The first thing that might come to mind when you think of farm fruit is apples … or peaches … or pears. But expanding your farm’s fruit-tree selection is as easy as looking past stone fruits and standard pomes. While peaches, plums, apples and pears certainly deserve a treasured place in the orchard, here are some less-common tree fruits sure to tickle you or your customers’ fancies.
Courtesy Sandy Austin/Flickr
Known for both their beauty and their flavor, homegrown persimmons (Diospyros spp.) are also heralded for their pest-free nature and culinary panache by Lee Reich, author of Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (Timber Press, 2008) and Grow Fruit Naturally (Tannton Press, 2012).
"Not only do I enjoy them fresh, I also make fruit leather out of them, use them in puddings and breads, and I even add some of the pulp to my homebrew,” he says. "I generally don’t like fruity beers, but the persimmon is more mellow than other fruits. You can taste it for sure, but it isn’t very strong.”
There are two basic types of persimmons: American and Asian. American persimmon trees are larger (up to 35 feet tall) and produce smaller fruits. They’re hardier than their Asian counterparts and offer a more astringent flavor. For northern growers, American cultivars are a must, though a few hybrids do exist, including Nikita’s Gift, maintaining the hardiness of an American with the large fruit size and flavor of an Asian.
"If you plant an American variety, avoid the wild selections and stick with named cultivars that will ripen within your growing season—an especially important factor in the North,” Reich says.
Many American persimmons are hardy down to zone 4, while most Asian selections perform better a little farther south.
"If you’re growing an American type in the North, you definitely want to pick a nice, warm, south-facing or south-sloping spot or a protected site near a house or wall to give the fruit enough time to ripen,” Reich says.
Most American cultivars ripen in October and taste best when allowed to mature to a very soft, mushy texture. When growing American persimmons, plant two selections, as these trees require a pollinating partner.
Asian persimmons come in both astringent and non-astringent types. "Non-astringent types should be harvested while they are ripe but still a little firm,” Reich says. "But if you grow an astringent Asian variety, you want to let the fruit [mature] on the tree as long as possible. They need to be on the tree for a very long time, just like the American varieties.” Asian selections are self-fertile, and most types reach only 15 to 20 feet in height.
Persimmons can tolerate some shade, but their fruit will ripen best when the tree receives full sun. Look for grafted trees of both types to increase your chances of success.
Courtesy Martin LaBar/Flickr
Figs (Ficus carica) thrive across much of the United States—with a little help and winter protection, of course. Although many varieties have been selected for cold hardiness and early ripening, a warm location with southern exposure is helpful to the fruit-ripening process. Mature fig trees are hardy only to about 10 degrees F, so in many parts of the country, it’s necessary to overwinter them indoors or under some form of protection.
"Figs produce two crops per season,” says Steven Biggs, author of Grow Figs Where You Think You Can’t (No Guff Press, 2012) and a self-described "fig pig.” "The first crop arrives on growth from the previous season. It ripens as early as July, even here in Canada where I live, but the timing will vary with the variety and the weather. The second—or main—fig crop forms on new growth. In northern climates, this crop will likely ripen in September or October, but may not ripen at all if the weather doesn’t cooperate or you have a late-maturing variety.”
Figs do best with at least eight hours of sun per day, and here in North America, they’re only fully hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11. Thankfully, fig trees perform very well in containers and no pollination is necessary for fruit set.
"The advantage of growing in pots is that plants can be placed to maximize sunlight, and they are easy to move indoors for the winter,” Biggs says. "They also restrict the tree’s roots, which helps limit vegetative growth.”
Figs can be pruned into tree form or allowed to grow more like a shrub. In the autumn, fig trees naturally go dormant in colder climates. They drop all their leaves and stop growing at the first frost.
"While they are dormant, they don’t need light or even much heat,” Biggs says. "In areas where figs won’t overwinter outdoors, this means they can be stored inside in a cool, dark place. If it gets too much light or warmth, it will have weak, lanky growth.”
An attached garage, cold cellar or unheated basement are perfect overwintering sites. It is also possible to overwinter figs outdoors by burying the plant underground, constructing a shelter around it, or wrapping it up like a mummy with burlap or blankets surrounded by a plastic tarp.
"Ideally the temperature should be between 27 and 45 degrees F,” Biggs adds. Water very sparingly, perhaps every 6 to 8 weeks, when the plant is dormant.
Figs are delicious fresh off the tree. They’re best harvested when their necks are soft and the skin begins to tear. Biggs enjoys eating the fruits fresh, dried or in his favorite dish, steamed fig pudding.
Courtesy Elena Gaillard/Flickr
"Fruiting quince is not the same as the flowering quince that’s primarily grown as an ornamental,” Reich says. "The most important thing when selecting a quince is that you pick the right kind.”
Edible quinces are grown as either a tree or a bush, depending on how they’re trained. Hardy from USDA zones 5 to 9, fruiting quince trees (Cydonia oblonga) are an entirely different genus than flowering quinces.
"Quince isn’t usually something you can eat fresh, though a few varieties are touted as being sweet even fresh off the tree,” Reich says. "Karp’s Sweet is said to be in that category, so that may be one to try. Aromatnaya, a Russian variety, is another selection said to be very sweet even when eaten fresh, though it needs to ripen on a windowsill until it starts to soften.”
Typically, quince is cooked before eating, turning the hard, white, astringent flesh pinkish and soft. "I stew it by itself to make jelly or add a bit of quince to a batch of apple jam or an apple pie,” Reich says.
Self-fertile, quince do not requiring cross-pollination. Their blossoms are beautiful, and the fruit ripens to a stunning bright yellow in September or October.
"Quince can develop rust and fire blight, so diligent pruning and care is necessary,” Reich adds.
Courtesy Anna Hesser/Flickr
The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is America’s largest native tree fruit. The fruits are oblong and measure 3 to 8 inches long. Their creamy pulp is filled with large, easy-to-remove seeds.
"To me, they taste like a cross between a mango and a banana with a texture more like the latter,” says Doug Oster, pawpaw lover and author of Grow Organic (St. Lynn’s Press, 2007). "My family loves the fruit after it’s been refrigerated. That’s the only way we use them because they are so good that way.”
Pawpaws should ripen on the tree, and they’ll only last two to four days at room temperature before spoiling; however, they last up to a month in the refrigerator.
An Eastern native, the pawpaw is an understory tree with fruit that ripens in mid-summer. It prefers warm, humid weather. Hardy from USDA Zone 5 to 9, the trees require a bit of maturity to produce fruits.
"I didn’t start getting fruit until my trees were 7 years old,” Oster says. "Now they are 14 years old and are producing more fruit than we can use. I started with two trees, but since they readily sprout suckers from the roots, I now have about 10 of them.”
Pawpaw pollination takes place via flies and other insects. The nondescript brown flowers emit a faint yet foul odor to lure in the right pollinators. Two or more trees are required for maximum cross-pollination.
"I read about how the Native Americans would hang dead squirrels in the branches to lure in more pollinating flies and increase fruit set,” Oster adds. "So some years I will take some raw meat up to the orchard and hang it in the trees.”
If you aren’t interested in going to such extremes, hand pollination, transferring pollen from the male flowers of one tree to the female flowers of another, is another way to aid fruit set.
In areas with cool summers, early ripening selections, like the Canadian cultivar NC-1, are good bets. In areas where the fruit is native, named cultivars from the breeding program at Kentucky State University, such as Shenandoah and Susquehanna, are a perfect fit.
Pawpaw trees reach 25 feet or taller but are very slow growing.
"I’ve been experimenting with transplanting seedlings, as they have a long taproot and are difficult to move,” Oster adds. "I’ve had the best results when moving the trees at the very end of the season when they are dormant. Most pawpaw trees are sold in pots rather than as bare-root transplants for this very reason. When you plant one, try not to disturb the roots.”
Culinary fruit trees offer hobby farmers a chance to grow something extraordinary. Step out of the box with these delicious and fascinating fruits.
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About the Author: Horticulturist Jessica Walliser is the author of Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control (Timber Press, 2014). She co-hosts "The Organic Gardeners” on KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh and writes two weekly gardening columns for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Follow her gardening adventures at www.jessicawallser.com and on Twitter @jessicawalliser.