If your aronia bush is doing well next to your honeyberries and goumi but you’re fighting the birds over your chokecherries, then you probably know all about growing unusual fruit. For many South Sound gardeners, however, it’s a whole new world of edible gardens – but one that holds a lot of promise in our climate, and offers yummy, super-healthful produce to boot.
Shauna Cozad is one of the brave souls growing fruit that the rest of us have never heard of, and she’s delighted with the results so far.
“I wanted to have an entirely edible landscape and to start with a corner of unusual berries, things I’d never heard of,” says Cozad of the garden in the Tacoma house she bought last year with her partner Chris. They’d met on a hike in the Cascades where Cozad, a Californian, was entranced with a landscape that let her pick thimbleberries, huckleberries, salmonberries and the like while walking along.
“I’m a natural scavenger,” Cozad says with a grin, “and I wanted to bring that home.”
Luckily for her, she soon found a nurseryman who also delighted in weird fruit – Scott Gruber of Calendula Nursery, who sells out of his East Tacoma property and the Proctor Farmers Market.
“There are lots of reasons to grow unusual fruit,” says Gruber, who stocks as many honeyberries and gooseberries as he does blueberries. “They have tasty fruit. Some make a great wildlife refuge, especially Northwest natives, and some trees have outrageously beautiful foliage. And kiwis do really well here, they grow like mad.”
As soon as she could, Cozad starting filling up her North End garden with fruit. Behind a sidewalk yard of pears, cherries, peach-plum and Asian pear trees, her “unusual berry corner” stretches between the front fence and the garden path. A goumi sports silvery oval leaves, with cherry-like red fruit to come. The gooseberry bush is thorny but the pale pink fruit bursts sweetly tart on the tongue. Between two young honeyberries, whose oblong, purply-black fruit have already been eaten up, is an aronia bush, its tiny clustered fruit just turning from green to deep red – when they’re black, they’ll be ripe.
Alongside the house are Alpine strawberries that’ll bear tiny white fruit next spring, and on the upstairs balcony two akebia vines tendril voraciously around an Arctic (smooth) kiwi. The bushes are all young still – no purple, sausage-shaped akebia fruit or pink lemonade berries yet – but they’ve survived the winter and are thriving in the Tagro-bark mulch mix amid the vegetable boxes and grape vine – and Cozad’s already planning a lingonberry groundcover.
“I pretty much hand over each paycheck to Scott,” she says with a laugh. But even though she’s paying up to $30 more per plant than a conventional berry at a chain store, Cozad thinks it’s well worth it: “They’re extra rare and yummy. I’ll appreciate them in the long run.”
And she’s looking forward to the harvest, for both visual and gustatory reasons.
“I’m a bit of a health nut,” Cozad admits, “and all these berries are hyper-antioxidant. I eat as many diverse things as I can.”
But Cozad’s garden also has plants that Northwesterners are more used to – just not the eating part. Her salal bush has ripened already in the full sun, and the berries are both bigger and more flavorful than blueberries. You can eat Oregon grape berries, says Gruber, though it pays to wait until they’re super-ripe and then juice them. Red huckleberries, thimbleberries and other natives are also good edible garden choices.
You can even grow cranberries.
“The automatic notion everyone has is that you can only grow cranberries in a bog,” explains Gruber. “But the only reason for the bog is so the field can be flooded easily so the berries can float to be harvested. They will grow in wet conditions, but in a garden too.”
Gruber tends to sell fruit that are native to places with similar weather to ours: Japan, China, Europe. Even so, he says, you have to be prepared to look after your bushes and trees. With our Northwest moisture, the possibility is high for fungus, rust and other diseases. Getting dwarf-size trees allows you to care for them better (and protect your fruit from the birds), but Gruber thinks anything’s worth a try.
And don’t think that you need to wait for spring to plant.
“Fall is the best time to plant anything,” says Gruber, “but if a plant comes out of a pot it’s always better off in the ground, whatever the time of year. Just keep it watered.”
Maybe the biggest reason to grow fruit that no one else has heard of, however, is that you won’t be able to get it anywhere else.
“There are things you can buy in the store or market, and there are things you definitely can’t,” says Cozad. “That’s the direction I want to go in.”
STRANGE FRUIT GLOSSARY
If you want to plant something you’ve never heard of or can’t find anywhere else, here’s a list of fruit to try.
PRUNUS DULCIS — Ukraine. Soft-shelled almond, one of the only choices for growing north of California. Blooms later than other varieties with pinkish-white, fragrant flowers. Best pollinated with another variety for heavy nut production. 25 feet. At least 1/2 day sun.
ACTINIDIA ARGUTA — New Zealand. Vigorous disease- and pest-free vines that can quickly cover a wall, fence or arbor, and produce tons of fruit in fall. The smooth-skinned fruit is sweeter than fuzzy kiwis. Plant one male to pollinate several female plants; fruiting takes several years. Full sun.
PYRUS BETULIFOLIA — Asia. Big, sweet, juicy fruit in October with long shelf life in refrigerator. Best production with another Asian pear variety. Semi dwarf 12-15 feet high. Sun.
PRUNUS VIRGINIANA — Eastern America. Small tree that can be pruned down, with dark red, tart fruit in summer. 20 feet. Full sun-light shade.
CORNUS MAS — Ukraine. A unique species of dogwood, with yellow flowers in February and delicious grape-size, bright yellow, sweet-tart fruit in summer. 12-15 feet. Sun.
FICUS CARICA — Asia. Ornamental with amber-fleshed brown fruit in July and September. Dwarf varieties can grow in container. 12 feet. high. Sun.
Goumi (cherry silverberry)
ELAEAGNUS MULTIFLORA — Asia. Deciduous shrub with silvery-green oval leaves and cherry-like red fruit in mid-late summer. Can grow in poor soil. 6-20 feet. Sun.
LONICERA CAERULEA VAR. EDULIS — Asia. Small shrub in the honeysuckle family, with fruit is similar to wild blueberries. Plant two varieties for fruit in early summer. Sun to shade, moist soil. 3-4 feet high by 5-6 feet wide.
VACCINIUM VITIS-IDAEA — America. Native Northwest evergreen groundcover with pinkish-white flowers and bright red tasty tart fruit in early summer and at Thanksgiving. 12 inches high. Sun to part shade.
MESPILUS GERMANICA — Europe. Large, lush leaves, delicate white camellia-like flowers in mid-spring, fall fruit like small apples requires bletting (letting them go mushy) on tree or inside. Tastes like fresh applesauce. 10 feet. Sun, part sun.
CYDONIA OBLONGA — Europe. Not a ‘flowering quince’ but a fruiting tree producing large, whitish-pink flowers and large yellow fruit in early fall for baking, sauces and preserves. 12-15 feet. Part-full sun.
HIPPOPHAE RHAMNOIDES — Eastern Europe. Profuse clusters of bright orange berries and narrow, graceful, gray-green foliage. Very high in Vitamin C, E, and A. Grows anywhere from bogs to full-sun dunes. Male and female plants needed for fruit. 8-10 feet.
AMELANCHIER ALNIFOLIA — America. Large Northwest native shrub with clusters of fragrant white flowers March-May and round black berries in June-July that taste and look like wild blueberries with a hint of tart apple. Gray-green leaves turn golden in autumn. 6-30 feet. Sun to shade.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti @thenewstribune.com