Can you really grow exotic fruits outdoors in Britain with any real chance of success? By that I mean in the hope and expectation of a half-way decent return – a heavenly bowl of juicy peaches, say, not just one hard specimen every other year.
Well, certainly that depends on where you live. Londoners and south-west dwellers with their own microclimate have long been able to produce grapes good enough to brew their own vintages and a clutch of apricots and nectarines. But what about the rest of us? With gardening catalogues oozing tempting photographs of kiwi fruits and luscious melons, it would be nice to think we can grow these as easily as we can tomatoes, but the reality is somewhat more complex.
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The birth of Otter Farm
Mark Diacono is a gardener and grower based in Devon. He used to head up the gardening team at River Cottage but left to run his own nursery specialising in unusual edibles.
When he started Otter Farm back in 2006 Mark couldn’t decide what to grow so he made a list of things he really wanted to eat and then struck off things that other people were already growing well and that he could buy. ‘That left me with a list of forgotten stuff, things like quinces, medlars and mulberries, plus things that are marginally hardy in the UK.’
With average UK temperatures rising and growers developing new varieties, it seemed to be a good time to try some exotics. There wasn’t much Mark didn’t try, everything from Carolina allspice (an aromatic bush from the Appalachians) to the Chilean guava (a type of myrtle with cranberry-sized fruit).
Exotics were the subject of his first book, A Taste of the Unexpected; five years on from its publication – after some pretty cold wet winters, stop-start springs and mixed summers – what, I wanted to know, would he say had proved to be reliable performers?
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Trial and error
Almonds have done really well, although his first attempt failed. One of the great problems with growing almonds in this country is that they flower too early so that their blossom is liable to get caught by the frost. (The same goes for peaches.) ‘With the last frosts happening earlier in the year and breeders developing plants that flower later, the two things were coming together.
‘I first planted a French variety but it didn’t like where we were. I think the trees would have been fine if it had been a really sheltered spot. Then I tried an almond/peach cross that produces almonds.’ This has proved very good though it doesn’t give a productive crop every year: ‘That depends on what kind of spring we get.’
Apricots and peaches
While apricots are more reliable fruiters (try ‘Flavourcot’ and ‘Tomcot’), Diacono warns that they pick up all sorts of diseases. ‘I’ve lost many to blossom blight – but once you’ve got them growing strongly they’ll thrive. It’s all about ensuring they establish well.
‘But,’ he goes on, ‘peaches are the thing. The difference between a homegrown and a bought peach is astonishing. Shop-bought ones are usually picked two or three weeks before they ripen, but the key to delicious peaches is to let them ripen on the tree. You want to pick them in your wellies: you want to catch them – not pick them – when they are dripping with juice. Eating a peach off a tree is what encouraged me to grow more unusual and exotic things.’
Again, it comes down to choosing the right variety. ‘A lot of the new peaches are rubbish. I bought 45 plants of ‘Avalon Pride’, gave two to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and planted the remainder here and they all developed leaf curl and died.’ He took the grower to court and received replacements but the secret, he says, is to plant old varieties.
Find out how to grow apricots in the UK
Then there are persimmons, which have good and bad years. There are very good Japanese varieties and an American one that is slightly more hardy and a reliable cropper. Typically, persimmons are quite astringent and you have to leave them to ripen. The American ones, however, aren’t astringent.
‘Most people know only the Sharon fruit that is grown in Israel’s Sharon Valley, but,’ says Diacono, ‘if you’re wanting a yearly crop that rarely happens. It’s all about temperature. I know a man with an allotment in Tottenham, north London, which is really sheltered, with walls on three sides; he has the heat of the city, and he gets sweet delicious persimmons every year.’
Mark is dedicated. He grows all sorts. Peppers turned out to be a huge success. ‘They couldn’t be easier and they have a long season, which makes them really worth growing yourself.’ He recommends Szechuan, Japanese and Nepalese.
He grows Siberian blue honeysuckle (producing small oval damson-coloured berries), goji berries (productive and easy), even quinoa. He also grows pecans (northern types that require less sun) – but they take for ever to get going and may never fruit if the sun doesn’t deliver the heat they love. The fruit that most impresses him though, is the Japanese plum.
‘The fruit is just the best, somewhere between a really good plum and an apricot, really sweet, meaty and there’s this delicious slightly almondy flavour. They can be relatively light or a deep, deep purple, almost bloody on the inside.’ Now that sounds very tempting. Wouldn’t you just like to try one? Yes? Well, you’ll have to grow your own.
Mark’s top exotics to try
Peaches and nectarines (Prunus persica)
The old varieties are much, much more delicious. Peach ‘Peregrine’ is best by miles on flavour. The key is to ensure trees are sheltered. Spring rains bring on leaf curl so planting against a wall or fan-training against a wall will help. If you grow peaches against a wall you can pretty much grow them anywhere in this country. But the more they are sheltered, the better they will be. It’s all about temperature. Also try ‘Red Haven’ and ‘Rochester’ peaches and ‘Pineapple’ nectarine.
You can plant a dwarf peach such as ‘Bonanza’ (1.5m/5ft) or dwarf nectarine such as ‘Nectarella’ (3.5m/11½ft, but very slow growing) in a pot. Both are very productive. Cover in winter with a mesh bag and keep the leaves protected in spring, but ensure that the pollinators can get in. There’s no point planting them in a windy field; it’s just not going to happen.
There are two kinds, Actinidia deliciosa and Actinidia arguta. Unless you plant a self-fertile kiwi such as Actinidia deliciosa ‘Jenny’ you’ll need to plant both male and female vines. They are amazing over a pergola but grow to 5m (16ft) or so in every direction – so be warned. The foliage is gorgeous and the stems are bristly and they grow quicker than a grape vine. You can train them like a grape but you need to keep cutting them back to stop the energy going into the growth rather than into producing fruit.
Dwarf hardy kiwi
If you have limited space and time and can’t be bothered with all that, then try a dwarf hardy kiwi such as ‘Issai’, which grows to 1.8-2.4m (6-8ft) and is self-fertile. It looks almost like a big gooseberry and very easy to grow – even in a pot – flowers amazingly and is a productive fruiter. You can eat the entire fruit, skin and all.
Japanese plums (Prunus salicina)
Japanese plums are great and they’re really weird, like a regular plum tree but they flower so heavily that it takes up all the tree’s energy so it doesn’t grow beyond 1.8-2m (6-7ft). They are very easy to grow and well worth it as you can’t buy the fruit in shops. ‘Methley’ (self-fertile so you only need one) has reddish purple fruits in July. ‘Shiro’ gives large, sweet yellow plums also in July.
Find out how to grow plums
Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum species)
This citrusy spice is the key ingredient in Chinese cooking and in five spice mixture. Plants are a piece of cake to grow, in a pot or in the ground, and as small or as large as you like – they’ll make a nice bush. They’re sturdy old things – I grow them in a windy wet field. The leaves are aromatic and delicious and the bushes flower in the June gap when there’s not much else for the bees, which love them.
Also try: Japanese pepper (Z. piperitum) – more floral and aromatic; Nepalese pepper (Z. armatum) – curryish in flavour, dark and earthy.
Find out more:
Mark Diacono’s inspiring book The New Kitchen Garden is full of unusual and exotic edibles along with clear, practical advice (Saltyard Books, £25). For seeds and plants visit otterfarm.co.uk