I run with two fellow gardeners some mornings. It’s a treat for us to point out plants to each other as we trot, and today there was a wealth of pointing as we adventured on an 8-mile run into new urban terrain. One of our walk and water breaks was at Kilbourn Park’s organic greenhouse and garden, where an orchard was planted a few years ago. They had at least two cherries, a few pears, and some apple trees, one of which was marked as a Golden Delicious. Kilbourn Park does an excellent job and their commitment to growing organic fruit is admirable, but unfortunately none of the trees looked especially healthy or productive. My own experience growing organic fruit trees in a small urban space has taught me just how frustrating the endeavor can be. Apple maggots infest my sweet and sour cherry trees every season. I salvage what I can but spend far more time cleaning up fallen and infected fruit than I do actually storing edible fruit away for use. My Bartlett pear, which I just put in last year, decided not to flower or fruit at all this season. The tree looks healthy and did yield about 10 marginally edible pears last fall, but this year, without explanation, it has done nothing. I know other urban gardeners who have had similar trouble. My friend Katy had a few fruits on her pear tree this year, but the squirrels had already beaten her to them before they ripened. At least somebody ate them. One of my running friends, Gin, has battled apple scab and apple maggots in her backyard apple tree to the point where she can no longer harvest any of its fruit for home use. It makes you wonder if it’s fruitless to try and grow fruit in the small home garden. Or at least the kind of fruit that grows on trees.
On the return leg of our run, we came upon some blackberry canes growing very tidily up the front of a little brick house. The color of the fruit, both the bright red of the unripe fruits and the rich black of the ripe ones, beckoned us over. Each berry was about three or four times the size of a common raspberry. They were perfectly plump, oval-shaped, adorable. Forgive me, for I could not resist reaching beyond the fence for three fruits, a sample for each of us in sneakers. The fruit’s juicy sweetness remains me with hours later, and my brain is busily plotting where I might be able to sneak a blackberry plant into our already crowded backyard. As I have learned from growing raspberries, brambles do need space, but if you can give it to them, they will provide abundantly with little fuss. Our raspberry patch is about 9ft.long and 4 ft. wide and yields enough for a family of four to feast on delicious raspberries at breakfast-time for about three weeks every fall. (We get a spring crop too, but it pales in comparison to the fall one, both in quantity and quality.) The raspberries could use more space, admittedly, as they tend to flop over on our sidewalk and generally get in the way of things, but we have all adapted to the arrangement.
The gooseberry, which can also be somewhat droopy in habit, is the most space-efficient bramble I know. My mature gooseberry takes up only about 4 square feet of earth. Gooseberries can be pruned and staked to keep the foliage and fruit off the ground, and good pruning can contribute to their ability to fruit heavily on few shoots. Last year I harvested about 10 cups of gooseberries from one plant. Gooseberries, like blackberries apparently, can tolerate partial shade, but the more sun they get, the sweeter their fruit.
I find most gooseberries to be too sour to pop straight from the bush into my mouth, although if you can wait around for the very ripest, they are in fact sweet. But it’s no sweetness like that of the blackberry I had this morning. Gooseberries make a terrific, gorgeous-hued jam and are also good in a funny-sounding dessert called a “fool”: essentially equal parts pureed fruit and whipped cream, with only a small amount of added sugar.
My initial research into the possibility of adding a Blackberry to the yard reveals that there’s a particular breed of blackberry called ‘Marion’ which is said to yield more fruit on fewer canes. These are also called marionberries, after Marion County in Oregon. Whatever the origin, I figure they are worth trying if I can taste that super juicy late summer fruit again without having to reach my hand over someone else’s fence.