Tu b’Shevat, the new year of the trees, is often celebrated with a ritual meal featuring the seven species. While date palms and olive trees are notoriously difficult to grow here in the Mid-Atlantic, it is possible to grow figs, grapes and some varieties of pomegranates right in your backyard.
Indeed, there is a wide variety of fruits you might grow in your yard or even in a large pot on a balcony: from peaches and apples to cherries, blueberries and pears, not to mention more interesting fruits like Asian pear, pie cherry and paw paw. Besides cultivating abundance in the world, growing fruit in your yard is a culinary adventure leading to homemade jams, fruit butters, pies and chutneys, not to mention enhanced relations with all your friends and neighbors!
It’s true that growing fruit in the Mid-Atlantic is sometimes known as the holy grail of organic farming. Commercial production of marketable hand-fruit in our region is challenging. It seems that all the pests and diseases of the northern clime and all the funguses and blights of the southern regions overlap right here in the temperate Mid-Atlantic. The flip side? So do the species that grow in our climate. Commercial growers of apples, peaches and other tree fruits in our area rely on copious amounts of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides to produce attractive fruit.
Not everyone is quick to spray, however; Eric Rice of Country Pleasures Farm in Frederick County has been growing diverse fruits organically for the past 30 years.
“Growing organic seemed like a better environmental decision and potentially a better economic decision as well,” said Rice, who also serves as a member of the faculty in the engineering department at Johns Hopkins University when he’s not pruning apples or picking blueberries.
Rice recently gave up his spot at the coveted Dupont Circle farmer’s market after 16 years of selling fruits, veggies, herbs and beef from his herd of Banded Galloways as well as numerous jams, jellies and other homemade goodies.
“We used to have a sign saying ‘The ugly apple is back’ on account of our heritage varieties of apples. We grow all types of unique varieties that taste magnificent but don’t look like the airbrushed pictures in pesticide catalogues,” said Rice. “If we could get people to try them they always bought them.”
Rice and his partner, Lori Leitzel-Rice, gave up their spot at the market because they needed their Sundays to work on their newest project: an organic winery offering craft hard ciders and wines and hopefully opening later this year.
“Growing fruits in one’s backyard is a good idea, if not without its challenges,” said Rice. “It gives folks a chance to explore all kinds of possibilities: both traditional and non. Apples and pears are good, but you can also try things like honeyberry (a relative of the blueberry) or hearty kiwi.”
Some things to be aware of when choosing backyard fruits include varieties, location and the eventual size of the tree. Some fruits, like kiwi, require male and female plants to produce fruit. Likewise, some fruits, like the Mutsu apple, require two different varieties so as to cross-pollinate. Pruning is another important aspect of fruit tree cultivation, which helps keep trees healthy, combats diseases and impacts the size and shape of fruits.
Maybe most important, however, is choosing the right variety. There are thousands of varieties of popular fruits like apples and blueberries. It’s a good idea to research the varieties out there or consult with an expert, as you really want to get one with the right disease resistance and ripening time for your area. Rice says that the most important thing is to choose an early ripening variety as by mid-season the pests become more and more active.
Regardless of what you choose, the experience of sharing buckets of delicious fruit with your family and friends is a treasure—not to mention all that jam!
Top photo: Asian pear trees