The first crop of pine nuts from the edible Christmas tree.

pine nut cracking

It is a bit of a kiwi tradition to cut down a pine tree for Christmas. Wayward roadside seedling pines that have been minding their own business all year suddenly start vanishing. The smell of pine needles does make the house feel like Christmas, unless you are allergic, in which case they make the house feel like one big sneeze. But instead of chucking the tree out after the big day, how about a living pine tree that could go on to produce edible pine nuts for years to come?

There are a number of varieties of pine tree that have edible kernels but Pinus pinea, European stone pine, is the one I’m growing. It has a really tidy little mop top when young and I think it would make a wonderful Christmas tree that you could plant out afterwards rather than throw away.

pine nut conesA year ago I took a wander down to a corner of the property I don’t visit very often. It is a boggy shady spot that we planted out around 6 or 7 years ago. I spotted shiny green pine cones peeping out of the needles of the lone pine nut tree planted in among the natives and other edibles. Pine nut trees take around 6 years before they set their first nuts, so the timing was bang on.

Scooting back inside to look up when I could pick them, I was already concocting visions of homegrown pesto later in the summer when the basil came on. But google told me my hard little green pine cones were 2 years in to a three-year journey to maturity, so I had another year to wait.how to grow pinenuts

Nine or ten years from planting may sound like a long time to wait when you’re thinking about planting edibles, but if you just plant it and forget about it, it’s like getting an unexpected Christmas present when you find them suddenly producing.

So one year on I paid the trees another visit and sure enough the tight green cones had bulked out into lovely large chestnut brown cones that were ready to harvest. I couldn’t have been more chuffed.

Pine nuts trees are as tough as old boots and grow anywhere a Radiata pine tree will grow and they get to the same size too! They don’t need a pollinator so you can get away with having one tree if space is an issue.

 

growing pine nuts

I dislodged the cones with a pole saw and carried them back to the house to dry in an old soil sieve propped up in the sunny front porch. Apparently you need to harvest them before they open or the nuts will fall out or get eaten. Sure enough, the cones popped open to release the pine nuts after a week or two. When I say released, I mean the cones opened. The pine nuts were still locked away in tight little cases that defied all conventional cracking methods. A pair of pliers and a good movie proved the most effective extraction method.

how to open pinenuts

I think these living Christmas trees are so much better than a plastic Christmas tree, or a live one that you just throw away – and think of the pesto! I will admit that cracking them is a labour of love, but the sappy fresh cones, placed in bowls, will fill the house with the smell of Christmas. And any festive visitors who ask “anything I can help you with?” can be set to work with a pair of pliers.

pine nut cracking

I was surprised at how many nuts the one tree produced from its first harvest. I’ve got another row of pine nut trees that will start producing in another year or two so I might have to come up with a better way of cracking them. Any suggestions?

So before you rush out and get yourself a plastic Christmas tree or a one use radiata job – think about buying a pinenut tree for your living room this Christmas then plant it out and in a decade or so you’ll be picking your own pinenuts too – by then I will have worked out how to crack them for you.

pinenut tree

 

 

GROW GREAT APRICOTS & 4 GREAT WAYS TO EAT THEM

newcastle apricts

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love apricots. Plums are plentiful and peaches are nice, but apricots are really special. They top most sun-ripened summer fruit wish lists. Unlike other stone fruit, apricot trees are long lived. An apricot tree will start producing after 4 years and can be productive for a good 30 to 40 years. So if you are contemplating putting in an apricot tree, do your homework to ensure you get the right variety for your climate and the right root stock for you soil.

Apricot trees available to the home gardener are usually grafted onto either peach or plum root stocks. Plum root stocks produce a more vigorous tree, especially in heavy soils. I planted 4 different varieties of apricots in our orchard, one of them was grafted on plum root stock and it has done very well, the other three varieties on golden queen peach root stock languished for several years in our heavy clay, putting on very little growth, and no fruit, before I finally pulled them out.

moorpark apricots

Most apricots also do better with a good cold winter; what is known as “winter chilling” helps the trees productivity. If you live in a warmer part of the country, look out for varieties that need less winter chilling such as Sundrop, Katycot, Trevatt, Garden Annie or Royal Rosa. Apricots are largely self fertile so you only need to plant one. Sundrop is the exception and prefers the company of Trevatt to set really good crops of fruit.

Apricots are one of the first trees in the orchard to blossom and in some parts of the country, pollination can be affected by a late frost or cold snap while the apricots are in blossom. Try and select a sunny, airy spot for your tree. Good airflow around your apricot will lessen the risk of frost damage to the blossom and also fungal diseases and brown rot on the fruit.

Pruning

how to prune apricot trees-01

Apricots like an open centered, multi-leader tree. When you prune, keep the tree nice and open so that plenty of sunlight gets in to ripen the fruit. The less vigorous branches tend to produce more fruit. Any vigorous branches going straight up should be removed and you should aim to take about 30% of the tree out each year. Late summer pruning after harvest is also a good way of reducing the vigour of the tree. Pruning back to downward facing buds also reduces the vigour.  You’re aiming to have a mixture of old wood with new growth coming on, as apricots fruit on second year wood.

If you do have room for more than one apricot tree, you can choose different varieties to make sure you have apricots throughout the height of summer. If you have room for two trees, choose and mid and late variety as the apricots that ripen after Christmas always seem to have better flavour. Aside from pruning, apricot trees do benefit from a spray of copper in late winter to kill off any fungal disease.

Early Varieties – Dec/Jan

  • Royal Rosa (low chill)
  • Katy Cot (low chill)
  • Sundrop (low chill) (partially self fertile but best with Trevatt as a pollinator)
  • Newcastle

Mid Season Varieties – Jan/early Feb

  • Robada
  • Moorpark
  • Cluthagold

Late Season Varieties – Late Feb

  • Trevatt
  • Cluthalate

homemade dried apricots

When your tree starts producing more apricots than you can scoff fresh, you will be looking for some ways to preserve the excess. Here are a few of our favourite ways to store them for use throughout the year.

Apricots don’t really need a lot of accompaniment, but if I had to choose one thing to partner them with it would be cream. This great recipe for apricot ice cream from Homegrown Kitchen is fantastic made with real cream, or coconut cream.

My second favourite way to preserve the excess crop is to dry them. Drying your own apricots couldn’t be easier and gives you a fantastic store cupboard ingredient for use in cookies, cheesecakes, muesli, desserts and even chicken casseroles. Homemade dried apricots don’t contain the sulphur used in commercially dried apricots and they store very well in a glass jar with a screw lid.  I am just under two months away from my next harvest and I am still happily using dried apricots from last season. To dry apricots, pick fruit that is ripe but still slightly firm. Pour boiling water briefly over the whole fruit in a colander to wash and soften the skin. Drain well, halve, stone and place in the dehydrator until the fruit is no longer squidgy between your fingers. If you don’t dry them properly they will go mouldy in the jars. They are not as soft as commercially dried apricots but you can re-hydrate them before use.

Another great thing to do with apricots is use them in your favourite plum sauce recipe instead of plums. The resulting spicy apricot sauce makes a mean glaze for pork ribs or grilled chicken. My sister gave me this idea and it is a total winner.

A final sweet treat is dried apricots steeped in a syrup made from a sweet wine, like autumn muscat or a sweet Riesling, with a little vanilla pod. A jar of these in the fridge is handy for serving with a good vanilla ice cream. So what are you waiting for, plant an apricot tree next winter.

And to prove how long-lived apricot trees are – look at this 60 year + tree on a Motueka hop farm. So big it is being picked by hydra-ladder.

massive apricot tree

 

 

Growing and Cooking with Elderberries

how to grow elderberry

There is nothing new under the sun and when it comes to the elder, never a truer word was spoken. Hippocrates mentioned its purgative qualities over 2000 years ago and through the centuries the flowers, leaves, bark and berries of the elder have all been used by herbalists and cooks for their varying properties.

The showy fragrant flowers of the elder are currently back in fashion, popping up as a flavouring in more artisan products than you can shake a stick at. These days you can wash down your elder flower ice-cream with an elder flower cider while sniffing wafts from your elder flower scented soy wax candle. But they are most commonly used at home for making cordials and homemade champagne; bursting forth in spring, bringing the otherwise nondescript elder trees out of hiding across the countryside.

This is when that other recently trendy pastime known as “foraging” takes place and roadside elder trees get denuded of any flower heads within arms reach. If you are lucky enough to find a tree laden to the ground with elder flowers you will probably find a very large ditch between you and it – explaining why it still has flowers. Roadside foraging is all well and good, but I’ve never been a fan because of all the exhaust fumes the poor old plant has endured and also because of the prodigious ability for local councils to drench roadside foliage with herbicide each spring. Finding a friendly farmer was always another option as elder trees can often be found around old cow bales and in hawthorn hedges.

Elderberry Growing-01

But old cow bales and hawthorn hedges are also on the endangered list and growing your own elder tree is a more straightforward option to ensure your supply of flowers and berries. The elder is a medium-sized deciduous tree that grows prodigiously. It can be pruned heavily to keep it in check if size is an issue. I probably shouldn’t tell you they’re easy to propagate from cuttings, seeing as we sell elder trees, but they are.  Take cuttings from elder trees in winter and put them closely together in a pot of damp sand. Come spring they will sprout away and you can prick them out into pots to grow on before planting out the following spring.

how to grow elderberry trees

Pick elder flowers by snipping the whole flower head from the tree. A gentle shake before putting them in your basket helps dislodge insects. I don’t wash them as I don’t want to lose the precious pollen – another reason to make sure you harvest them from a clean, spray-free tree. The flowers infuse jams with their floral fragrance. Gooseberries are ripe at the same time and make a wonderful jam combination. Nicola Galloway from Home Grown Kitchen steeped elder flowers in a jar of honey last year, which I thought a lovely idea.

I’ve also dried elder flowers by snipping the blossoms onto trays in the dehydrator and have found the dried flowers keep very well in a glass jar. They are great for flavouring fermented sodas and wine vinegar, for use in dressings. A handful of dried flowers steeped in a simple sugar syrup also makes a lovely elder flower concentrate. A bottle of this in the fridge keeps forever and makes an instant cordial with a squeeze of lemon or lime and a summery addition to a glass of bubbles.

elderflower syrup

There are several varieties of elder you can plant. Elderberry Adam is known for its fruiting qualities, producing large bracts of showy blossoms which ripen into heavy heads of berries late summer. Elderberry Purple Guincho has deep purple foliage and blossoms with a sweet purple tinge.  The Golden Elderberry has a showy yellow foliage and creamy white blossoms. These two colourful varieties are not as vigorous as the green leafed elderberry so they make a good choice for a small space. I also have a delicate lacy leafed elderberry which I haven’t formed an opinion on yet.

buy elderberry plants nz

Although the flowers often steal the show, I am more of a fan of the berries – if I can beat the birds to them. A good bit of advice is not to plant an elder near your clothes line. Let’s just say the purgative properties work as well on the birds as they do on humans and on the stain-o-meter, elder berries are off the chart. When I was a student I used to make a mean elderberry wine with berries “foraged” from Otago beaches and the carpet in one student flat bears testament to the permanence of pigment from an over-zealous fermenting bucket of elderberries.

The berries of the elder ripen in mid summer but they look ripe a lot sooner than they are, due to their intense dark colour. You know elderberries are ripe and ready to pick when the large bracts of berries droop their heads and the stalks start to lose their vigour. Even when they are ripe, elderberries still need to be cooked. Raw elderberries, stalks and leaves contain a toxin that is neutralised by cooking. The good news is that they taste terrible raw, so you are going to want to cook them anyway.

how to grow elderberry

The cooked berries have a lovely rich smokey flavour that lends itself to all sorts of culinary marriages. The sweetness of apple works beautifully with elderberry in jams and jellies and these creations are wonderful with pork or chicken dishes to flavor gravy or serve with cold meats.

Spices like cinnamon and star anise also partner really well with elderberry in a syrup that makes an excellent tonic for what ails you. In particular the treatment of colds, inflammation and those infamous purgatory qualities are all delivered by a good shot of elderberry syrup.

Preparing the berries is best done by running a sink of cold water and giving them a good wash to remove dust and bird poo, then hold the stem of each bunch and run a kitchen fork through it to strip off the berries then discard the stalks. I don’t like using the stalks as they give the cooked berries a stalky bitter flavour.

growing elderflowers

I adapted my fruit cordial recipe to make the elderberry syrup, adding whole cinnamon and cloves for spice – it has proven a bit medicinal for some palates, so adjust the sweetness to suit. A spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down after all.

Sex in the Asparagus Bed

how to grow asparagus

Growing asparagus at home isn’t a crop, it’s a relationship. An asparagus bed can last for up to 20 years so it is little wonder that those considering the endeavour want to do a bit of research before making their bed and lying in it. And when doing their homework, one of the first issues that would-be asparagus growers come up against is the complicated sex life of asparagus. Well it seems complicated but it’s really quite straightforward. In fact antics in the asparagus bed are more like those in the human bed than the plant world – not that that is necessarily always straightforward, but at least it’s understandable.

You see unlike most plants, asparagus plants are either male or female and, a bit like us, the female plants produce the fruit. In their case, bright red berries on the ferny foliage denotes the plant is female.  So we get a lot of questions from people wanting to know how to tell the difference between male and female plants and do they need one of each?

The simple answer is that, until they produce ferns with berries you can’t tell them apart but the good news is you don’t need one of each. We don’t eat the fruit of asparagus, we eat the new shoots – and both sexes produce these. The fruit is actually a bit of a nuisance. Male plants that don’t fruit start producing spears earlier in the season and produce between 10 – 20% more shoots than the female plants. Probably because they don’t have to spend energy raising the kids. The berries from the female plants can also self-seed in the bed, clogging things up. But the story doesn’t end there…

asparagus female plants-

Asparagus is one of the oldest vegetables in human cultivation and so over the centuries growers and breeders have kept a keen eye on it and selected varieties for different characteristics including colour, longevity, size, disease resistance, climatic tolerance and even sexual orientation. Yes as it turns out not all asparagus plants are male or female. In the 1960’s Professor Howard Ellison from Rutger State University, New Jersey discovered some hermaphrodite asparagus plants which he self-pollinated and through further breeding created hybrid varieties that produced all male offspring. These varieties often have “Jersey” in the name and are marketed as all male producing.

To confuse matters further home gardeners can also choose from a range of modern hybrid varieties resulting from arranged marriages. These hybrids still produce both male and female plants but may outperform their open-pollinated heirloom cousins in certain departments like disease resistance and longevity.

Confused yet? Well I will admit all this can make choosing a variety of asparagus to grow in your garden quite baffling. Is that fancy violet Italian renaissance model a good idea or should you opt for plain American Mary Washington? Is a same sex marriage from New Jersey going to be any good or should you go for a performance enhanced Pacific 2000 hybrid, with girls included but bred for NZ conditions?

Asparagus eh! Who would have guessed it was such a hot bed. Personally I’m normally all for open pollinated varieties so folks can save and sow the seeds again and again – but when it comes to asparagus – how many beds are you going to have? So I opt for the modern hybrids.  The Pacific 2000 is such a good performer that I don’t mind the odd girl in there bringing down the average and I know it does well in NZ conditions. I’m not against the all-male hybrids but I’m not sure how well they do here.

Some tips on Growing Asparagus

  • There is a common myth that a bucket of salt water will do wonders for your asparagus patch but I can vouch for the fact that a bucket of alpaca poo or any well-rotted manure will be more welcomed. Just because asparagus is salt tolerant doesn’t mean it loves it. I mean I’m brussel sprout tolerant.
  • If you’re growing asparagus from seed, grow the plants in individual pots for the first season and then plant them as one year old crowns the following spring when the soil warms up.
  • Prepare your asparagus bed well in advance of planting. It’s going to be there for a while so it is worth putting time in up front to get it right. Asparagus likes a good free drained soil and plenty of well rotted compost and manure. It is a good idea to dig your row around 30cm deep and the same width and fill the bottom with a mixture of sandy soil, compost and well rotted manure.
  • Asparagus likes a slightly acidic soil so if your soil is really acidic add a few handfuls of lime to make it more palatable, if it is more alkaline add some garden sulphur and mix it in well before you plant your crowns.
  • Place your crowns in the trench in a two rows spacing each crown 20 cm apart and cover them up until the trench is around 10 cm from the top with more of the soil and compost mix. In the first winter fill in the rest of the trench.
  • Leave your bed the first year without picking it. In its second spring you can start picking and you’ll get a good 3 or 4 weeks of picking spears before it starts to run to ferns. From your third year on-wards you should get a harvest period of around 7-8 weeks from your bed.
  • A well tended asparagus crown from modern hybrid should produce a pound (450g) of asparagus a season so allow 4-6 crowns per person depending on their love for the stuff. If you’re growing the older heirloom varieties allow more crowns per person.
  • Keep the water up to your bed during the growing season and pick daily as it becomes fibrous if left to grow bigger.
  • Eat daily too as once picked it starts losing its natural sugars. Purple asparagus is sweeter and more tender and is good to eat raw sliced in salads
  • White asparagus can be grown by covering purple asparagus with black plastic or mounding it with soil. It is very sweet and popular in Europe.
  • You will know when to stop cutting the spears as they start getting spindly. Don’t over cut it – leave the spears to go to ferns as these provide food for the crowns to produce next years crop.
  • When the ferns start to die off in autumn cut them back to just above ground level and cover them with a good layer of compost for the winter.

Now all you have to do is make the hollandaise!

To purchase 1 year old asparagus crowns click here and put your email down to be notified when they are in stock.

 

How to Prune Grapevines like a Pro…

how to prune grapevines

Here is another installment in our fruit tree pruning series – this week we’re tackling grapevines. For a list of our other pruning blogs click here. On a recent sunny winters day I caught up with my friend Julie pruning her 11 year old vines at the beautiful Kina Cliffs vineyard. Julie and her team prune 8,500 vines each winter and what she doesn’t know about pruning grape vines isn’t worth knowing.

She gave me a beginners guide to the most important things to know about pruning grape vines, which the home gardener can put into practice just as easily as the commercial grower. The first thing to know is that grape vines put on a huge amount of growth each season and need a regular pruning regime throughout the year. The bulk of pruning is done each winter. When the leaves drop and you’re left with a big old tangle of vines, where do you start to knock your vine into shape for the coming summer?

how to prune grapevines

The most fruitful wood grows from one year old canes. This means that each winter you want to prune off 90% of the old growth and leave just a few new canes for next years growth to come from.  Last years growth is always cut back to the head which is the top of the trunk of the vine. On a commercial vineyard the trunk is just under a meter tall to allow for easy maintenance between the rows. Over time the trunk thickens and the head forms a gnarly old fist from which the new canes spring forth. The one year old canes growing from closest to the head form the new replacement fruiting canes, and the suckers that sprout straight out of the head can be cut to 3-bud spurs which then grow replacement fruiting canes to tie down the following winter.

pruning grapevines

There is quite an art to keeping the head of the grape vine well maintained and low. If you’re not careful the head can get higher and higher each season so the trick is to select new canes to keep that are lower down the head. You also want to make sure you don’t get two heads developing, so don’t be afraid to lop off part of the head to correct this. If you have a double head you get a big window of low productivity in the middle of the plant. Paint big cuts like this with pruning paste.

how to prune grape vines

It’s pretty brutal watching 90% of the plant ending up on the deck, but it truly makes for productive healthy vines. You’ll find many different methods for pruning grapevines in books for the home gardener – most of them don’t cut back the vines as brutally as this commercial method. But the problem with these home garden methods is that the vine laterals that aren’t cut back keep getting thicker and thicker and you end up with vast trunks all the way along your trellis or fence.

These thick trunks can eventually break their supporting structures, harbor pests, and diseases and produce less vigorous new growth and poorer quality bunches of fruit. With the commercial method you strip out all but a few of the canes each year so this heavy upper story never develops.

how to prune grapevines

The canes that are retained in this commercial method form the framework for all the fruitful new summer growth to come. The best canes to keep are 10-15mm in diameter – larger canes aren’t as fruitful. How many canes to keep each year varies by variety. For her Pinot Noir, Julie only keeps one cane to tie down per plant and three for the more vigorous Sauvignon Blanc vines.

For the home grape vine, leaving 3 or 4 canes for tying up is about right. Another good tip Julie showed me is to leave a couple of spare canes before tying down and that way if you break any of the canes while you’re tying them down you’ve got a replacement – once you’ve cut them off you can’t stick them back on if you need them!

pruning grapevines

The canes that are retained are wound around horizontal wires, about 20cm apart, being careful not to rub the buds off or crack the canes in the process. They’re then tied and cut off at around 10 buds along the cane, leaving them any longer overworks the vine and reduces the quality of the fruit.

how to prune grapevines

By early summer the shoots are all sprouting up, off the new canes. When they’re around 15cm long Julie goes along and thins out double shoots to singles, leaving around 8 or 9 shoots per cane. The fruit will grow off these shoots and during the summer Julie tucks them up through wires into a vertical growing pattern that forces the canes up and exposes the fruit. Each shoot will produce 1-3 bunches of grapes off the lower buds making a harvest of 25-30 bunches per vine.

The bulk of the pruning work is done in winter but during the growing season the vines get laterals around the fruiting zone removed, the fruit thinned and a bit of leaf plucking too around Christmas / New Year to ensure maximum sun on the fruit. The canes are shortened, leaving just enough of a canopy to  produce enough energy to ripen the fruit – leaving around 1m of canopy, above the fruiting zone is about right.

pruning grapevines

Heavy pruning produces consistent large bunches of healthy grapes from new fruitful growth. To sample the Kina Cliffs range of award winning wines visit Kina Cliffs. In the interests of research I’ve tried them and they’re all good.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Grow and Prune a Gooseberry Bush

how to prune gooseberries

So how do you prune a gooseberry bush? Carefully. Not too many decades ago the gentle art of gooseberry pruning would have been known to most home gardeners. Not to worry, all things come back around and gooseberries are a fruit whose time is ripe. What is not to love about them? First to fruit in the spring, relatively untroubled by pests and they take up little space in the garden. Aside from their prickles, they are pretty trouble free motoring. A mature gooseberry bush can yield up to 4 kg of fruit.

I’m planning a gooseberry patch at the moment so I’ve been dipping into my reference library to learn everything I can about how to grow and prune gooseberries. I remember my Dad growing gooseberries. I remember picking them and eating them in the orchard when I shouldn’t have. As far as pruning them I didn’t pay much attention. I remember a stray bull came through the back yard and wiped out one and another one succumbed to a runaway reel mower – but that is about as much as I remember about the gooseberries.

how to prune gooseberries

Luckily my friend Peter had a gooseberry patch in need of some TLC, so with my new-found gooseberry knowledge, I volunteered to go around and do some pruning for him. My “ABC of Pruning” printed in 1963 has 9 pages devoted to gooseberry pruning which I will attempt to condense into a 21st Century bite-sized guide.

There are two types of gooseberries – upright and trailing. Trailing gooseberries, like the one in the picture above, are traditionally grown on a single standard trunk because their trailing tendrils tend to root in the ground if they aren’t grown on a standard trunk. This makes them hard to weed around and encourages mildew spores from the earth to infect the plant.

Upright gooseberries can be grown on a multi-trunk bush and this tends to be more common now as many modern varieties are not trailing. The other benefit to a multi-trunk bush is that if you do happen to get a stray bull in your backyard, or an over zealous weed whacker or cyclone, then having more than one trunk reduces the risk of the entire plant being snapped off at ground level. You’ll be able to tell by looking at the branches whether your gooseberry is trailing (arching branches) or upright (branches growing straight up).

Here is an example of an upright multi-trunk gooseberry bush on the left below. It is the Invicta Gooseberry. Pax is another modern upright variety.

how to prune gooseberries

Establishing the Framework of Branches for the Gooseberry

Not many people do this nowadays, but if you’ve got the patience, establishing a good framework of branches will make your annual pruning easier in years to come. If you’ve bought a gooseberry bush that is already a few years old, the nursery that propagated it should have done this work for you. If they haven’t then do some remedial pruning to establish a strong and open framework of branches that will bear the weight of annual shoots and good sized fruit. It is this framework of branches that you will prune back to each year.

The diagram below shows the first three years of this regime from a cutting to a plant with 6 branches growing out in an open direction from the center.  The idea is to select branches you want to make permanent branches and shorten them by half to just above a bud pointing in the right direction. Completely remove any other branches.  The next winter do the same again and keep doing this until you’ve got a strong open framework of short branches up to 18 in number and a plant around 3 feet (90 cm) in diameter. These short strong branches are heavy enough to carry the weight of a good crop.

how to shape a gooseberry busy

Annual Pruning once Framework Established

If you don’t give your gooseberry bush an annual haircut it will get choked up with weak growth that will not produce many goosegogs and the ones it does produce will be small. If you want good crops of big fruit every summer then you must prune every winter or spring.

The most simple ongoing pruning regime is to cut out at least two thirds of the annual shoots that form off your main branches, leaving the shoots pointing away from the center of the bush and shorten these remaining annual shoots by two thirds. The idea is that you keep the strong annual shoots and give each one enough space so you can get your hand in and around them easily – at least 2 inches between shoots coming off the main branches. Once I get my gooseberry patch underway I’ll put up some photos of this annual pruning to show you it in action.

There is another method called spur pruning which is a little more elaborate and produces larger fruit than the method above. Spur pruning gooseberries involves cutting back one year old side branches to within two inches of their base in spring and the leaders or main branches are shortened by a quarter. This method produces a very sparse gooseberry bush with fewer larger fruit.

Pests and Diseases

Another reason that gooseberries dropped out of favour with home gardeners was the great gooseberry mildew that all but killed off most of the heritage varieties.  No less than 17 different red white, green and yellow gooseberry varieties are listed in my 1944 NZ book ” The Outdoor Culture of Small Fruits”. Now only green and the occasional red variety are commonly available. Modern varieties like Invicta and Pax are less susceptible to mildew but plant gooseberry bushes in an open sunny position rather than a damp shady spot to help avoid mildew.

Other pests include the Gooseberry sawfly whose caterpillars chomp through the leaves. These can be controlled with derris dust or an organic caterpillar product like Diapel or just digit control of the larvae. They winter over on leaves so to prevent getting them in the first place, remove the fallen leaves each winter.  Birds can also be a nuisance, feasting on the protein rich flower buds in winter. Some books suggest leaving pruning until spring to make it harder for the birds to get into the bushes but I would recommend covering your gooseberries with a frame or netting if you see the birds eating your buds.

Preparing the Ground & Planting

Although they don’t like damp conditions above ground, they do like moisture below ground. Gooseberries don’t like to dry out and so working the ground to a depth of 2 feet (60cm) and digging in plenty of compost will create a nice rich soil that will hold plenty of moisture. All the books suggest that blood and bone and manure should be applied around gooseberry bushes annually in winter and forked into the soil in spring. They do like a good feed to keep them healthy and yielding heavily. Plants should be spaced about 5 feet (1.5m) apart to allow room to work the soil and get around the plants for picking and pruning.

gooseberry bush after pruning

 

Cultivating Gooseberries

Gooseberry bushes are struck from cuttings. If you want to produce a single trunk or standard gooseberry then take a long cutting and rub the buds off the lower part of the cutting before you plant it otherwise you will get lots of suckers from the base.

I’m lucky enough to have come home with a good rooted sucker off the trailing gooseberry I pruned and I’ve potted it up to grow as a tall standard. It is a variety from the now closed Daelyn Berry Farm and it is known as Daelyn Early Green. I’m also going to plant a Monarch Gooseberry and a Farmers Glory Gooseberry in my gooseberry patch and I’ll update this post with my progress as the garden progresses.

gooseberry standard bush

 

Cranberry Harvesting on the West Coast

how to grow cranberries

Wild Ruby Cranberry

While whitebaiting in Hokitika last winter, I came across an intriguing pamphlet for a local cranberry farm and decided to plan another trip down the coast to catch some cranberries, (easier than whitebait). I’m picking that like me, most New Zealanders wouldn’t know much about the fresh version of this well known American import. Cranberry juice, dried cranberries and cranberry jelly are the limit of my knowledge.

The first thing I learnt when I called to arrange a visit is that cranberries are an autumnal fruit. In New Zealand they’re harvested from mid April through until mid June. The American autumn harvest coincides with a raft of high days and holidays, which may be one reason why the cranberry has become such a culinary institution there. Thanksgiving turkey without cranberry sauce would be like new spuds without mint.

how to grow cranberries

So in early May, I headed south and spent a beautiful sunny afternoon harvesting with Stephen and Dianne Sheaf at “Wild Ruby Cranberries“, just south of Greymouth. While we worked, they shared their story. They started out planting in 2007 and eight years later I got the feeling that I was standing there with New Zealand’s foremost experts on the cultivation of true American cranberries.

Not that they would class themselves as that. Their expertise is not the “read it in a book” type. It is expertise gained through doing. In the early years they did rely on advice from other New Zealand growers but as they worked with the plants, they learnt what actually worked for them on the ground, rather than what worked on paper – sometimes at great cost to their patience and wallet.

fresh cranberries

Doing anything new always has its challenges and cranberry growing is pretty new to New Zealand. But Dianne and Stephen are certainly doing something right. A visit to the farm from the senior technical advisor to Ocean Spray, the main American cranberry consumer brand, gave them hope that they were on the right track. He had never seen cranberries of such a deep red hue and large size in North America.

If New Zealand could supply high quality fresh cranberries for the American market in their off-season it could be a valuable export crop. However there are still a few technical issues to overcome. The cranberry likes a certain soil acidity with a ph of between 4.5 – 5.5 and growing temperatures lower than 25°C. They don’t like rich soils and nitrate fertilisers, which tend to promote runner growth at the expense of fruiting.

Contrary to popular belief, they don’t like wet feet. The crop is flooded for ease of harvesting in the US because the hollow berries float to the top and can be easily skimmed off their thin stems. But during the growing season the plants are kept damp and are grown in quite free draining sandy soils.

how to grow cranberries

Wild Ruby cranberry farm is planted on an ancient coastal swamp made by a filled in lagoon. It has a thick layer of silt over pure gravel. Stephen and Dianne cleared the gorse and painstakingly prepared the land with 10 cm of sawdust on top of the silt, then a top coat of sand before planting out 100,000 cranberry plants at 23 cm apart.

They have planted several varieties for successive cropping and to evaluate which performs best. Bergman is early and ripens around March. Pilgrim ripens from mid-April and Stevens is about 2 weeks later. Of the three, Pilgrim has been the most prolific performer and forms the bulk of the 1.54 tons harvested this season. These are true American cranberries, not to be confused with the plant that has been marketed as the “NZ Cranberry”. This is actually a Chilean guava with a tiny fruit and a bushy growth habit, very nice but completely different to true cranberries as you can see below.

fresh cranberries

The plantings started fruiting within 3 years and have been relatively pest free. The lovely matted carpet is a favourite place for ducks to park their bums in the sun but they don’t seem to eat the berries. Rabbits don’t stay long because any burrow they dig fills with water. Weeds seem to be the main enemy, and after a few years of painstaking hand weeding, Dianne reluctantly resorted to an annual application of spray, but far enough out from fruit set so that the crop is spray free.

Cranberry plants are long-lived, which is a good thing if you’ve got to plant 100,000 per hectare, and once established a bed will go on fruiting for many years. The plants knit together forming a low-growing, dense web of thin branches coated in small leaves. It is like walking on a thick spongy carpet. Wild Ruby cranberry farm borders a quiet country road, and after a few years of driving past the farm, one of the locals remarked to Stephen that “they’re not growing very fast are they”.

cranberry plants nz

And as far as crops go they are indeed pretty compact. No climbing ladders, staking or netting is required. But getting a harvest from this paddock of shag-pile is far from effortless. The first challenge is the runners. For some reason NZ cranberries are good at sending out runners, long runners that need to be pruned off each season. Fruit is borne on short upright stalks and the more of these you can encourage the better. Runners just run and don’t produce fruit so they have to come off. Stephen invented and built a lethal looking, pruning machine of rotating blades that goes through the bed, winding up the runners and decapitating them.

The next challenge is harvesting. Again Stephen and Dianne have a machine for the job. It looks a bit like the heavy reel mower I used to run along behind to mow my Granddads lawns. And it does work on the same principle, lifting and cutting the berries, sending them up a little conveyor into a sack at the back.

cranberry growing nz

Next the berries have to be sorted to remove the foliage from the crop using baskets and frames in a two stage process. In good weather this is done down in the beds and then the harvested cranberries are taken up to the shed for washing, drying and packing.

how to grow cranberries

So can you grow them at home? Is it feasible to have your own little cranberry patch?  Yes you could if you had the right conditions.  But if you don’t I’d recommend buying some during the season from Wild Ruby. The fresh berries keep well in the fridge for up to 12 weeks and they also freeze very well.

They are a definite seasonal delicacy and one that comes at a good time of year when all the other berry treats have shut up shop. They are a culinary berry though and in the next blog I’ll show you the fun I had with them in my kitchen when I got them home.

how to grow cranberries

Get to know your Yacon…

yacon harvest

Yacon might be new to most dinner plates but those clever Peruvians have been eating it for quite some time. This sweet nashi pear-like tuber is sweeping through the super-food crowd faster than a dose of goji berries. If you haven’t already, you will soon be hearing about yacon syrup as the next non-sugar sugar.

But don’t let the hype put you off, yacon is a lot easier to grow than goji berries and gives you a much better return for your labors. I planted one small yacon rhizome late last winter in an old concrete wash tub and harvested a big bucket full of tubers this autumn when the tops had started to die off.

yacon growing nz

Yacon is a relative of the sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke and the little rhizomes at the base of the stalks do look like Jerusalem artichokes. It is a perennial and has a small yellow flower at the end of the growing season. If you leave it in the ground the tops will die down over winter and sprout away again from the rhizomes in spring.  You can dig the tubers up like spuds. Yacon tubers keep pretty well in a cool, dark spot or you can also leave them in the ground and dig a few as you need them.

growing yacon nz

If you dig up the whole plant you can break up the rhizomes for replanting. If you’re not replanting till spring, keep them heeled into some dirt or stored a bucket of damp earth over the winter. Yacon will not grow from tubers like spuds, you need a little bit of the rhizome. My one plant produced a dozen plantable rhizomes in one growing season.

Yacon Crowns for Replanting

So why so super?  Well folks, the good thing about yacon is, without too much puritanical nutritional speak, it is full of water and fructooligosaccharide – a sugar that tastes sweet but isn’t metabolized by our body. This makes yacon great for diabetics and dieters alike. The Coke Zero of root tubers.

More interesting still, even though we don’t digest these sugars, the beneficial bacteria in our guts can’t get enough of them. They are a prebiotic, providing food for the probiotic good guys in our intestines. If I add “digestive health”, “gut flora” and “colon” to this paragraph I think we’ll have a yacon nutritional bingo.

Anyway enough of that – what really matters is how to grow them, what do they taste like and how do you eat them? Yacon like rich, loose soil and plenty of water. The tops can grow up to 2m tall and they like a good lot of water to support the growth of the tubers which can get up to a kilo in size. My plant would droop if I didn’t keep the water up to it over summer, but then it was in a tub.

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Yacon tubers are easy to scrape or peel and they have a nice uniform skin with no fiddly eyes or nobbly bits. They’re not starchy like spuds, they’re watery and crunchy like nashi pear. You can roast yacon and it caramelizes well in a bit of butter which is surprising, but they don’t go fluffy – think more like roasted swede (or glazed baby carrots if you’re not from South of the border).

To be honest, I think cooking them is a bit of a shame and my favorite way to eat yacon is raw in salads, wraps, and spicy salsas. Grated, cubed or julienned yacon is a fantastic flavor absorber for whatever you put with it. Peruvians farmers agree, growing yacon around the edges of fields to provide thirst-quenching sweet refreshments at smoko time.

If you’re a hipster paleo foodie you’ll probably find yacon makes a fine smoothie with your Peruvian maca powder and a sprinkling of kale. Do let me know how you get on with that!

A word of caution… just because it’s from Peru doesn’t mean it is going to make you “perform, look and feel amazing”. If someone raves on to you about Peruvian Cuy you can tell them you don’t fancy spit-roasted guinea pig – even if it is a national dish.