Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
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Which Fruit Fruits the Earliest?
Q: I'm planning a garden and would like to get fresh fruit for as much of the year as possible. What's the earliest fruiting plant I could grow here? I have full sun, and would be willing to start things indoors or put up a hoop house if it wasn't too huge (5' would be about as high as I could do).
---Jim "in Zone 5 near Chicago"
A: Well, a five foot tall hoop house would be darn difficult to work in unless you're four feet tall, Jim. Hoop houses are outdoor structures that are typically around eight feet high at their peak, allowing you to walk around inside without stooping, just like the ceiling of a regular house. (My friend George DeVault grows almost all of his "Pheasant Hill Farm" produce in hoop houses, and too-tall George wouldn't be able to walk into one that was even six feet high!) But these structures do speed up the harvest; the raspberries he's grown in hoop houses have come in weeks ahead of my outdoor ones.
But I'm not suggesting that Jim grow raspberries in hoop houses; not unless he has a lot of room for the right kind of structure. And especially if he's a beginning gardener, he should start slow and work on a smaller scale. There are many kinds of mini-hoop houses that are great at extending the season for low growing plants, like June-bearing strawberries—which also may be the earliest fruits someone in a cold climate can achieve. (Yes, I hear you people in Southern Florida and California and such chortling about picking lemons, limes and oranges on New Year's Day; we're talking about normal people here!)
Anyway, that's what our fruit growing expert Lee Reich told me, but it was also one of my guesses when I sent him Jim's email (so I get a half-point!). June bearing strawberries really do bear fruit in June (especially if they're grown under hooped row covers, or—if you're careful to vent them on sunny days—clear plastic tunnels), but they don't bear that fruit until their second year.
What Lee likes to term 'so-called everbearing strawberries' produce fruits their first year in the ground. (As Lee explains in his excellent book "Grow Fruit Naturally", he refers to these types as 'so-called everbearing', because they more realistically bear two crops—one in Spring and a second, longer run that begins in late summer and continues through Fall.)
There's also a third type of strawberry called "day neutral" that bears all summer long unless there's scorching heat, which is not a typical Chicago-area problem.
So I'd begin with strawberries early and often. Who doesn't like strawberries? And if Jim really wants to try and grow a decent amount of food, he should try all three types; both to see which ones grow best in his climate and to extend the season(s) as much as possible. And all strawberries are low-growing fruits, which makes them ideal for row covers, tunnels and other season-extending devices that produce their produce a few weeks earlier in the season than un-protected plants.
And I'll add that strawberries are one of those things that really taste much better home-grown than purchased. Store-bought berries are bred for ease of picking and shipping and are rarely if ever found dead ripe, whereby home-grown can be left to ripen completely before picking—and you can choose your varieties strictly by flavor, rather than their being easy to ship.
But are strawberries of some kind the absolute earliest fruit he could get?
I quote Lee directly: "Strawberries would be the earliest unless he really wanted to go out on a (figurative) limb with honeyberries (Lonicera species)," which Lee says he is personally "still testing"—and so is everybody else. These fruits are very new to the scene, but Lee says that there's a lot of interest in them, especially in Canada, where new varieties are being continually developed.
Honeyberry fruits look like blueberries, grow on shrubs, taste great fresh, and ripen before June bearing strawberries. The plants themselves are related to honeysuckle and are ridiculously cold hardy; the temperature can drop below zero after they flower and you'll still get fruit—just be aware that they're still kind of experimental; growers are still trying to figure out exactly how these plants work. (Lee says to "think apples 1500 years ago"). But they have great potential for producing really tasty fruits very early in the season.
If you want a safer, more established bet, Juneberries bear their tasty fruits just a few weeks later—and they've been cultivated for centuries. That's Juneberries—which are different than June bearing strawberries. Juneberries—also known as serviceberries—are an ancient plant, used by Native Americans, tribes up in Canada and the earliest settlers of the Far North. Some species are shrubs, and some are small trees. Lee explains that the fruits look like blueberries but taste more like sweet cherries with a hint of almond, and are delicious eaten fresh—which most growers should be able to do before the end of June.
The only 'negative', warns Lee, is that you'll have to fight the birds for every one—just like blueberries. So make sure they're protected with netting or fencing and/or some sort of bird-scare device; and don't delay picking when they're ripe!
Then stay tuned; because next week we'll help you pick the very first ripe red tomatoes on the block!