Jim and I share many things, a love of dessert, finding just the right pencil for his beloved Martha’s crosswords, and The File.
My life was simple before The File. No longer.
For the last six weeks, my tired brain has been filled with the minutiae of helping Jim pick out trees and berries for an orchard at the Raincatcher’s Garden of Midway Hills. (We tried to have an orchard at the garden on Joe Field Road, but for various reasons, it didn’t come to pass.)
The File is a brown manila folder about 1½ inches thick filled with downloads, printed emails, notes from extension agents, a parts list for a grape trellis, and receipts.
It comes with a complimentary bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol.
Jim knew right off the bat that he wanted the orchard to demonstrate pears, peaches, plums, persimmons, pomegranates, and “phigs.” Grapes, blackberries, and asparagus rounded out the list.
Apples, too. Well, until we found out about the sex lives of pears, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Jim downloaded recommendations for North and Northeast Texas from Dr. George Ray McEachern, Professor and Extension Horticulturist with the Texas A&M Department of Horticultural Sciences. This is the guy Texas Monthly calls when they want the inside scoop on the pecan industry in Texas.
We also looked up fact sheets on each crop by Larry Stein, Extension Fruit Specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. The peach article alone is 14 pages long.
Peaches, plum, apples, and pears are fruit tree crops that require a certain amount of cold winter weather, measured in chilling hours, to end their dormancy and promote proper blooming and spring growth, according to Doug Welsh in his Texas Garden Almanac. Chilling hours are the number of hours during which temperatures are below 45 degrees and above 32 degrees. If you goof, and plant a variety that requires more chilling than it receives in your garden, the tree may not bloom fully—or at all. Dallas-Fort Worth falls in the 800-hour zone.
Pollination is a big deciding factor, too. Without pollination, a fruit tree may blossom abundantly, but fruit will not develop. Some trees require pollination from another variety and are called “self-unfruitful.” Other trees are “self-fruitful” and can produce fruit from their own pollen. Then, just to make it more fun, some fruit trees can have varieties that are self-fruitful and-–don’t you just love this—other varieties that are self-unfruitful. (Remember, the Tylenol is complimentary.)
Briefly, Jim’s first choice for a peach was ‘Redskin,’ a free-stone variety with yellow flesh that matures about July 20th. With our high alkaline soil, we needed the ‘Redskin’ grafted on Halford Rootstock, which led us to barbecue in West Texas. (More on that later.)
The number of peach varieties is mind-boggling. Freestone, cling, or semi-cling? Ripening date? White or yellow flesh? The real basis of selection, however, is matching the chilling requirements of the variety with the chilling hours expected in your area. ‘Redskin’ requires 750 chilling hours. Peaches are self-fruitful.
Compared with peaches, there are very few varieties of plums adapted to Texas. Jim chose ‘Ozark Premier,’ a large variety with red-and-cream streaked skin and yellow flesh that matures in late June. This plum is self-fruitful–but other varieties of plums are self-unfruitful.
Texas has a few native persimmons, but the Japanese persimmon is preferred by most gardeners because of its large fruit. Jim picked ‘Eureka,’ a self-fruiting variety recommended by Dr. McEachern. ‘Eureka’ produces bright orange fruit as large as teacups in the fall.
We purchased a ‘Celeste,’ fig that is a smaller, brown “sugar” fig with sweet pink flesh and purple skin. ‘Celeste’ matures in August. Water is a big consideration with figs. The trees will drop their fruit if drought-stressed and need heavy mulch and moist soils when developing their crop. (Note to self: is fig on irrigation plan? I’m planning on fig preserves.)
Sarah brought the pomegranate from her backyard. It was dug up and potted at the Joe Field garden, then pampered at Sarah’s for several months.
The big question with blackberries is, thorns? Or thornless? We decided to try a bit of both. We purchased the time-tested thorned blackberry ‘Rosborough,’ the most popular of the TAMU releases. It has a large berry, is disease resistant, and is widely adapted in Texas. We will also try ‘Kiowa,’ a recent thorned blackberry release from the University of Arkansas. Dr. McEachern noted on Neil Sperry’s radio show that ‘Kiowa’ was extremely vigorous and productive.
Our thornless blackberries, ‘Natchez’ and ‘Ouachita’ also come from the University of Arkansas. They are known for their firm sweet fruit.
You would have thought growing grapes in Texas was easy. After all, almost half of all grape species are native to Texas. Native grapes are a cinch. Wine grapes are another story. Pierce’s disease and cotton root rot are some of the conditions that limit choices of grape varieties. Womack Nursery, where we purchased our grapes, suggests ‘Champanel’ for prairie or blackland soils. It has large black grapes that make a loose bunch, great for making jelly.
In addition to ‘Champanel,’ we decided to try ‘Carlos Muscadine,’ a grape variety used to make white wine. Muscadines are the most disease-resistant grapes.
“If you only have one fruit tree, this should be it,” Dr. McEachern advised, when interviewed by Neil Sperry. He was suggesting the ‘Orient’ pear, a variety that Jim picked for our orchard. With pears—unlike fussy plums and peaches—the less you prune and fertilize, the more pears you get. (More tree growth from fertilizer does not equal more fruit.) We also picked a ‘Warren’ pear, since pears are self-unfruitful and you must have two varieties for good production.
Ana really wanted an apple in the orchard. We realized at the last minute that both pears and apples need pollinators. Pears are much more disease resistant than apples, so the space in the orchard went to pears.
Judy and I looked at several area nurseries for fruit trees, but couldn’t find a place that had everything we wanted in stock. One nursery carried the ‘Redskin’ peach, for example, but it was grafted on East Texas rootstock, rather than the Halford stock for alkaline soils.
The only solution was for husband Mike and I to have a road trip to tiny De Leon and Womack Nursery, “Your Texas source for fruit and pecan trees since 1937.”
Womack Nursery is often named as the premiere source for pecans and fruit trees in Texas by fruit and nut experts. Traveling down two-lane Highway 6 between DeLeon and Gorman, you see a series of sheds and a small office. The parking lot is filled with pickups—all white—as crews assembled orders. Thousands of fruit trees, pecans, grapes, and berries were tucked in marked rows of sand. Large boxes waited to be filled with trees and shipped to customers all over Texas.
In a few minutes, our order was packed in damp hay, wrapped in brown paper and plastic, and tightly tied, ready for the trip back to Dallas.
We weren’t quite ready for the big city lights, however. Some of the best barbecue on the planet waited for us in Stephenville on our way home.
Pictures by Starla and Elizabeth
More about blackberries here.