(Adapted from my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, now out of print but very soon available as online version. Stay tuned. Information is also available in my books Grow Fruit Naturally and Landscaping with Fruit, available from my website and the usual sources.)

I always know when my hardy kiwifruits are ripe because my dogs and ducks start grubbing around beneath the vines for drops. The fruits, for those unfamiliar with them, are similar to the fuzzy kiwifruits (Actinidia deliciosa) of our markets, only much better for a number of reasons.

Obviously, from the name, hardiness is one reason. Hardy kiwifruits will laugh off cold below even minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, while market kiwis are injured below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Kiwi fruits compared
Another difference is in the fruit itself. Hardy kiwifruits are grape-size, with smooth, edible skins. Pop them into you mouth just as with grapes. Within the skin, hardy kiwifruits look just like market kiwis, in miniature. The flavor of hardy kiwifruits, though, is far superior to that of the fuzzies, sweeter and with more aroma.

Okay, I have to qualify that last statement because there are actually two different species of fuzzy kiwifruits. A. chinensis, rarely seen for sale outside China, is relatively large (though usually not as large as A. deliciosa) with skin covered by only a peach-like fuzz. The flesh color ranges from green to yellow, on some plants even red, in the center. The flavor is very sweet and aromatic, smooth and somewhat tropical, reminiscent of muskmelon, tangerine, or strawberry. In all honesty, this kiwifruit has the best flavor of all — but it’s even less cold hardy than the more common fuzzy, market kiwifruit. If winter temperatures here were mild enough for me to grow A. chinensis, I would.

Two Species, One Flavor

Hardy kiwifruits also come in two species: A. kolomikta and A. arguta. But not two flavors; they taste pretty much the same.

Both are ornamental vines, so much so that they were originally introduced into this country from Asia over 100 years ago strictly for their beauty, their innocuous fruits overlooked. How many visitors pass beneath the many handsome vines planted early in the twentieth century on public and private estates, unaware of the delectable fruits also hidden beneath the foliage?

For most kiwifruits, male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Only the females bear fruit, but males are needed for pollen to get that fruit to form. (Just like humans and most animals, the “fruit” in animals being the ovary responding to fertilization.) One male (kiwi plant) can sire up to about eight females.

The two species of hardy kiwifruits do have their differences. The one that’s ripe for me now is A. kolomikta, which I choose to call the super-hardy kiwifruit because it’s cold-hardy to below minus forty degrees F. (For a pleasant dance of your tongue, sound out and speak the species name slowly.) Kolomikta is the more strikingly ornamental of the two because of the pink and silvery variegation of its leaves. Kolomikta bloom and leavesThis species is also relatively sedate in growth, so is easier to manage. One problem with this fruit, which my ducks and dogs consider a plus, is that it drops when it is ripe, perhaps because it’s ripening so quickly during hot days of summer.

The other species, A. arguta, is more sedately ornamental, with apple-green leaves attached to the vines on reddish leaf stalks. Fruits of this species, depending on the variety, start ripening in the middle of September, and they stay firmly attached. One problem with A. arguta, mostly for casual growers, is that it’s much less sedate in growth. My vines send out a number of 10 foot long canes every year.

Must You Prune?

Pruning keeps either species productive and within bounds. Containing the plant is especially important with A. arguta. A number of years ago, I gifted two plants to a friend. He planted them at the base of a sturdy arbor that was attached to his front door. I’m not sure he ever pruned the plant, and 15 years later the arbor was on the ground.

Still, either species grows best trained to some sort of structure. Mine, which are grown mostly for fruit, are trained on a series of T-shaped posts fifteen feet apart and joined at their cross-members by five equally spaced wires.Actinidia pruned Each plant’s strongest shoot has been trained to become a trunk that reaches the center wire, then bifurcates into two permanent arms, called cordons, running in opposite directions along the center wire.

Fruiting canes grow off perpendicularly to the center wire and drape over the outside wires. Flowers and, hence, fruits are borne only toward the bases of shoots of the current season that grow from the previous year’s canes, very similarly to grape vines.

Annual winter pruning entails, first, pruning off any new shoots forming anywhere along or at the base of the trunk, and shortening cordons once they have reached full length. Fruiting arms give rise to laterals that fruit at their bases; during each dormant season, cut these laterals back to about eighteen inches in length. Remaining buds on the laterals will grow into shoots that fruit at their bases the following summer. The winter after they have fruited, these shoots correspondingly should be shortened to about eighteen inches, but leave only one of these. When a fruiting arm with its lateral, sublateral, and subsublateral shoots is two or three years old, it’s cut away to make room for a new fruiting arm. 
Actinidia pruning diagram
With all this said, the vines do fruit with no more pruning than a yearly, undisciplined whacking away aimed at keeping them in bounds. Such was the objective in pruning those hardy kiwifruits planted as ornamentals on old estates. These vines happily and haphazardly clothe pergolas with their small, green fruits hanging—not always easily accessible or in prodigious quantity—beneath the leaves.

Note to plant nativists: I am aware that Actinidia species are considered to be non-native invasives in many areas. I’ve grown and watched this plant for decades and have never found it growing anywhere but where I planted it. As far as I can tell, the only way this plant can spread would be for it to be planted near enough to tree stands to give the vine leg up and then to be totally neglected. I have never seen a self-sown seedling pop up anywhere.
Actinidia and bench



   My ducks told me that the hardy kiwifruits were ripe. No, they’re not trained to give a specialized “hardy kiwifruit ripe” quack. Instead, they’ve taken to hanging out beneath the vines to scoop up dropped fruits. No training needed for this.

Hardy kiwifruits trained for easy harvest

Hardy kiwifruits trained for easy harvest

    Those dropped fruits are one reason that these vines — Actinidia kolomikta — are not as popular for fruit as another species, Actinidia arguta. Ripening, and dropping, is fast in the heat of July. Arguta kiwis ripen in late summer and early fall, and possibly cling to the vines more reliably then because cooler weather slows ripening.
    Not that either of the fruits are well known. Both are cousins to the fuzzy kiwis (A. deliciosa), ubiquitous in supermarkets. Both hardy kiwis differ from the fuzzies in being cold-hardy (only to 0°F for the fuzzy as compared to minus 30°F for A. arguta and to minus 40°F for A. kolomikta), grape-sized, with smooth, edible skins, and better flavor than the fuzzies.
    In addition to ripening earlier and dropping more readily, kolomikta kiwis differ from arguta kiwis in coming into bearing much sooner, often in their second year, and growing much less rampantly. Argutas are hard vines to tame. Ornamental vines of both species gracing historic gardens for decades before their fruits were noticed and appreciated is testimonial to their beauty. Kolomikta’s leaves are brushed silvery white with random pink blushes.

Variegated leaves of A. kolomikta

Variegated leaves of A. kolomikta

   Back to harvest. Harvest from the ground is unfeasible because the green fruits are too hard to find among the blades of green grass. And unhealthy because of all the processed kiwifruits — poop — the ducks eject at their far end as they gobble up the berries. A ground cloth to catch the berries would become similarly soiled unless I went to the trouble of spreading it, shaking the vines, then gathering up the cloth after gathering up the fruits.

Hardy kiwifruit harvest into inverted umbrella

Hardy kiwifruit harvest into inverted umbrella

    Instead, I’ve taken to walking beneath the vines with a large umbrella, upturned, and shaking portions of the vines right above the umbrella. Ripe fruit drop into the waiting “funnel.” Sure, many fruits are lost, but the vine bears more than enough to share with the ducks, who can enjoy the missed fruits.


    Like apples, bananas, and avocados, kiwifruits of all stripes are climacteric fruits. Instead of steady ripening, climacteric fruits, just before they are ready to eat, go through a burst of ripening with sugar levels and carbon dioxide production all of a sudden rapidly increasing. Fruit quality begins to decline right after this burst.
    Ethylene, a simple gas that is also a naturally occurring plant hormone, also spikes during this burst. And ethylene further accelerates ripening, which increases ethylene production even more, which increases ripening even more, and . . .  Disease, wounds, and decay also stimulate ethylene production, which is why “one rotten apple spoils the barrel.”
    If picked when sufficiently mature, but not dead ripe, kiwifruits store well for a few weeks. They’ll ripen during storage, slower under refrigeration, faster at room temperature. From experience, I know that “sufficiently mature” for kiwis is when the first fruits start ripening. So, in addition to my umbrella harvesting, I’m harvesting a bunch of the unripe fruits and refrigerating them to extend their season. Don’t worry; there’ll still be plenty for the ducks.


    Every time I walk back to the kiwi vines, I pass a perennial flower bed. Or, at least, what was supposed to be a flower bed and now is bordering on half flowers and half weeds. The major two weeds, I admit, are my own doing.
    The first of these weeds is dayflower, which arrived here with some bee balm plants from a friend. It’s actually a pretty plant with small, blue flowers, and it’s easy and satisfying to pull out. To a point.

Groundnut tubers, in years' past

Groundnut tubers, in years’ past

    The other weed, groundnut, was a deliberate planting, by me, about 20 years ago. It seemed interesting, bearing edible, golf-ball-sized tubers that string along underground like beads. Groundnut reputedly is the food that got the pilgrim’s through their first winter. Occasionally the plant, a vine, flowers, bearing chains of pale chocolate-colored blossoms. Do I remember them smelling like chocolate also? Perhaps. With all the other vegetation in the bed, the plants haven’t flowered in a long time.

Groundnut flowers

Groundnut flowers

 The problem is that those chains of tubers spread to make more chains of tubers which, in turn, do likewise, ad infinitum. The vines now creep over almost every plant in that bed but rarely get enough space to themselves to make tubers anymore. No matter. They didn’t taste that good anyway.
    I wasn’t as foolish as might seem planting groundnut in that flower bed. Twenty years ago that flower bed wasn’t a flower bed, but just a place for interesting plants in my then small garden.

Hardy Kiwifruits, Better Than the Fuzzies

Last week I wrote that, what with the cold weather and low-hanging sun showing its face but briefly each day, there’s little for a gardener to do now. That proved not strictly true. Soon after I wrote those words, I received a holiday card from David Jackson and Holly Laubach of Kiwi Berry Organics, growers of what I can attest to are, as it said on the card, the “World’s Sweetest Kiwi.” Theirs are hardy kiwifruits, the small, cold-hardy cousins of the fuzzy kiwis you usually see in the market; with their smooth skins, you pop them into your mouth like grapes.
Most importantly, David and Holly’s card sported a photo, a snowy scene of their kiwi plants pruned to perfection, the fruiting canes all neatly arching over with their ends tied down to their supporting wires. To

David and Holly’s kiwis

me, the scene was both beautiful and inspirational. Acting on inspiration, I headed outdoors, pruners in hand, to get to work on my own kiwi vines.

In past years, I delayed all pruning until after the coldest part of winter. Accepted wisdom is that later pruning reduces chances for winter injury. Last year, David told me he started pruning his vines in autumn after leaves dropped. I followed suit warily with one or two vines and they came through winter unscathed. Perhaps it’s our warmer winters of late, perhaps damage that occurs depends on the plant species, or perhaps the accepted wisdom is wrong. At any rate, I’m now pruning with abandon.
Staring at the tangle of stems on my kiwi plants could have quelled my enthusiasm had I not been presented with this sight in years past. Kiwis are rampant vines, each year sending out masses  of vigorous (as long as 15 feet!) that twisting stems that are hard, at first, to make sense out of. Pruning is a must to

My kiwis, before pruning

keep the vines manageable and easy to harvest, bathed in sunlight for high quality fruit, and to stimulate an annual flush of new wood. Fruits are borne only near the bases of new shoots growing off one-year-old canes.

My plants, like David’s, are trained on a T-trellis about 6 feet high with 5 parallel wires running from T to T. Each trunk rises to the height of the T and then has been trained to spread into two permanent arms, one growing in either direction along the middle wire. The one-year-old canes, off which fruit is borne, grow perpendicularly to the permanent arms, their ends tied down to the two outermost wires.
My pruning begins with three easy steps. I cut away any shoots poking up from ground level or out along the trunks below the level of the wires. I shorten all fruiting canes a foot or so beyond the outside wires. And I cut the permanent arms back to where they began growth so that adjacent vines don’t grow into each other.
Then things get more complicated. Too many fruiting canes sprout each year from the permanent arms

My kiwis, last spring, after pruning
(except final shortening)

and from along canes that were left for last year’s fruits. The goal is to remove enough so that those that remain are spaced a foot apart on either side of the permanent arms, favoring those that are pencil-thick and originating either from the permanent arm or near the base of a last or previous year’s cane.

Finally, pruning becomes easy again. All remaining fruiting canes get shortened to 2 feet long and then tied them down to the wires, hopefully as neatly as on Dave’s and Holly’s vines. I will delay these last steps until later in spring.
I realize that not many people grow hardy kiwi vines. You all should: The vines are ornamental (they were brought here and for decades grown strictly as ornamental vines), and the fruits are

delectable and free of pest problems. Even if you don’t grow hardy kiwi vines, though, the above pruning technique could be useful to you. It can be applied, with slight modification, to grapes, which a lot of people do grow.

The only differences with pruning grapes is that the fruiting arms can be spaced somewhat closer along the permanent arm, 6 to 12 inches apart, and each fruiting arm needs to be shortened to only a couple of buds long, at which point they take on a new name, “fruiting spurs” rather than “fruiting arms.”
Whether for grapes or for hardy kiwi vines, training to a T trellis and annual pruning presents me, in late summer on into fall, with “ceilings” of delicious berries splayed out and ready for easy harvest.