Fruit in hand and on stem


Sweet, Juicy, & Tolerant

Nanking cherries (Prunus tomentosa) are now at their peak of perfection, sweet and sprightly flavored, brilliant red in color, still firm, and, as usual, abundant. Nanking cherries are very juicy and not stingy to release the juice. Straight up, it’s the most refreshing juice imaginable.Picking Nanking cherries

You’ve never heard of Nanking cherries? Understandable since they are an uncommon fruit. (And warranted a whole chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, now out of print but in the works for updating and expanding.) As the name tells you, they are native to China, more generally to the cold, semi-arid regions of Asia. This provenance tells you something about the toughness of the plant, where it weathers winter temperatures below minus 20 degrees F. and summer temperatures as high as 110 degrees F. Read more


My Nanking cherries (Prunus tomentosa) made a lot of people happy this year. Joy was first spread in early April as thousands of pinkish white flowers burst open along the stems, enough to almost completely hide the stems. Passers-by enjoyed the hedge of plants, which run along the driveway; some people even asked about the name of the plant.
In early June, the blossoms morphed into small, red cherries, oodles and oodles of them. Now, the end of June as I write, just a few cherries still cling to the stems. Throughout the month of June, though, friends, strangers, relatives, birds, chipmunks, and creatures unseen feasted on the abundance.
Nanking cherries are admittedly small and somewhat hard to harvest because they cling closely to the stems on short stalks, but these two deficiencies are far offset by the care the plants need. Almost none! Every few years, I whack back some stems that become decrepit or send the plant high or wide out of bounds.. And I usually spread wood chips or leaves beneath the bushes as mulch to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture. But neither of these minor tasks is absolutely necessary.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Nanking cherries is that there are no improved varieties. That is, they are all random seedlings, each a genetic individual. Yet they all taste good, ranging in flavor and texture, depending on the individual, from almost sweet to sour cherry. (Compare this to wild apples, which pretty much all taste bad; the good-tasting apples that we have are the result of hundreds of years of selection and breeding.) Nanking cherry fruits are small, as are the wild cherries from which cultivated cherries are derived.
One of my bushes yields cherries that are slightly larger, slightly firmer and, hence, easier to harvest, and slightly sweeter than my other 10 or so bushes. Seeds from that bush didn’t get spit on the ground; I collected them for planting. Nanking cherry bushes bear fruit within a couple of years and repeated selection of plants bearing the best fruits could result in bigger and better fruits. Improvements might also come from widening the genetic input with pollen from a wider range of Nanking cherry individuals and even some related species, such as sweet cherry. The combination of Nanking cherry’s tolerance to winter cold, late spring frosts, and insect and disease pests and sweet cherry’s fruit size, sweeter flavor, and firmness would make a plant that was easy to grow with even tastier fruits.
I’ll report back in years to come. For now, run-of-the-mill Nanking cherry is well worth growing and another perfect fruit for ambulant consumption on the way to the front door or to the mailbox at the end of the driveway.
I have a good excuse for the weediness of one of my gardens: It’s on a roof, not an area I frequently walk past with the opportunity to pull a few weeds. I would have to get a ladder and, because this garden is not to be walked on,  reach in as far as possible. I don’t weed it.
This garden is a “green roof” covering a front porch. Green roofs absorb rainfall and the sun’s heat, insulate whatever is below, and look — well — green and alive. The last reason prompted my roof planting about ten years ago.
Original hens-and-chicks laid on roof
But first I had to build the porch roof. Construction was standard — oak posts and crossbeam with 2 by 8 joists covered by 1 by 6 planks — except for the covering of rubber roofing bonded to copper flashing provided with weep holes at the lower end. Planting was begun the year before with hens and chicks (Sempervivum spp.) in seedling flats filled with a mix of equal parts peat moss and calcined montmorillonite clay (the latter also known as “kitty litter). That spring I snuggled the flats next to each other on the roof. Setting flats on the roof intact would, and did, prevent rainfall from washing the planting mix and plants down the slope, the angle of which was determined mostly by aesthetics. I wanted the top of the roof just visible from the driveway.
The goal was for the hens and chicks to make more chicks, and those chicks to make even more chicks, spreading to make a dense, blue-green mat over the surface and draping over the lower eave. They didn’t spread thoroughly or fast enough.
Angelina now filling in the roof
It takes a tough plant to survive and grow on this roof. The soil mix is only a couple of inches deep so plant roots are exposed to the full brunt of winter cold and summer heat, and the roof gets only natural rainfall. Because hens and chicks weren’t fully up to the task, I started planting other succulents to fill in bare areas amongst the hens and chicks.
Over the years, the most successful of these plants has been Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’. Not only does ‘Angelina’ survive and grow under the austere conditions, but she also looks pretty year ‘round. Right now, the plant is a trailing mat of fleshy, pointed, pale green leaves up through which push foot-high shoots capped with clusters of yellow flowers. In fall and winter, the leaves take on an amber hue. The plants root very easily to furnish new ones to fill in the few remaining bare spots. I pluck off pieces of shoots and toss them back onto the roof to eventually root and spread. Very convenient. 
It’s hard to imagine how weeds have gotten onto my green roof, let alone survive. Birds and wind, no doubt, got the plants there. The weeds include fleabanes and some grasses. Some people tell me that these “weeds” look pretty up on the roof, so maybe they’re not weeds. The fleabanes, now in bloom, hold their white, daisy-like flowers high above those of ‘Angelina’. And, if nothing else, both weeds . . . whoops, I mean plants . . . hold the soil in place as ‘Angelina’ continues to spread.


Every time I go near my apple and plum trees, I feel like my Nanking cherry, mulberry, pawpaw, and persimmon plants are laughing and flaunting their fruits at me. Nanking cherry and company are just a few of the fruits that I grow that require virtually no care.
Apples, on the other hand: If you wanted to come up with the most difficult fruit to grow east of the Rocky Mountains, it would be apple. Or plum, or apricot, peach, nectarine, or sweet cherry. The plants actually grow fine; getting fruit is another story. Organically grown fruit, that is.
Apple fruit, already damaged by plum curculio
The reason these common tree fruits are so difficult to grow around here is because of insect and disease problems (and, in the case of apricot, peach, and nectarine, winter cold and late spring frosts). For an insect or disease to cause a problem, three conditions need fulfillment: The presence of the insect or disease, a susceptible host plant, and an environment congenial to the insect or disease. I mulch my apples and plums with wood chips, prune away diseased stems, grow nectar-producing flowers to attract beneficial insects, spray organic concoctions such as kaolin clay, let chickens run loose beneath the plants, blah, blah, blah; and for all that effort, still often reap little or nothing. 
Problem is that the northeast is home to some serious insect and disease problems of apples and company and the environment is much to these pests’ liking, as are the plants. Resistant varieties might be resistant to diseases but not insects or to one disease but not another. No variety is resistant to all the insect and disease pests lurking in forest and field.
Nanking cherries, no need to spray or even prune!
Still, most people, when they consider growing fruit, think first of apples, and then plums, peaches, and other tree fruits familiar on supermarket shelves. In fact, though, there are a slew of other fruits, many of them, like Nanking cherry and company, very easy to grow. As I point out in my new book, GROW FRUIT NATURALLY (Taunton Press, 2011), the first step in growing fruits naturally/organically/holistically is to select those that are naturally well-adapted to the local climate and insect and disease pressures.
This all-important planning step does not preclude growing many common fruits. Pears, for example, both European and Asian varieties, are relatively easy to grow around here. The trees do need pruning but usually can be grown without the need for any sprays, organic or otherwise. With thousands of varieties, pears alone could round out your larder. I grow about 20 varieties.
Berries are also relatively easy to grow. Pruning is important both for good production and to help keep diseases and insects in check. My berry plantings include raspberries, blackberries, black raspberries, gooseberries (more than a dozen varieties!), red currants, black currants, clove currants, elderberries gumis, seaberries, lingonberries, lowbush blueberries, and, my favorite, highbush blueberries. Pest control? I spray insecticidal soap on my gooseberries once, just as the leaves unfold to kill any imported currantworms that may be starting their leafy feast. I mulch my blueberries late each fall to bury any infected berries that could spread mummy berry disease the following spring. And that’s about it for pest control on all my berries.
Still not enough fruit? Well, there are the mulberries. Not run-of-the-mill mulberries, such as grow wild all over the place. But named varieties — Illinois Everbearing, Oscar, and Geraldi Dwarf — selected for their high quality fruits. And cornelian cherries, an excellent stand-in for tart cherries, except much, much easier to grow. They bloom around the first day of spring yet never fail to set a good crop of fruit. The same can be said for Nanking cherries, a hedge of which lines my driveway and is now yielding many more sweet-tart cherries than I, birds, squirrels, and chipmunks could possibly eat. Total effort involved for all these fruits? None.
And the list goes on: pawpaws, persimmons, hardy kiwifruits, juneberries, grapes . . . so many fruits, so little space. The grapes get bagged to keep insects, diseases, and birds and bay.
(Actually, in my microenvironment, juneberries do not bear well because of various insect and disease problems. The solution? I don’t grow them. But as I wrote, that still leaves plenty of fruits that can be grown easily and without any significant pest problems.)
So why do I grow apples and plums? I grow them because I frequently write about fruit growing. I grow them to supplement my “book learning” with what I observe “in the field” (in other people’s “fields” also). I grow them because when I apply all the right sprays at just the right time and the weather cooperates and insect and disease pressures aren’t too, too bad and all the stars align just right, I harvest some very tasty apples.
My pawpaws and hardy kiwifruits
Would I suggest others to plant apples, plums, or possibly peaches, apricots, nectarines, or sweet cherries? Probably not, unless said person was interested in learning a lot about fruit pests, spending a lot of time and no small amount of money dealing with them, and then was willing to accept the fact, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote, tongue-in-cheek and over a hundred years ago in MY SUMMER IN THE GARDEN, that “the principle value of the garden . . . is to teach . . . patience and philosophy, and the higher virtue – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.” All well and good if that’s what you want from planting fruit.