As we enter the end of summer’s bounty here in the Hudson Valley, luxuriating in local berries, stone fruits, and tomatoes, it’s a good time to start thinking about where much of our fruit comes from for the rest of the year. We’re accustomed to having access to so many varieties of fruit in stores that we may balk at the prospect of eating only locally, fearing that it will mean nothing but applesauce all winter long. But once we learn the full range, quality, and beauty of the fruit that can thrive in our area, we see that there’s no sacrifice at all—quite the opposite, in fact, as anyone who has forked over big bucks for a few pints of berries can understand. And it’s important to separate fruit production from agriculture in our minds. For an aesthetically minded homeowner, many of the fruiting trees and shrubs are as beautiful as any of the ubiquitous inedible ornamental plants around most of our houses. By using more edibles in our landscaping, we can make a major change in our fruit consumption patterns and have more beautiful yards to boot, with little of the work associated with gardening. Simply put, we can have our pretty flowers and eat them too.
Any serious tomato fan will agree that there’s no point in eating them fresh any time other than high summer—they’re simply not the same thing. Canning them whole or in sauces is the solution for the long, dark, tomatoless nine months of the year, and we’re okay with that; it’s just the nature of tomatoes, and pleasure is what eating them is all about. Other than apples and pears, not much else grown here can be stored for very long without also being canned or frozen. So we dutifully capture sunshine in jars by making jams, jellies, and chutneys, and by freezing bags of berries for eating and baking all winter long. It’s what our ancestors did out of necessity, and we must accept that a real effort to eat locally in our region is going to require applying the Tomato Rule to all our fruit; preservation at the peak of ripeness for subsequent use in cooking is the future as well as the past. The simplest way to make this reality a blessing—a source of flavorful delight, rather than a limiting burden—is to increase the variety of fruit that we grow.
Equatorial Hudson Valley
Lee Reich is a writer, teacher, and consultant who lives in New Paltz. He has multiple graduate degrees in horticulture and soil science, and tends a remarkable “farmden” (“more than a garden, less than a farm,” from his website) on a modest plot south of Rosendale. His most recent book, Landscaping with Fruit (Storey Publishing, 2009), describes about 40 of his favorite fruit-bearing plants from an edible, aesthetic, and maintenance point of view. His focus is on maximizing variety, flavor, and beauty while minimizing the labor required to tend it all. While his property is home to a huge variety of edible species, he is realistic about the amount of time an average homeowner can devote to growing food: “It has to fit in with your life, or it doesn’t work,” he says, and tries to steer people toward the easiest and tastiest options to begin with.
These include his favorite, blueberries, which need little upkeep and fruit prolifically in addition to providing beautiful fall foliage and winter stems. All they really require is netting to keep the birds off as the fruit ripens. He’s also a big fan of lingonberries, lowbush blueberries, and strawberries as ground cover, and planting hedges of Nanking cherries (a pretty, shrubby variety) and seaberries, which are extremely easy to grow, have lovely silvery leaves, and produce copious orange berries that taste similar to orange juice spiked with tropical punch. Another excellent choice is the pawpaw, which grows to a handsome tree with shiny dark green leaves and produces fruit that looks like mangoes and tastes a lot like vanilla pudding. They’re the only member of a family of tropical fruit trees (including cherimoya and soursop) that can grow in our climate, and produce the biggest indigenous edible fruit in North America. If we add hardy kiwis, which grow on vigorous vines that look lovely on a trellis or arbor, and the passionflower vine, which has gorgeous flowers and produces perhaps the greatest of all tropical fruit—the passionfruit—we can see that growing our own doesn’t mean giving up on the lavish flavors of the Equator. It’s easy to grow nuts, too, especially hazelnuts and chestnuts, and Reich likes his Buart nut tree, a cross between a butternut and a Japanese walnut.