Saturday, January 5, 2013

Edible landscaping, stage 2

This week, our long-awaited catalogue arrived from St. Lawrence Nurseries—the only nursery in the Northeast that sells the Meader bush cherries we have been coveting for our backyard. And since we could save on shipping by ordering a whole bunch of other edible landscaping plants at the same time, we decided to buy in bulk. Our check is now in the mail (yes, you have to pay them by check—isn't that quaint?) for five bush cherries, three plum trees and a dozen red raspberries. The plan is to install the bush cherries along the south side of our back yard, in the spot formerly occupied by the monster forsythia hedge. They will provide us with cherries each August for cooking and, if we get really ambitious, canning. (Since we sent in the order, I've found myself cruising the web for recipes for cherry jam and checking prices on pressure canners—even though we have yet to plant the bushes, let alone harvest a single fruit off them.)

The plum trees will occupy the front yard, planted close enough together to allow their branches to intertwine for better pollination. The three varieties we chose are Opal, Mount Royal, and Golden Gage, which are all European-type plums that will pollinate each other. The Opal produces red plums in August, the Mount Royal blue plums in early September, and the Golden Gage yellow plums in early September—so with luck, we'll end up with an aesthetically pleasing rainbow of ripening fruit yet won't have to pick all of it at once. The catalogue says these trees will grow to a height of 12 to 15 feet, which I'm hoping will be just big enough to provide a little summertime shade for the west-facing windows of our house, but not so big that we can't easily harvest the fruit with the help of a small ladder.

Lastly, the raspberries will go in along the north side of the house, where we currently have our rhubarb. (We're planning to dig up the surviving plants, supplement them with a few new plants, and plump the lot down along the west edge of our garden, just outside the groundhog fence. The leaves are poisonous, so the groundhogs won't touch it, if they know what's good for them.) The varieties we chose are fall-bearing, or everbearing, which means they can be grown in two different ways. You see [putting on a mortarboard and picking up a piece of chalk], each year, a raspberry bush produces a bunch of new canes, which live for two years. This year's new canes, known as primocanes, produce a crop of berries in the fall; last year's canes, called floricanes, will produce a crop in the summer as their last hurrah before dying off. In order to get these two crops, however, you have to go through a lot of rigmarole. You have to "selectively prune" the bushes, cutting off all the floricanes as soon as you've harvested them, while leaving the primocanes untouched, and also diligently rooting out all the stray suckers produced by the primocanes to keep them from getting overcrowded. It's also recommended to train the bushes up a trellis to make the pruning and harvesting process easier and to expose the plants to light and air, which keeps them healthier. But Susan Roth's Weekend Garden Guide, which I consider the Bible of lazy gardeners such as myself, says there's a much easier way: Once you've harvested your fall crop, just cut down everything—floricanes, primocanes and all. No need for selective pruning; no need for trellising, since the older canes that can harbor pests and germs are all cleared out; and while you don't get a summer crop, the fall crop tends to be massive because it gets all the plant's resources. And since the birds don't usually go for red berries late in the season, you get to keep all that fruit for yourself. So, yeah, we'll definitely be doing this the easy way.

All this sounds perfectly glorious, of course, but that's because I'm still in counting-chickens-before-they're-hatched mode. In reality, before we can hope to harvest any of this bounty, we have to get the plants into the ground—and the downside of ordering all these plants at once is that we'll have to plant them all at once. So sometime in April, we're going to have a very long day digging in the mud—or possibly in the still-hard, frostbitten earth—to get these suckers into the ground. I'm hoping that all this hard work will pay off in a few years, when we start finding ourselves with more fruit every August and September than we know what to do with. But before that, as Voltaire says, we have to tend the garden.
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