Garden centres are just like supermarkets. That apparently friendly, welcoming layout is carefully designed by evil retail psychologists, who employ all manor of arcane trickery to manipulate the hapless shopper into leaving with a trolley full of stuff they didn’t want. This mental onslaught is even worse in spring, when the big-boys [and girls I imagine] of the nursery world go all-out to dazzle us with the latest in high-health this and grafted everything.
You really need to look beyond all the glossy foliage and dubious promise of bumper crops. You need to work out what you really need and know what will actually work. My experience is pretty Auckland-centric (I know, an unforgivable sin), but my own trials and legion of errors have helped shape my garden into a tight little food factory; churning out plenty of things I can’t buy easily or affordably. For most of us it’s never going to be practical to live entirely off our backyard bounty. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, a fondness for backbreaking labour and a very big backyard, it’s just a Felicity Kendal pipe-dream. You can however supplement your diet and enhance your cooking with some truly fabulous home-grown produce without too much hard graft.
I’m all about lists. They allow me to write in short, opinionated sound bites and help contain my tendency [which you may have noticed] to via off on meandering tangents. So, I’ve put together a list of essential fruit trees for the home garden. I grow a lot more than these 6, but these are the ones that I really couldn’t live without. I know, it’s not the traditional time to plant most of these trees [although you can]. But it is time to starting looking around your neighbourhood to see what trees are flowering and fruiting well and will therefore flourish in your own scaled-down Eden.
Before I proceed, a little ‘don’t blame me’ waiver: All my experience is based on Auckland’s mystery-prize of a climate, volcanic soil and the use of vast quantities of compost. I do things mostly organically, but have been known to throw the odd handful of Nitrophosphate about the place. I don’t use pesticides, but probably would if hot soapy water didn’t work so well. I pay no attention whatsoever to the moon or stars when planting, but feel free if it helps balances your chakras. In other words, I garden for the end results, try not to poison the soil or myself along the way, but don’t get all kaftan and mung bean about it.
Should be the top of any cooks must-have list. If you don’t use this fruit regularly, wake up. Lemons are undemanding trees, they like warmth, sun and a bit of food. For that true lemon flavour you need to squeeze past that big display of Meyers [a cold-hardy hybrid between a lemon and an orange much pushed by garden centres] at your local nursery and search out a true lemon such as Yen Ben or Villa Franca. For something a little more adventurous try a Ponderosa. These monsters can reach a kilo or more per fruit and have thick, fragrant peel, perfect for Glace. Like all citrus, lemons are available on gangly, grow-em big Trifoliata root stock, or the spiky, dwarfing Flying Dragon. One or the other will suit your situation. Barely a day goes by where I don’t use lemons for something: Salad dressing, marinades, serving with fried food, in curries, in cocktails. Simply indispensable.
Rufus Wainwright [Canadian singer song-writer] is quoted as saying he doesn’t care for peaches on account of their overt heterosexuality [he claims to prefer bananas]. Disappointingly poor taste for such a chi-chi gay man.
If you’ve never eaten a freshly picked, sun-warmed peach, you’ve never eaten a peach at all, and frankly you haven’t lived much either. In my experience, not even the best store-bought version can compare with the fuzzy fragrance and obscene juiciness of a home-grown peach. Anyone with a garden or even a large trough has room for a peach tree. But do some home work before you buy. Peaches can be fussy little buggers, so you need to find one actually that works in your area. The good people at Koanga are full of useful advice on such matters. Of course you then have to decide on what sort of peach you want- clingstone, freestone, white fleshed, yellow fleshed, red fleshed, nectarine [just a fuzz-free peach according to the geneticists]. I can highly recommend the questionably named Black Boy- a luscious, winey, red fleshed peach, and Orion, an heirloom white fleshed from Koanga that fruits to excess and ripens before Christmas At their best peaches are too damn good for anything other than eating au naturale, on a sunny day or made into a perfect, icy Bellini, the divine champagne and white peach cocktail from Harry’s Bar in Venice.
Well they may not have the raw, sex appeal of a peach, but a good apple tree more than pays its rent. As with the above, you need to find one that suits your locale, and personal taste. My smallish braeburn churns out around 40 Kilos of fruit per year with very little effort on my part. Tossing a bit of food their way from time to time and hanging a Codling moth trap near by is pretty much all it takes. I press my entire crop into wine each Autumn, but I suppose you could even eat them. Apples will fruit well everywhere in New Zealand, and Nurseries such as Koanga and Diacks offer dozens of different varieties, often with charmingly absurd names – Slack My Girdle, Nonette Bastard and Brown Snout, to name but a few.
There’s evidence a-plenty that figs were once a popular table fruit in New Zealand – just count the number of mature trees in Northern parts of the country. But for some reason they fell out of favor. A whole generation forgot all about figs. The good news is they appear to be clawing their sweet, perfumed way back into our hearts and gardens. As a commercial fruit, figs are the stuff of nightmares. They don’t ripen at all once picked but tree-ripened fruit are so tender and squishy that they can barely contain themselves on the branch let alone in freight. So unless you grow your own, you’re unlikely to ever taste a perfectly ripe fig. These trees like more warmth than the above entries but have been known to fruit well against a sunny wall in Christchurch, so don’t despair if you live down south. They fall into two main types- white fleshed and red fleshed, with a few pink procrastinators in between. Personally I find white fleshed figs too cloyingly sweet. It’s hard to tastes much beyond the sugar. A good red fleshed fig however, can be rich, flavoursome delight, with notes of strawberry and honey and a lovely figgy fragrance. Better still, these trees thrive on neglect. Once they get their roots down deep, they can handle drought easily, and are very happy in containers.
Disregard if you’re not into preserves because this pretty little plum is damn near inedible raw. However as jam, paste, in plum sauce, liquors and so much more, Damsons have the richest, truest plum flavour you’re even going to find. In spring the trees are blanketed in snowy white, honey scented blossom followed by enormous crops of frosted blue plumlets. The fruit look so good on the tree I can hardly bare to pick them. I don’t normally have patience for fruit that require processing but Damsons get a permanent pass. They grow and fruit prolifically all over New Zealand and are small manageable trees worthy of a corner in every Foodlovers garden.
Not strictly a fruit tree as it’s not really grown [in New Zealand] for its fruit, but I’d be lost without this fiendishly spiky beast. The leaves of Kaffier lime have a truly unique fragrance and flavour. Sort of citrusy, but mostly just kaffier limey. I guess you could sum it up by saying they taste like Thai food. These are very much the South East Asian equivalent of bay leaves. They are thrown into soups, curries, salads and stir fries. They grow outdoors quite happily in Auckland and in containers in the cooler districts. You might even get the odd wrinkled, green-brain fruit if you’re lucky. What these lack in looks [and juice] they make up with pungently potent zest. Thanks to their vicious, 5 cm long needle-sharp spines; they make damn fine burglar deterrents too.
So, if you’re not growing at least one of these trees yet, I urge you, with all my flavour obsessed little heart to do a bit of research and find a cultivar that will deliver the goods in your own little corner of Heaven.
And if you have a personal list of home orchard essentials, I’d love to see it…
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