Springing into berries

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 13:17 30/11/2012
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FAIRFAX NZ
NUTRITIOUS ZING: Blackcurrants are ideal for making muffins.

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Home and Garden

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Right now, my garden's like a nursery; it's full of babies. I've got baby apples, apricots, cherries, currants, feijoas, plums, prunes, pears, raspberries, strawberries and quinces.

Soon, I'll also have baby fragolina, the Italian name for tiny, wild, or alpine, strawberries. All on a 500 square metre section. I like to think it's a living example that less (space than most) can be so much more (in home grown produce).

And, despite all the rain this spring, I'm making sure all my fruit crops have plenty to drink. That's because they needs lots of water to boost cell division after fruit set and develop into good sized fruit at maturity. Lots of small cells now swell up to lots of big cells and well developed fruit later.

But thinning the crop also helps. And, as any student whose worked in an orchard during summer knows, thinning has to be done at just the right time. Too soon and you risk losing what's left of the crop to rogue weather incidents. Too late, and your trees waste too much energy, water and nutrients investing in fruit that's then thinned off.

Each crop has an ideal thinning time and, although it's not generally something a lot of home gardeners bother to do, it can mean a much better quality crop. Instead of small, bullet-like apples, you can grow your own big, crisp, fresh fruit, "just like bought ones" if you not only water them well, but also thin the crop.

Thinning also helps avoid biennial bearing, when a tree produces lots of fruit one year and, over taxed, a minimal one the following year. Sometimes, the taxing effect of a big crop can mean you have to wait two or three years for a tree to recover and produce a decent crop.

Thinning also helps ease the burden of production on young trees struggling to get growing, let alone support a nutrient and moisture-taxing crop. Often a young tree will spontaneously drop much of the immature crop when it becomes "too much to bear", just as my quince did. In its first year or two it dropped most of the crop, even though, in my enthusiasm, I'd carefully hand pollinated the flowers with a paintbrush.

Now that it has got a few years of growth to carry the crop, there are more than 100 fruit on it. Likewise the apples and prunes are laden with fruit this summer.

But, as any orchardist will tell you, the constantly wet weather isn't all good. It has meant my prune has suffered a bad dose of what looks like stonefruit blast, evident from shoot dieback and telltale sap ooze out of the trunk and branches. It's a bacterial disease and, like it's near relative bacterial spot, which causes similar symptoms, is difficult to control. The tree succumbed to blast, despite being a robust, young specimen which is reputed to help resistance to the disease.

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Recent recommendations are to spray sulphur instead of the traditional copper and to prune out affected growth. However, as that would mean removing most of the tree, I'm opting for the laissez-faire approach and doing as little pruning as possible in the (probably lost) hope that the tree will at least shrug off the worst of the effects for the growing season. I'll also thin some of the crop to lighten the load.

Sadly, my new flatto and mabel nectarines have also succumbed to a bad case of peach leaf curl. Reluctant as I am to spray, any control will now have to wait until next spring when I'll have to give them a dose of copper at bud burst. In case you weren't aware, leaf curl control, like that for most fungal infections, works preventively, rather than after the event. Like it or not, the trick is you have to be proactive and anticipate the infection and spray for it in early spring, before the flowerbuds open.

But, in the end, even copper used too much can be a problem, as has been identified in some older orchards around the country and for organic growers wanting to limit their soil copper levels.

Fortunately though, this year my apricot crop looks great. Call me an old fashioned girl, but I still grow moorpark. Its apricoty flavour is second to none, but only if the fruit is tree ripened, which is probably why it's largely been dropped as a commercial variety in favour of modern types that seen to me to have more of a crisp plum texture than the squishy jam-like consistency of a sun-kissed moorpark.

In a good year, as this seems to be, the apricot crops well and, just before Christmas I'll thin the fruit to give those left room to expand. I'll also prune off the "water" sprouts that emerge during summer to divert energy and nutrients into the crop, rather than vegetative growth. Summer pruning and annual pruning after harvest evades the potential for silver leaf fungal infection from winter released spores.

All this work requires constant monitoring and tweaking as the season progresses, but soon I'll be picking my own summer fruit.

After the strawberries, first up will be the easy-to-grow red and blackcurrants, followed close behind by the gooseberries.

I like to add redcurrants to mixed berry jam and summer puddings as well as salads, to add a piquancy similar to pomegranate seeds, and sometimes we have them served on their own, with a little sugar for a simple burst of tart summer flavour.

Similarly, blackcurrants make the ideal hassle-free home garden fruit for summer puddings and winter baking. Tiresome as it can be to pick them by hand (as opposed to buying commercially-grown, machine-harvested fruit), the Christmas time task makes a great incentive for bored little people looking to earn a bit of pocket money for the holidays.

Then, later in the year, freeflow frozen blackcurrants make the perfect flavour and colour boost for jams, cobblers and crumbles.

When yours ripen this Christmas, try them fresh (or, later, from the freezer) in delicious, nutrient-laden muffins to serve when guests arrive.

BLACKCURRANT MUFFINS

2C flour (or 1.5C white flour and C wholemeal flour)
3 tsp baking powder
tsp cinnamon
5 Tbsp sugar (or less, depending on how sweet you like them)
2 eggs, beaten
75g melted butter
1 tsp freshly grated orange or lemon rind
1C fresh or frozen blackcurrants - don't defrost berries if using frozen
About C milk to get right consistency if using wholemeal flour
About 1 tsp cinnamon plus 2 tsp raw sugar mixed to sprinkle on top before putting in oven.

Mix dry ingredients
Combine beaten egg, melted butter, milk and rind
Add fruit
Stir till mixed with dry ingredients, but avoid over-mixing
Put into greased muffin tins (makes about 15 medium sized ones)
Sprinkle with cinnamon and raw sugar
Bake 210 deg C for 15-20 min
Once cooked, the muffins can also be frozen.

JOBS TO DO

■ With Christmas just 25 days away, you'll want to have the garden looking good for the festive season and summer fruit and vegetables ready in time to celebrate.

■ Keep watering and planting more summer salad crops in the vegetable garden. Potatoes need consistent watering to ensure top quality.

■ Liquid feed Christmas lilies to boost bud development before flowering later this month.

■ Dead head roses after their first flowering and also give them a boost with liquid fertiliser. My preference is a combo of alpaca poo and grass clippings in a bucket of water. Decant off the concentrate and water down to use on your plants.

■ Check ties on young trees and shrubs that they aren't choking the growth as the girth expands. Release and replace the ties if necessary.

■ Net berry fruit crops before ripening to keep the birds away

- Nelson

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