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THE KITCHEN GARDENER

It's all in the picking

November 13, 2002|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

For Southern California gardeners, it is less the opening of holiday season than tree planting season. The first rain has come, the soil is soft and months of mild weather lie ahead of us. It is the perfect time for settling in new fruit trees.

So many places stock trees now that there is only one thing between us and buying one the minute the notion crosses our mind. Flavor. This year, why not choose a tree fruit-first?

Too often we plant trees merely because we like the way they look. Even with fruit trees, the tendency is to treat them like ornamentals. Loquats and the striking gray-green guavas are among our most common suburban fruit trees, but they produce fruits that are far from our favorites. If we stop before we dig, plan before we plant and consider which fruits we truly love, we can have it all: beauty and bounty.

It is mouthwatering homework, and one of the best nurseries to start at is the San Gabriel Nursery & Florist. There are kaffir limes bearing the impossibly fragrant Thai equivalent of bay leaves, then Snow Queen nectarines and Black Mission figs. Exotica lovers, note well: There are oranges that are red and persimmons that are brown.

But, a warning, for this first trip -- to any nursery -- leave the checkbook and credit cards behind. Bring a checklist of questions and a notepad, and as you tour the nursery's aisles, ask yourself: Do you want a full-size tree, as tall as 30 feet high, or a dwarf, which is more easily pruned and picked? Stone fruit trees particularly require pruning every year.

Or do you want to espalier your tree along a wall, a style captured so beguilingly in paintings of medieval paradise gardens?

Creating fruit hedges

All this choice brings structural decisions. If you are choosing dwarf trees, keep in mind that they bear fruit younger -- often two years younger than standard trees. They commonly produce less structural wood and more fruiting wood, and are ideal for creating fruit hedges.

But they also tend to be floppy and weak: Chances are good that you will need to rig some trellising and for deciduous dwarfs, such as apples, it helps if the trellising is pretty.

Most important, remember the birds and the bees. Ask if your tree needs a pollinator to bear fruit. Apples need a crab apple, a Hass avocado benefits from a Fuerte pollinator. But before buying two avocados, which can become enormous, peek over your neighbor's fence and see if there isn't already a pollinator nearby.

If you are going for more than one tree, creating a hedge or even a mini-orchard, time your harvest. Do you want a sudden glut, or do you want the fruit to start, say, with a June apricot, a July peach, midseason August peach and conclude with the luscious "desert" peaches, which ripen in September? Make sure you know whether your tree is an "early," "mid" or "late" season type.

By the time you've done all this and are checking the tree's suitability to your climate zone, whether it fits your irrigation system and how best to plant and water it, the nursery manager will think he's heard every possible question. But, if you're planting a stone fruit, you've got one more.

Excuse me, sir, is the fruit from this tree free-stone or cling?

San Gabriel Nursery & Florist, 632 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 286-3782.

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