harvest berries without stepping on the plants. He harvests before the first hard frost, usually in September, and keeps the berries in a warm barn for a few weeks to continue ripening them. You can usually harvest until mid-October, since the berries don’t freeze until about 26 degrees F. To protect fruit from frost damage, you can cover plants with a blanket or plastic, or sprinkle them all night when frost threatens.
Cover the plants around Thanksgiving time with white plastic or with a few inches of leaves to prevent the winter wind from drying the leaves and killing the buds. This mulch should be removed by April 1 (or before sand is added).
Cranberries can be put right in the freezer, without blanching, after harvest. They retain a lot of their nutrition when preserved this way.
Native Americans gave cranberries to other tribes as gifts of peace and friendship, says Harker, calling it the "peace berry."
You can find more detailed information about organic cranberry culture at www.umaine.edu/umext/cranberries/organic01.htm. Harker has growing information and sells his plants at his Web site, www.cranberrycreations.com, or contact him at 905 Sandy River Road, Mt. Vernon ME 04352; Telephone: 207-293-4055; Fax: 207-293-4056; Email: Wildcran@ctel.net. You can also buy Maine-grown cranberry plants through Fedco Trees (PO Box 520, Waterville ME 04903-0520; www.fedcoseeds.com).
© 2004 by Jean English; for information on reproducing this article, please contact the author.
Many home and commercial apple growers lamented the small crop they had this year, despite hours of tree care. If only we’d planted passionflowers, persimmons or pawpaws! We all realize the benefits of diversity in our society and in our agriculture, but when it comes to fruits, we seem to be stuck growing and eating just a few of the biggies. Lee Reich is out to change that.
At the Common Ground Fair in September, Reich, author of Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (Timber Press, 2004; $24.95 & $3 shipping and handling from www.leereich.com), spoke enthusiastically about several cold hardy, tasty fruits that have survived in his Zone 4 garden--some surviving -39-degree F. temperatures. He tempted a standing-room-only crowd with descriptions and photos of plants that generally have few or no pest problems, may not need to be pruned, may be ornamental, and may not be available any way other than growing them yourself.
Here’s Reich’s list:
Gumi, Eleagnus multiflora is a medium to large shrub with pretty fruits that taste a little astringent but have a nice flavor when they ripen in July. The plants don’t need full sun. Nobody has done any breeding with the species, but both the famous plant scientist George Darrow and Lee Reich think that great improvements are just a selection or cross away.
Autumn olive, Eleagnus umbellata is listed as invasive in the East but tastes good, says Reich. The yellow-fruited variety is less invasive and has a "quite tart" taste, although the tartness decreases in late September. The USDA is looking into this species as a rich source of lycopene. (Note that people who are battling this species for its invasiveness, including my mother, would be upset to see it listed here.)
Maypop, Passiflora incarnata is an herbaceous vine with perennial roots that is "worth growing just for the flowers," says Reich. Its egg-sized fruits have a gelatinous covering around the seeds and provide the main taste in Hawaiian punch. To help these plants overwinter, mulch them.
Gooseberry, Ribes hirtellum and R. uva-crispa and currants, R. rubrum, R. sativum, R. petraeum are banned in much of northern New England, but this is a "bogus ban" said Reich, because they are not good alternate hosts for the white pine blister rust disease. Reich grows only dessert varieties and eats them raw. ‘Pink Champaign,’ a tart red currant, is easy to espalier.
Alpine strawberry, Fragaria vesca has an intense flavor when completely red, and doesn’t spread by runners, as the more common strawberry does, so the plant "stays in place."
Shipova, X Sorboyrus auricularis, which is quite rare, is "like the best tasting pear you ever ate."
Beach plums, Prunus maritima tolerate poor conditions, which is why they grow on beaches, but they grow well elsewhere too. They ripen in mid-September, and newer, named varieties (Raintree Nursery has one) taste better than the species. They bloom prolifically every year, but fruiting is variable from year to year.
Reich also noted that lowbush blueberries and lingonberries have tasty fruits, but not many gardeners plant them. The former make a nice ground cover; lingonberries are harder to establish than lowbush blueberries.
Next Reich talked about uncommon fruits that are also "really nice ornamentals." They include:
Clove currant, Ribes odoratum with yellow flowers that dangle from branches and a vanilla-like scent that permeates the yard. Again, this is not a good alternate host for white pine blister rust. Fruits have an aromatic, sweet-tart flavor, and the plants take any amount of cold, heat, drought and other adverse conditions. Plants spread by runners that send up sprouts.
Hardy kiwifruit, Actinidia arguta and A. kilomikta were introduced at the end of the 19th century as ornamentals, and around 1980, people caught on to the fruit. Kolomikta is hardier and smaller and has some variegated leaves, while arguta is not variegated and ripens later than kolomikta. These rampant vines do have to be pruned; and they need well drained soil and full sun or a little shade. You’ll need one male plant to pollinate about eight females. The plants need protection (e.g., a cornstalk mulch) from cold when they’re young; they become hardier with age. Reich likes the variety ‘Ananasnaya’ and says that ‘Esai’ is neither as hardy nor as self-pollinating as it’s billed to be.
Juneberry, Amelanchier species, is not uncommon in the wild but could be planted more as an edible ornamental. It has nice flowers and fall leaf color, and fruits that look like blueberries but have a different taste and, unlike blueberries, do not freeze or cook well. Reich says this is the plant he’s been least successful growing, because it suffers a number of pests; I echo the sentiment. This year I finally cut down my Amelanchiers and will be happy to enjoy them in the wild.
Cornelian Cherry, Cornus mas is related to dogwoods, and its fruits were eaten from about 7,000 years ago until the end of the 19th century, then their popularity declined, except in the Ukraine. Their fruit tastes like tart cherries. The medium-sized tree requires full sun, has very few pests, and does not need to be pruned.
Nanking Cherry, Prunus tomentosa represents another opportunity in breeding. Reich grew his from seeds, and every plant is good. The easily grown plants prefer full sun and bear within two years, when a profusion of white, early spring flowers is followed by small, tart, cherry-flavored fruits with pits. Birds and squirrels eat the fruits, said Reich, "but they don’t make a dent." Sometimes plants will die back or become blighted. In that case, Reich advises cutting the growth back and sticking another plant in.
Next, Reich discussed fruits that have been selected for superior quality and have named varieties.
American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana is known for the extreme astringency of its unripe fruits, but when ripe, the fruits taste "like an...apricot dipped in honey with a little spice added." Reich advised growing varieties that are hardy and will ripen in your area. ‘Szukis’ is one of his favorites; it does not need a pollinator, and the fruits hang on the tree until December. Reich advised removing some of the precocious fruits when the tree is young so that the plant becomes established better. ‘Mohler’ is another good variety. Reich does not like the ‘Meader’ variety, because it retains a little astringency even when ripe, but noted that some people like that.
Medlars, Mespilus germanica were a favorite plant of Charlemagne: Each town that he conquered had to plant a medlar tree. Reich said the trees are pretty but the fruits are ugly. They bloom late, so you don’t have to worry about frost killing the flowers. Fruits are picked just as the leaves are about to fall, are put in a cool room, and are ready to eat in about two weeks, when they’re brown and mushy and look disgusting inside. "It’s one of the best fruits I grow," said Reich, comparing the flavor to applesauce and apple butter, but richer. He does not note much difference among varieties.
Pawpaws, Asimina triloba have fruits that hang in bunches like bananas and foliage that resembles that of an avocado tree. The small tree has "interesting flowers" and creamy fruits that taste like bananas and custard with mangos and other tropical flavors mixed in. They have virtually no pests; need full sun; and need two varieties for pollination. While named varieties exist, Reich said that plants grown from seed are also good.
Reich listed eight nursery sources; I’ve added Fedco Trees, since it’s a Maine-based co-op. (Disclaimer: I grow some ornamentals for Fedco.)
Burnt Ridge Nursery, 432 Burnt Ridge Rd., Onalaska WA 98570; 360-985-2873; landru.myhome.net/burntridge/
Edible Landscaping Nursery, Rt. 2, Box 77, Afton VA 22920; 800-524-4156; www.eat-it.com
Hidden Springs Nursery, 170 Hidden Springs Lane, Cookeville TN 38501; 931-268-2592
Oikos Tree Crops, PO Box 19425, Kalamazoo MI 49019-0425; 616-624-6233
One Green World, 28696 S. Cramer Rd., Molalla OR 97038; 877-353-4028; www.onegreenworld.com
Raintree Nursery, 391 Butts Rd., Morton WA 98356; 360-496-6400; www.RaintreeNursery.com
Saint Lawrence Nurseries, RFD 2, State Rt. 345, Potsdam NY 13676; 315-265-6739; www.sln.potsdam.ny.us
Whitman Farms Nursery, 1420 Beaumont NW, Salem OR 97304; 503-585-8728; www.whitmanfarms.com Growing Points Oct. 20, 2004
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