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Parson: Time to start thinking about planing the garden

Winter at the farm is for shorter workdays, maintenance, fruit tree planting, and conferences! Since the last time I wrote, there haven’t been many short workdays and I haven’t done all the maintenance projects that were on my winter list. I have planted a good number of fruit trees and attended two excellent conferences.

First, the fruit trees: now is the time to get trees and shrubs in the ground if you haven’t already. Fruiting trees and bushes that I know about are all deciduous-they loose their leaves-and they are dormant during winter. At least they are dormant above ground: root systems grow during the winter. Most varieties should be planted from late fall to early spring.

Here at the Oxford College Farm, we don’t plant your run-of-the-mill varieties of fruit. For one thing, some of the alternative species and varieties are easier to grow organically. For another thing, we can buy a fuji apple in the grocery store year-round. It’s a little harder to get an ‘Arkansas Black’, ‘Yates’, or ‘Hubbardston Nonesuch’ from your local produce section.

Fruits that are easier to grow organically include kaki persimmon, Asian pears, figs, and blueberries. This year we planted some of each of these.

The kaki persimmon is also known as the Asian persimmon. Unlike the American persimmon that grows wild in Georgia, the kaki is much larger and is less astringent. If you’ve ever eaten an American persimmon that isn’t quite ripe, then you know the meaning of astringent. A green fruit from one of our native trees will pucker your mouth worse than biting into a whole lemon. The ripe, sweet fruit are found on the ground, soft as tapioca pudding. The kaki types can be eaten right off the tree while still crunchy.

Persimmons enjoy having few local pests, making them perfect for an organic garden. They are grafted onto American rootstock, making them hardy for our area. The Asian types are more spreading in habit than our native trees and provide a lush, low shade when grown to maturity.

We have a couple pear trees planted by the Elizers that continue to give nice fruit each season. They enjoy very few pests and diseases on the fruit, but are susceptible to fire blight just like all the European pears. Fire blight attacks in the summer and makes the branches look burned. The only thing we can do is cut the effected branches about 8 inches below the symptom and hope for the best. Asian pears tend to be resistant to this disease, which makes them easier to grow in the South.

When I have grown them in the past, the Asian pear trees outpace any other fruit trees planted around them. In fact, the pear trees we purchased were taller than me while the other varieties were barely 4 feet.

Another great fruit to grow organically is the fig. I consider the fig to be the queen of the summer, providing sweet soft pink flesh for anyone willing to climb a ladder in August. The fruit is ripe when it turns a shade darker, purple, or golden depending on the variety. The birds can actually tell a ripe fig about 12 hours before a human can. Figs have to be picked every day to keep the birds (and wasps) from attacking the fruit.

Some people learn that a specialized wasp pollinates figs and dies inside the ‘fruit’, which is actually a group of flowers turned in on itself. The wasp enters the hole at the end, pollinates the flowers, and dies before exiting. This may happen with wild fig species, but the cultivated varieties are self-pollinated and there is no wasp involved. Don’t worry, that subtle crunch of a fig is actually mature seeds and not a dead wasp.

The final fruit we planted this year is the blueberry. Actually, we ordered 100 bushes and potted them up from bareroot into 1 gallon containers. The ground isn’t quite ready so we will grow them one year before planting next winter. Blueberries are fairly easy to grow organically. They are different from many garden plants, thriving at a lower pH than most. Lucky for us, our soils are naturally low in pH and must be amended for garden plants to grow. In the blueberry areas we don’t add any lime and we cut back on organic matter additions because organic matter can also raise pH in the garden.

As I mentioned at the beginning, winter is conference season for sustainable agriculture. The ‘season’ starts with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) in November. CFSA is followed by Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) in January and our own Georgia Organics (GO) which was held last weekend in Atlanta.

This year we had the honor of participating in the GO conference farm tours. According to my sources, we were the top tour in terms of attendees. I know that we had a great time sharing the farm with folks from other colleges, farmers, and home gardeners. I also taught a class on cover crops in the afternoon with Julia Gaskin from UGA. The farmers’ feast is the ultimate event with food from area farms (including Oxford College) prepared by some of Atlanta’s top chefs.

Considering the weather right now, it seems that spring is here. According to the calendar, we still have a month of winter left ahead of us. If you have any fruit trees to plant, do it now. If you are planting any frost tolerant plants like collards, carrots, and beets, now is the time. Just wait a few weeks before putting in your tomatoes and squash as chances are we will have another frost before it is all over.

Daniel Parson is the farmer/educator at Oxford College of Emory University.