By Susanne von Rosenberg, U. C. Master Gardener of Napa County
Regular readers of this column know that it is possible to grow vegetables year-round in Napa County. But did you know that with some strategic planting you can also have fresh fruit almost all year?
Even if you don't intend to have home-grown fresh fruit year-round, it's still a good idea to give some consideration to spreading out your harvest. So many types of fruit ripen from August through October that it's easy to end up with a glut in late summer and early fall. Why not spread out your harvest instead?
With a little planning you can harvest fruit over a six-month period, and with more careful planning and a bit of adventurousness you can have fresh fruit all year. Take inventory of what you're growing now, and then fill gaps in your harvest calendar by selecting the right varieties of plants. Now is a great time to consider what to add.
You can think of fruits as belonging to one of four primary categories: deciduous tree fruit, citrus, perennial vine and cane fruit, or annual fruit. Some gardeners rely mostly on tree fruit; however, annual fruits and perennial vine and cane fruits can extend your harvest. Growing fruit from these different categories will give you the greatest flexibility.
Fruits that store relatively well, like apples and citrus, can extend your fresh-eating season. When you research varieties, look for information on storage quality as well as harvest period.
Deciduous fruit trees can provide a crop from June through late November or early December. These trees include stone fruits (such as peaches, nectarines and plums) and pome fruits (apples, pears and quince). If you plant early, mid-season, and late varieties of some of these types of fruits, you can usually get fresh fruit from June through October.
Figs are also an option. Some types set an early crop (referred to as a breva crop) in June as well as a main crop later in the summer. Pomegranates and persimmons round out the deciduous fruit season. They ripen late in the year, typically late October through early December. Apples and some varieties of persimmons have proven to be my best bet for fruit that stores well.
The period from mid-December through January presents the greatest challenge for the year-round fruit gardener. You've used up your deciduous tree fruit and are still waiting for your citrus to ripen. But by late January or February, depending on where you live, mandarins, navel oranges and kumquats start to ripen. In most areas of Napa County, citrus can be harvested into March and possibly April.
Check the ripening period for the citrus variety you're considering, because some mandarins and sweet oranges ripen in the summer. All sweet citrus needs heat to develop its sweetness; and all citrus is frost sensitive, so make sure you understand the temperature tolerance of the variety you're planting. Kumquats and some mandarins are fairly hardy.
Once your citrus is harvested, there may be another short gap until May when you begin to enjoy strawberries from plants planted in late winter. Some of the newer varieties of raspberries also bear fruit starting in May. Loquat trees are another source of relatively early fruit; in our climate loquats ripen in May. Loquat trees flower in the winter and the flowers are frost sensitive. They may not be suitable for the colder areas of Napa County, but they grow all over the city of Napa.
What if you prefer not to plant fruit trees or don't have much space? Start with everbearing strawberries. They produce fruit from May through October, although the fruit quality declines as the weather cools. If you also plant raspberries, blackberries and boysenberries you'll also be able to harvest fruit from June through October.
Kiwis are good late-season option. They typically ripen in November and December. Kiwi vines are dioecious, meaning there are male and female vines. You need at least one male plant per 10 female plants. A mature kiwi vine can produce up to 50 pounds of kiwis per year, and be up to 30 feet long, so a trellis or other support is essential.
To extend your fruit harvest, it pays to be adventurous. Cape gooseberries (also known as golden berries) are a tender perennial in the tomato family that produces small yellow “berries” in husks. They look a bit like miniature tomatillos and have a sweet-sour taste. Cape gooseberries have approximately the same harvest period as tomatoes and store very well. I still have some on my kitchen counter that I harvested in October.
Or you could grow late-ripening melons, such as Valencia, that can be stored for up to four months after harvest without losing their sweetness and taste. Heirloom seed catalogs can steer you to these and other unusual fruits to try.
It's easy and fun to extend your fruit harvest. Simply start with one new plant. Or give your creativity full reign and plan a mix of different fruit-bearing plants to have a harvest all year.
Next workshop: “Citrus: Preserve It, Serve It” on Thursday, January 16, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Presented by UC Master Food Preservers. For more details, contact Robin at 530-621-5538 or firstname.lastname@example.org. REGISTER ONLINE with credit card or check.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a garden question, visit the Master Gardener website (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.