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A Green Thumbs-Up for Kiwi

February 03, 2001|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was 1969 and Roger Meyer, who loves rare fruit, was looking for something different to plant. Someone handed him a fuzzy brown fruit with an intense green interior.

"The kiwi immediately caught my attention," said Fountain Valley's Meyer, who owns Valley Vista Kiwi with his wife, Shirley. "I was amazed by the fruit's wonderful taste and its little black seeds."

It took him years to find plants and when he did, supply was limited, but he decided to make a business of it. He taught himself to graft kiwi plants onto seedling rootstocks he had grown, and six years later, he bought a vineyard in San Diego to grow the fruit.

Over the past 26 years, Meyer has introduced new types of kiwi into local markets, including yellow and red varieties. He sells the fruit commercially and provides plants to retail customers.

Though kiwi has a tropical-sounding name and look, it's a deciduous vine that requires winter chilling--a rare situation in California. There are varieties, however, that fruit well here, despite warm winters. February and March are the months to buy and plant bare-root kiwi. Established plants can be planted throughout the year.

If you have the space, Alfredo Chiri encourages planting kiwi vines.

"They are a beautiful vine with large hibiscus-like, dark-green shiny leaves and rose-like, fragrant flowers," said Chiri, a member of the Orange County Rare Fruit Growers, who cares for the club's rare-fruit grove at the Fullerton Arboretum.

"You can train the vine on a trellis, fence, arbor or back wall and it can look really stunning," he said. "They also make a great deal of fruit. We've estimated that the four vines at the arboretum produce between 200 and 300 kilos [440 to 660 pounds] per season."

To have success growing kiwi, keep the following tips in mind.

* Provide adequate space. Kiwi is a large, vigorous vine that can easily reach 20 feet. To get fruit, plant a male and female, as they require cross-pollination. It is possible, however, to save space and get a grafted plant that has both genders on the same vine.

* Choose varieties carefully. 'Hayward' kiwi plants are the ones generally sold in the store, but they require a great deal of winter chilling and don't do well here. Some varieties that thrive in Southern California include 'Elmwood,' 'Vincent,' 'Matua,' Chinensis species, 'Cordifolia,' 'Anna,' 'Ken's Red,' 'Dumbarton Oaks' and 'Meader.'

* Plant in full sun in the ground. Soil must be well-draining. If you have heavy clay, improve drainage by amending with compost and pumice. Plant at the same level as the plant was in its nursery container, or if bare-root, plant so that the roots are covered and no higher.

* Mulch. Do this on a regular basis, making sure to keep the mulch away from the trunk.

* Provide support. The kiwi is a large forest vine that naturally grows up into trees. Provide something substantial for it to grow on, such as a patio cover, arbor, fence or a large, strong trellis.

* Watch watering. Kiwi requires a lot of water in the summer. Without adequate irrigation during warm months, fruit production will falter and leaves will turn brown around the edges and fall off in August or September. Kiwi cannot, however, sit in standing water, especially during its dormant period in winter, which is why drainage is so important.

* Feeding. Use a fruit fertilizer that contains nitrogen. Composted manures also work, but must be kept away from the trunk. Feed three times from March to July.

* Prune. Winter pruning is important because kiwi will not grow on old fruiting wood. In general, you want to prune out old wood in January or February to make room for new growth. With new plants, it's also important to train one branch as the main trunk.

* When to harvest. Kiwi generally needs to grow for three years before bearing fruit. It usually flowers in May or June, sets fruit immediately and is ready for picking from September through December.

The fruit needs to ripen on the vine, though it will continue to sweeten once you pick it. To make sure that kiwi is ready for harvesting, cut a fruit open. If the seeds are black, it's ready. If they haven't changed color yet, the fruit should stay on the vine.

* Watch for pests. Snails devour the new growth buds on young plants, and cats can also be a problem. According to Meyer, there is a chemical in the roots and buds of the kiwi that attracts felines, who damage the buds by rubbing on them.

Where to Look for Information

* For more information on kiwi, visit the California Rare Fr

uit Growers on the Web at http://www.crfg.org and go to the Fruit Facts page.

* The Orange County Rare Fruit Growers will answer any questions on growing kiwi. They meet the third Thursday of every month at 7:30 p.m. in the Centennial Farm silo building at the Orange County Fairgrounds, Costa Mesa. Use main entrance on Fair Drive.

* Kiwi can be found in various nurseries throughout Southern California or by contacting Valley Vista Kiwi at (714) 839-0796 or e-mail: exoticfruit@95net.com.

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