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Kiwi Fruit--the Fuzzy Emerald

March 24, 1985|KAY KENNEDY

Have you been intrigued yet by the fuzzy, brown-skinned kiwi fruit? Have you marveled at the off-white star-burst, peppered with tiny black seeds, with light streaks radiating outward into the lovely emerald-green flesh? Have you wondered where they were grown and whether you could grow them in your own yard? Wonder no more.

Kiwi fruit was first found in the Chang Kiang Valley of China and was called yangtao. Its subtle flavor and brilliant green flesh were considered a delicacy by the court of the great khans.

In 1906, male and female plants were taken to New Zealand, the country that ultimately gave kiwi fruit its name, where the soil and climate were favorable for its growth. Dedicated growers turned the rolling, green countryside around the Bay of Plenty on the North Island into the home of a bona fide kiwi-fruit industry.

In the United States, agricultural testing of kiwi fruit began as early as 1935. In the 1960s, California started commercial production, and now there are more than 700 kiwi-fruit growers in the state, ranging south through Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties. With about 6,000 acres in production, California produces 98% of the nation's kiwi fruit. Kiwi plants also grow and bear west of the Sierra-Cascade divide.

California's sunny, moderate climate has made the kiwi fruit a popular crop with backyard farmers too.

Bare-root kiwi vines are sometimes available in nurseries, usually in the spring; plant them promptly. They can also be found in containers. From containers, they can be planted anytime, but the best time is fall, to take advantage of the still-warm soil and the coming winter rains.

Kiwi is a good choice for a canopy over a patio or deck or to soften the harsh lines of a fence.

The vine twines and has a sparse structure, permitting easy management and training for displaying its unusual qualities. The leaves space themselves in an attractive, controlled growth pattern, as though each were posing for a painter of Japanese prints. The foliage has subtle color-appeal; the soft green of the leaves blends into dark-red stems. The velvety texture of the leaves invites closer inspection.

Spring heralds the appearance of creamy flowers that look like single, white-to-buff roses about an inch to 1 1/2 inches wide. Kiwi fruits are about the size of an egg and are covered with short, brown fuzz.

The main considerations in growing kiwi fruit are watering, drainage, a generous amount of space to accommodate growing with sturdy support, and regular pruning. The plants require regular watering and should be mulched with compost to conserve moisture. They are not drought-tolerant; their roundish leaves begin to droop when the plants are thirsty.

Kiwis do best in rich, well-drained soil and full sun, although young plants may need shade during their first summer. Once established, they are relatively hardy and pest-free.

They often reach a towering 30 feet and should be trained on sturdy supports, such as an arbor or patio roof. The vines may become rampant and require lots of space. One vine can easily spread to 30 feet, with tendrils growing as much as six inches a day!

In kiwi-fruit vineyards, the vines are planted 20 feet apart, in rows separated by 15 feet, and tied to sturdy T-bars or pergolas for support. To enhance pollination, one male vine is planted for every five or six female vines.

Backyard gardeners usually plant in pairs, since a male and a female plant are required for cross-pollination and to set fruit. If you lack space for two vines, consider budding or grafting a male branch onto a female vine.

In the winter, when plants are dormant, prune them as you would a grapevine, to encourage fruiting. During the growing season, the individual tendrils on each vine should be pruned and tied to the support system.

Plants normally start bearing when they're 3 years old and reach heavy production in five to seven years. Once established, the vines will continue to yield fruit for up to 100 years.

An established kiwi plant is quite prolific. A mature female kiwi vine can provide 200 pounds of fruit each year.

California kiwi-fruit vines begin to leaf out in mid-March and flower in May. The fruit is harvested in October and November at the mature, hard stage, when the sugar content is high.

Backyard gardeners can keep kiwi fruit in their refrigerator hydrators for several months, bringing forth individual fruits as desired and ripening them at room temperature over several days. You can hasten ripening by putting the fruit in a plastic bag for a few days along with an apple, pear or banana.

Kiwi fruits are ripe when they yield to gentle pressure. They become sweeter as they ripen.

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