Archive for the ‘edibles’ Category

Espaliered fruit trees

Cordon espaliered trees along a fence. (image via Fiskars)

Last week I wrote about the apricot tree I’m putting in to my garden this year, but I’m not going to stop my home-grown fruit attempts there. We’re building a fence this year (really- not like last year, when we just talked about building a fence), and I’ve managed to convince Brian that we should build a lattice fence, rather than the less complicated stockade-style fence. I’m pushing for the lattice fence not just because it will look good, but because it will let lots of light through for plants, including for espaliered apple trees.

Espaliered trees are trained so that the branches grow along a plane, rather than a sphere, cone, or vase. They can be trained along a fence, a wall, or wires that are connected to posts. In Seattle, you can see espaliered apple trees grown along wires in Magnuson Park, or out in Eastern Washington, there are plenty of orchards with espaliered trees. In fact, once you start looking for them, you’ll see them all over the place.

I’ll be growing espaliered trees mostly because they fit in small spaces that would be impractical for even a regular dwarf apple tree. I’m also excited for the challenge of pruning the trees, and because I think they’ll look really neat. My espaliered trees won’t get more than 5 feet tall, so they’ll be convenient for pruning, picking apples, and inspecting for diseases or pests. Many folks claim that espaliered trees are more productive. I haven’t found any good papers proving this, but I may just not know where to look.

"Belgian fence" espaliered trees. (image via CobraHead)

Many people grow espaliered trees by starting with “whips”, which are one or two year old trees that look pretty much like a flexible stick with roots. Apple trees don’t start bearing fruit until they’re a few years old, so I will probably go the impatient route and buy some older trees from Raintree Nursery that have already been trained with three cordons (tiers of horizontal branches). It will be a little more expensive (about $60 per tree), but way less work and harder for me to screw up. We’re lucky to have a somewhat local nursery that sells espaliered trees for an affordable price- many states can’t say the same thing. Raintree Nursery even has several different varieties of espaliered trees for sale, including one which has six apple varieties grafted onto a single tree.

Cordon espaliered olive tree. (image via Kate's Photo Diary/Flickr)

If you want to see lots more pictures of espaliered fruit trees, including some more unusual espaliered fruit trees such as figs and cherries, check out my Pinterest board. I also have photos of some great fences and formal kitchen gardens. If you’d like to interact a bit more with my Pinterest board, but aren’t on Pinterest yet, leave me a comment saying so, and I’ll send you an invite to Pinterest.


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Home-grown Apricots in Seattle

I have dreams of wandering outside and plucking apricots off a tree in my own backyard. Yup, in Seattle.

There are plenty of fruit trees in Seattle- mostly apples, cherries, and plums, along with the occasional pear or fig tree. I haven’t seen an apricot tree in Seattle before, but I’m told it can be done, so I’m going plant one. Apricot trees like dry springs, which of couse Seattle doesn’t have, so there’s certainly a risk that the tree won’t produce fruit, or will outright die. 4-6′ trees only cost about $25, though, and young trees don’t really take up much space, so I figure it’s worth the price for the fun of the experiment.

I’m not going to plant just any apricot tree- like most plants, there are varieties that have been bred to survive and thrive in a range of conditions. The main attributes I’m looking at are the size of the tree and the ability to handle some soggy seasons. If I lived on the East side of the state, I’d also be looking at cold tolerance, and whether the trees are likely to bloom before the last frost (not a good thing). I’ve seen conflicting advice on which varieties produce best in the maritime Northwest, but in the end I’m trusting the folks at Raintree Nursery, because they have plenty of experience dealing with us west-siders.

Puget Gold Apricot

The variety I’ve chosen is called Puget Gold, which is the result of efforts by local breeders. It’s reported to set fruit fine despite our non-ideal springs, has a mature height around 15′, and is self-fertile. Being self-fertile means that it doesn’t need another apricot tree of a different variety nearby, to provide pollen, as many fruit trees do. Having a tree pollinate itself or another of the same variety (they’re produced asexually, which means that every tree of the same variety is genetically identical), leads to inbreeding, so some fruit trees have mechanisms to prevent self-fertilization. I’m not concerned about inbreeding, though, because the pits from my apricots aren’t going to be planted. Self-fertile trees sometimes still produce more fruit with another variety nearby, but I’ll see how my experiment goes before investing more time and space into apricot trees.

Most backyard fruit trees are grafted onto rootstocks. The “tree” part is called the scion, and the root part is the rootstock. One of the most obvious influences of the rootstock is the size of the tree, and how quickly it grows. Rootstocks can have a dwarfing effect, and are often categorized as standard, semi-dwarf, or dwarf. (Standard is the biggest). Rootstocks vary in their tolerance to cold and wet soils, and their resistance to soil pests such as nematodes. My apricot tree will be on a Lovell rootstock, which can also be used for other fruits such as peaches, plums, or almonds.

My first steps to maximize my chances of a healthy tree are to buy from a reputable nursery and properly pick a site and prepare it for planting. I’m counting on the nursery to provide me with a disease-free tree that’s been properly pruned for the last few years. Although I curse the slope of our property when I’m planning a fence or patio (or want to drive somewhere in a snow storm), it does provide excellent drainage, which is good for tree roots. I’m going to remove some arborvitae, to give the site more sun, and also because my arborvitae look uglier every year. If I didn’t already have orchard mason bees to provide pollination services, now would be a good time to order some, but I started raising them last spring, so I’m all set on that front.

Has anyone grown apricots (or peaches) in the maritime Northwest? I’d love to hear both success and failure stories.

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Last week I wrote about easy edibles for beginners, but the post didn’t include much about the importance of the right variety of a plant. Not all tomato or lettuce seeds are equal, and growing varieties that fit our climate, taste good, and look good is key to having fun in the garden. Here’s the scoop on some of the varieties I grew this year:


Sun Gold tomatoes. Seattle gardeners love these orange, early ripening cherry tomatoes, which is especially evident in the P-patch, where every other plot has a Sun Gold plant.

Yellow Perfection tomatoes. Tangy, juicy, firm, prodigious, and pretty. These delicious lemon-yellow 1 1/2 inch tomatoes ripened about two weeks after the Sun Golds.

Thai Dragon peppers. I have maybe a dozen of these tiny hot peppers on one plant. They’re still green, but I have hope that they’ll ripen up to red in the next month. Even if they don’t, the great thing about peppers is that they can be harvested green.

Bibb lettuce. This lettuce makes it to the winners list because it germinated well even in warm weather and because it has a nice taste that’s not too bitter. My plants bolted before I got full size heads, but almost all the lettuce heads I saw at the p-patch were bolting at the same time, so I won’t hold it against this variety. Bibb also didn’t wilt in hot weather, possibly because I watered the plants at least twice a week and they got only morning and mid-day sun, with shade in the afternoon.

“Volunteer” pumpkins. In my pumpkin patch, I don’t weed out seedlings that come from pumpkin seeds in the compost. The named varieties I planted (this year and every year) are mostly disappointments, but several of the volunteer plants have pumpkins that are almost ripe. Pumpkin and squash plants easily cross-pollinate with other varieties, which means that there’s a reasonable chance that these pumpkins won’t make great pies or soups. That’s OK- I’ll use them as decorations or Jack O’ Lanterns. The success of the volunteers helps me believe that the pumpkin patch wasn’t a total waste of space, time, and water.


Cinderella pumpkin loses the prize

Beaverlodge tomato. Mushy. Need I say more?

Early butternut squash. These vines were the first to succumb to powdery mildew, and don’t even have any green squash on them. This was strike three for the early butternut variety- the only ripe squash I’ve ever gotten from it was about the size of those apples in school lunches.

Cinderella pumpkin. These vines grew big and luscious, but the female fruits all withered and fell off before ripening, except for one that spontaneously split down the middle. I can’t blame poor pollination, either, because the flowers were covered with bees and I hand pollinated a few of the female flowers. This year is strike two for the cinderella pumpkin.

Sweet Meat Heirloom squash. I have four plants and only one golf ball size squash. If I’m lucky I’ll get one little green decorative squash by harvest time, while I was hoping for four to eight big, meaty squashes for eating. I should have planted tomatoes, peppers, or pretty flowers in that row instead.

Lettuce mixes. Each year I somehow get suckered into buying a packet of lettuce mix, and every time I’m disappointed at what grows. Someday I’ll learn my lesson. Lettuce mixes generally include both bitter and sweet greens, which is too bad because I don’t like the bitter ones. “Lettuce” mixes often include kale or chard that’s meant to be harvested young to use in salads, but in my opinion both kale and chard are too bitter for salads, and are much more suitable as braising greens.

Middle of the road:

Legend tomato. Legend has a bountiful yield for a slicer grown in Seattle, but the texture is just OK and the flavor is milder than I like. I’d rather grow something with half the yield but twice the flavor.

Gypsy pepper and Little Bells pepper. Every year I get about two ripe 2 inch peppers from each of these plants. This is a little pathetic, but it’s better than the zero or one ripe peppers that I usually get off other sweet pepper plants. I’ve accepted that the maritime Northwest isn’t a great place to grow sweet peppers, but at least the plants don’t take up much room and can handle a fair bit of neglect.

Joe’s Best pie pumpkin. I have three of these plants, and have one almost ripe pumpkin. Like the peppers, this yield is pathetic, but even one ripe pumpkin is a success compared to the other named varieties of winter squash and pumpkin I tried.

Blue Lake pole bean. These tender green beans were easy to germinate and are good producers with no disease or pest problems. They’re on the maybe list because they’re so sweet they’re almost fruity tasting, which isn’t the flavor I’m looking for in a green bean.

What varieties were the winners and losers in your garden this year?

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