One of the books I read recently said that gardening is an act of hope – that planting something perennial is sort of an investment in your future. (Google has failed me. I can’t find the originator of that quote.)
Last year we planted a ‘Red Gravenstein’ semi-dwarf apple in the front yard because the existing mystery apple had fruited only once in the four years we had lived here. It had good branch structure and its thick trunk indicated that it had probably been planted not long after the previous owners plopped down the manufactured home in 1995 – but it was poorly planted and listed sideways a few more inches every year. By the time we hooked it up to the tractor and yanked its shallow roots out of the lawn a month ago it was leaning harder than the tower in Pisa. In addition to its rakish angle, the tree had the big problem of flowering at a different time than any other apple in the neighborhood, which meant that it could not be cross-pollinated. The fact that we ever got any fruit off of it indicates that either a) it was a self-fruitful variety (and even self-fruitful varieties perform better when cross-pollinated), or b) someone outside the neighborhood has a variety that blooms at the same time and a few industrious bees visited our tree after visiting one of those.
So over the weekend we went back to the nursery where we had gotten our ‘Red Gravenstein’ and picked up a friend for him, a ‘Melrose’ semi-dwarf that Matt plonked down in the shallow crater left by the leaning tower of uselessness. Mary, owner of The Plant Farm at Smokey Point (where I worked for a summer when I was still in high school) is an authority in whom I place a lot of trust, and she says that ‘Melrose’ is not just a good pollinator, but a tasty apple, too. In fact, I think the superlative she used was “the best.” Sold. After we yanked one out of the damp sawdust and bagged it, I read over the pamphlet The Plant Farm had printed up, “Fruit & Nut trees: Availability, Facts & Helpful Tips.” It describes ‘Melrose’ as having “tart, crisp, flavorful flesh” and good keeping qualities. It ripens in late October and ‘Red Gravenstein’ ripens in late August or Early September, so we should have a good spread of fruiting time.
With most fruits, tree- or small-, it is generally recommended not to let them set fruit the year that they are planted so that their energy is redirected into root formation. We didn’t have much choice in the matter last year; just as our little guy and Aaron’s impressive trio of heavy-bearers down the street were in full bloom we had a hell of a storm with pounding rain that knocked every blossom off the apples. Mary says it wasn’t just us: “Nobody got any apples last year.” So this year, even though we have to restrain ‘Melrose’, we have hope for ‘Red Gravenstein’. He should flower at the same time as Aaron’s triumvirate and Ed’s loner – and I will have my bees (“the 10,000 communists”, as Matt has taken to calling them) to ensure pollination. Bees will travel up to three miles from the hive to find nectar sources, so I don’t expect it will be too much to ask them to head to the front yard and then down four doors to Aaron’s.
I’m also holding out hope for the strawberries this year. I sent away for a day-neutral variety called ‘Quinalt’ last year and planted them in some coal-black compost in a half whiskey barrel by the band shed. I didn’t lose a one. I wanted ‘Quinalt’ specifically because it was advertised as being a very heavy bearer of large, flavorful berries from June until frost, and it was developed at a local University. (Quinalt (kwin-AHLT) is the name of a city, lake, and Indian Reservation on the peninsula, a few hundred miles away.) Strangely, though, I had to get the plants online from some place in Minnesota or Michigan because it was not available locally (sold out due to popular demand?). It broke my heart to remove all those flowers last year, but this year I can let it go mad! As if the perfumey, meaty, perfect sweetness of a backyard strawberry (better than the best farmer’s market berry and in a whole other galaxy than supermarket berries) weren’t great enough, strawberries are also the perfect garden gift. If these babies are as tasty as I hope I look forward to potting the runners (same method you use with spider plants) and giving them away to all my friends and family members that show half an interest. Wouldn’t you rather have a strawberry plant forced on you than a bag of oversize zucchini?
We also picked up some blueberries. One ‘Northblue’ and one ‘Sunshine’, both chosen for their compact size (3′ x 3′) and fall color (burning bush red). I’m collecting used pallets with which to make nice fat planters for them so that they can have all the humusy, acidic, cool soil they want without ticking off the plants next to them. Barbara Bowling’s The Berry Grower’s Companion confirms that, once again, I have to knock off all the blossoms this year to prevent first year fruit. (Heavy sigh.)
Well, there’s always hope for next year.