Written for the Davis Enterprise, March 24, 2011
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We get questions.
I have never planted a living thing before. I have a patio and I want to plant some edible things.
Which fruit trees do you have to spray for bugs?
There are lots of new gardeners these days planting fruit trees and vegetables. Many express concern about the amount of time or expertise they'll need. Bottom line: many of you want to grow food without fuss.
My definition of easy: a plant that gives good food without any special fuss! No routine spraying needed. Simple pruning, if at all. Tolerant of a range of soil and water conditions. Here are a dozen or so easy edibles.
Garden strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis)
Easy? They flower within weeks of planting and set fruit right away.
Grow strawberries in half or full-day sun, in soil that you've added compost to, and where you can water them frequently. Plant Sequoia for best flavor, day-neutral varieties to extend the season.
Hint: Protect the fruit! Spread coarse bark around the plants just as they begin to flower. They'll set their fruit above the ground, away from sowbugs and slugs. Plants live 2 - 3 years.
Alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is very different. The plants do not produce runners; great for the herb garden or even in pots. Produce small very sweet berries throughout the summer.
Prefer some shade. Plants live many years.
2. Some easy Citrus
Kumquat (Fortunella species)
The hardiest citrus. Full sun or light shade. Not fussy about soil, but like regular feeding.
Peel is sweet, flesh is tart. Ripen year-around. Fragrant flowers in summer.
Nagami has bright orange fruit shaped like an olive. Very ornamental; best-known type. Meiwa has sweet, round fruit.
Hybrid kumquats gain some cold-hardiness from the kumquat parentage. Calamondin is a prolific producer of round, tart fruit that are used in drinks and as garnish. Limequat is hardier than lime, but has similar flavor.
Lemons (Citrus x limon)
Full sun or light shade. Somewhat frost tender, especially when young.
Meyer Lemon is said to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin. Compact plant to about six feet, easily kept lower. Can flower, set, and ripen fruit year-around.
True lemons (Lisbon and Eureka varieties) grow much larger and have thorns.
Mandarins (Citrus unshiu)
Full sun for best flavor. More cold-hardy than other citrus.
Owari Satsuma is the hardiest, best-known mandarin, ripening November - January. Other varieties extend the harvest season through spring. See our article on mandarins from December 2010.
Oranges (Citrus sinensis)
Full sun for best flavor. Young plants may need frost protection; established trees survive cold weather.
Navel and blood oranges ripen in winter. Other varieties ripen in spring. Valencia oranges, used mostly for juice, ripen in spring and summer.
3. Mediterranean and Asian fruits
Figs (Ficus carica)
Tolerant of nearly any soil. Can live without any summer watering; very heat tolerant. Produce a small crop in spring and a large crop over several weeks in late summer and fall. The sheer quantity of fruit can be a problem.
Black Mission and Brown Turkey are the common backyard varieties. Gourmet figs also do well: white (Conadria, Kadota), striped ones (Panache), and more. Slow-growing variety called Blackjack can be kept under 10 feet.
Morus alba is the white mulberry. The fruitless male is used as a huge shade tree. Teas Weeping is a fruiting type easily kept below 10 feet tall; cute garden accent or playhouse for young kids, with mild, sweet fruit that stains everything. Reseeds.
Morus nigra is the black mulberry, including Russian, Persian, and Pakistani varieties. Slow-growing small trees to fifteen feet, easily kept lower. Large, soft, juicy, intensely sweet-tart fruit resemble giant blackberries. Birds love them. Fruit stains fingers, sidewalks, and clothing. Does not reseed.
Persimmons (Diospyros kaki)
Tolerate drought or garden watering. Beautiful chartreuse foliage in spring; showy fruit in winter. Grow at moderate rate to thirty feet by twenty feet, but can be pruned for size. Produce dozens to hundreds of fruit. The trees drop fruit steadily all season, including lots of unripe fruit as the tree thins itself. Birds will enjoy what you don't harvest.
Fuyu is the flat-bottomed variety you eat while it is still firm. Hachiya has elongated shape and is puckery-astringent until squishy-soft.
Pomegranates (Punica granatum)
Probably the most heat and drought tolerant fruit species. Showy red flowers in late spring; nice yellow fall color, then bright red fruit in fall and winter. Attractive large shrub can be trained as a small tree.
Look for Wonderful, Granada (earlier-ripening), Angel Red (more juice. A number of other varieties are becoming available.
Many stone fruits need careful pruning and spraying. Plums are nearly foolproof. Take partial shade or full sun, average watering.
Japanese plums (Prunus salicina)
Tangy-sweet flavor. These listed are self-fruitful, meaning you only need one tree. Good thing: they're very productive. Santa Rosa produces prodigious quantities of fruit (hundreds) that ripen all at once. Emerald Beaut, Howard Miracle, and Nubiana have fruit that hangs on the tree for a couple to several weeks, remaining firm and of good quality.
European plums (Prunus domestica)
Maybe if we stopped calling these "prune plums" more people would grow them. The fruit, fresh off the tree, is firm and very sweet.
5. Guava-like fruit
Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) and Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana, now Acca sellowiana) are hardy ornamental shrubs with edible fruit (and edible flowers in the case of Feijoa).
Tolerant of sun or light shade, and drought.
6. Some easy vegetables
Anyone gardening with kids should plant radishes and sunflowers; quick to sprout, easy to grow. Full sun.
Gypsy pepper is the most productive sweet pepper I grow. Each plant produces at least a dozen pale yellow-green fruit which ripen red very quickly.
Small-fruited tomatoes are reliable, heavy producers. Choose Juliet hybrid, Sungold hybrid, or two popular heirlooms: Currant, and Yellow Pear.
Finally, kitchen herbs are very easy to grow in the ground or in containers, an excellent choice for novice gardeners. Mix several types in a container, preferably in at least part-day sun (full is best).
Some are long-lived garden perennials or shrubs, while others are annuals. Basil is in the latter category. If you are limited for space, plant Spicy Globe bush basil, a compact one-foot plant with extra-pungent leaves.
My Davis Enterprise columns are supposed to be 1000 words. That is a good thing, as it keeps me focused and makes me assess my criteria more carefully. Here were the ones that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Bright red, pretty fruit on very productive, ornamental little trees. Rich flavor. All are self-fruitful and ripen later than sweet cherries, perhaps avoiding the main infestation period of the Spotted wing drosophila. Until we know better how much of a problem that pest will be, these are 'provisionally' easy.
Blood-red juice, red flesh, bright red skin, very tart pie cherry. Late June, early July.
Clear juice, white flesh, bright red skin, less acidic pie cherry. Mid to late June.
Hint: long ripening period.
Jujubes (Zizyphus jojoba)
Pretty little trees with shiny foliage are very tough, easy to grow. Produce loads of fruit in early fall that look like little elongated brown apples. Sweet as dates when dried.
Quince (Cydonia oblonga)
Tolerant of heavy soil, lawn watering, or drought. Trees, often multi-trunked, grow to ten feet or more.
Smyrna Quince is the best-known variety, with several dozen very hard, lemon yellow fruit that have rich perfume and wonderful flavor, used in cooking and preserves. Ripen in fall.
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© 2011 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616