Among the crop of newly published books that showed up on the Edible East Bay editorial desk this fall were two especially nice ones by local authors exploring the subject of fruit: Plum Gorgeous and From Tree to Table. As I turned the pages in both, I couldn’t help thinking about the way in which backyard fruit trees tend to be connected by strong emotional threads into our lives and memories. Perhaps it starts in childhood, when the trees’ generosity, along with their longevity and stature, makes them feel like benevolent caretakers. As adults, we may start to see the same trees as dependents requiring our attention for the likes of pruning, pest management, and harvesting duties, but they remain “family” in the way that the annuals in the vegetable patch are not . . . unless perhaps we get into seed saving.
In her new book, Plum Gorgeous, a collection of 62 fruit-centric recipes, Oakland-based writer Romney Steele expresses a sentimental longing for days spent living with her children in an orchard at Big Sur. The text shows both a child’s enjoyment of and an adult’s passion for a place, a lifestyle, and a way of eating. Steele is often cryptic about those memories, but she’s transparent with the recipes, and wildly inspiring as she guides the reader through the fruits of each season and how to savor them in simple recipes for appetizers, salads, main dishes, condiments, sauces, and of course, desserts.
In Sara Remington’s glowing photographs and added graphics, there is so much textural emphasis that we can almost imagine picking up the fork for a taste of what’s on the plate or plucking a fruit and popping it into our mouths. The book is stunningly designed to resemble a scrapbook of memories, but it might just as easily be an artist’s (or cook’s) idea journal filled with intentions to return to the orchard again and again to rediscover the treasures each season has to offer.
—Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Thoughts on Winter Pruning
By Ann Ralph
A Blenheim apricot tree in my Richmond backyard threatens to engulf the Gravenstein apple on one side and the Pink Lady on the other. As is typical in the East Bay, the tree rarely produces much by way of apricots, and animals get those. It’s so unproductive and unruly that I’d take it out, but other members of the household veto this proposal. They dream of apricots one day—a reason as good as any to keep the tree in shape.
Pruning engages me the way an interesting, ongoing conversation does. If I may borrow an analogy from the Academy of American Poets: longtime friends and partners are people with whom we continually share, through the “drone of familiarity,” a sense of renewal and surprise. Favorite poems provide this. Fruit trees and attentive pruning can, too.
Each pruning season creates a new response and builds on what we did (or didn’t do) before. These three trees and a persimmon are about eight years old. I use summer pruning to keep them to my height. To control disease, I prune the apricot only in summer. All told, I can winter prune the others in a couple of hours. Winter pruning is lighter than summer pruning and a little like the cookbook directive, “correct the seasoning.” Hard winter pruning results in extremely vigorous regrowth in spring. I avoid it, making only a few thinning cuts per tree.
I take out anything that doesn’t look quite right—limbs that are too horizontal or branches that grow into the fence or are too crowded or just seem wrong. Portland pruner John Iott recommends removal of “the dead, the diseased, and the disoriented.” Artful pruning supports and reveals the natural shape of a tree. When a pruner eliminates wayward branches, the tree opens up and takes form. You remove what’s in the way so the story can unfold.
Observe the growth pattern of the tree and prune to enhance its natural grace. Open up the interior. Forget what you saw on the internet. Attend to the tree before you. In the case of fruit trees, that you’re pruning is more important than precisely what you’re pruning. Let the tree offer you its own aesthetics. Your job only requires that you remove what doesn’t belong.
The winter garden takes care of itself. What a relief. The pace is leisurely, not frantic. After a couple hours of pruning, the rain begins. I can come inside to the Morris chair and sit by the fire with a book.
Writer Ann Ralph teaches fruit tree pruning workshops in Sacramento and the East Bay. Contact her by way of www.littlefruittree.com
To Plant a Medlar
I never before thought about planting a medlar tree, and in fact never much wondered what this old-fashioned-sounding fruit is all about. But now I want to grow one, pick the fruit and leave it on my counter to “blet” until it’s mushy, then cut a hole in the skin and suck out the rich, spicy flesh.
The inspiration came after reading a brand-new book from Skipstone Press. From Tree to Table: Growing Backyard Fruit Trees in the Pacific Maritime Climate is written by two local gardeners, Barbara Edwards and Mary Olivella, and adorned with poetic ink-brush illustrations by Seattle-based artist Lida Enche.
As someone who spends a lot of time in the world of horticulture, I have to admit my attention wandered through the authors’ first chapters on planting one’s tree and dealing with pests. (The text made be feel that it’s hopeless: Why bother even trying?) But when I turned the page to the chapter on pruning, things suddenly got very interesting. The authors explain it well, with ample encouragement and a good sense of the art involved. As I started reading about espaliered citrus trees, I heard myself saying: “Where shall I fit that into my garden?” In the past, I had thought that this pruning technique was beyond my ability. Now I’m game to try.
Part II lists the specific trees that will grow in the Pacific Maritime climate. The section firmly rooted my admiration for the authors’ ability to inspire and encourage. Each type of tree is listed with a recommendation for varieties that will thrive in one’s particular USDA zone (there are six that cover the Bay Area all the way north to Vancouver, British Columbia). It covers the pommes (apples, pears, and so on), the stone fruits (peach, plum, cherry, and so on), citrus, persimmon, and other lesser-known fruits including my medlar! With each tree, we are given at least three recipes for how to use the harvest. Even if I never grow a fig tree, I’ll keep the recipe for “Fig Mostarda” marked, in case a friend has an overabundance.
This is a versatile book that warrants several chilly afternoons curled up indoors dreaming about summer harvests as the winter rains revive the parched soil and ready it to welcome a new bare-root fruit tree.