5 Unusual Fruits Perfect For Growing In Organic Gardens

You've probably never thought to grow these—or eat them!—but they're perfect for organic gardens.

January 25, 2018
serviceberry
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Some of the most productive and rewarding fruiting plants are hiding in plain sight, cleverly disguised as naturalized shrubs or trees or as ornamentals grown in pots. Among these are serviceberry, quince, pawpaw, key lime, even prickly pear cactus. Their nutritious fruits can be eaten fresh or cooked. They can also be preserved as jams and juices, fermented wines and meads, or jewel-like syrups. Some have remarkable medicinal properties.

No matter where you live and garden, you’ll find one or more fruits on this list to suit your climate. That’s good news for anyone who wants to grow organic fruit but feels reluctant about undertaking conventional orchard crops. These plants can furnish distinctive landscaping that nourishes the soul while putting organic food and drink in the pantry.

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pawpaw on tree
Mitch Mandel

Pawpaw

This small woodland tree bears the largest edible fruit of any plant native to North America, each one nearly a pound of custardy goodness. The tree’s original range—from the Florida panhandle to Ontario, Canada, and from the Atlantic to west of the Mississippi, according to Pennsylvania grower Andrew Moore—shrank as forest habitat disappeared.

Today there’s a resurgence. “Plant your trees in full sun, in fertile, well-drained soil, and stand back,” Moore advises. “Pawpaws need very little from backyard growers other than a little patience. Make sure to have at least two different varieties for cross-pollination.” (Here's more on how to grow pawpaws.) 

Patience, certainly: Pawpaws take 5 years or so to fruit. According to Derek Morris, an extension horticulturalist in North Carolina, seedlings may require sun protection for a few years. In the wild, pawpaws often grow in the dappled shade of taller trees, but they are less fruitful than cultivated trees in sunnier exposures. Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5.

 

Organic gardeners love this handsome deciduous tree, which grows about 20 feet tall and serves as the sole food source for zebra swallowtail butterflies. The fragile fruits don’t ship well and have a short season, making homegrown pawpaws a treat. Bake the pulp, make ice cream, or use it in your favorite smoothie recipes. (For more, check out everything you need to know about preparing and eating pawpaws.) 

Where to order plants: Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards and One Green World

quince tree
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Quince

“Every owner of a fruit garden should have two or three quinces,” asserts fruit expert U.P. Hedrick. A cousin to the apple and the pear, quince must be cooked to bring out its rich, cinnamon-like flavor and aroma, because the presence of square “stone cells” makes the vitamin-packed fruits inedible when raw. Quince can be added to baked apple or pear dishes to intensify the flavor; stewed with honey; or reduced to a concentrated, sweet paste called dulce de membrillo. (Be sure to try this pear and quince sorbet.) 

 

Highly ornamental in spring, quince fades into the background later in the season. The deciduous trees grow slowly to about 20 feet and become handsomely gnarled with age. The golden, lumpy fruits ripen in fall and can be stored for several months, dry, in a cool closet. A few named cultivars are available. Native to Central Asia, quince (Cydonia oblonga) is hardy to Zone 5.

Just be prepared for some heartache: Quince falls victim to fire blight, much like pears or apples do. This bacterial disease can often be kept in check by careful pruning of diseased branches.

Where to order plants: Trees of Antiquity and Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards

prickly pear cactus
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Prickly Pear Cactus

Despite its tough-as-nails exterior, the prickly pear cactus has a soft heart: Both the meaty pads, or nopales, and the otherworldly fruits, called tunas, are staples of Latin American cuisine. Tunas can be eaten fresh and are also the source of sweet, refreshing juice. Getting at the juice simply requires peeling and mashing the ripe fruits and then straining out the seeds. This antioxidant-rich juice can be turned into jelly and candy. (Research even shows eating prickly pear can help cure a hangover.) 

Many species in the genus Opuntia bear edible fruits, including Opuntia engelmannii var. texana, which is native to the southwestern United States and hardy to Zone 9. Although some varieties are spineless, they still have fine bristles (glochids) that irritate skin. Handle the fruits with tongs or heavy gloves until you have removed the glochids by scraping the skin with a knife under running water. (Tunas sold in supermarkets are usually free of glochids.)

Related: Can You Have A Working Greenhouse In The Desert?

Prickly pears are known for their four-season beauty, which includes glamorous flowers in spring followed by fruits that can be purple, yellow, or red. Plants vary in mature size. They need little moisture but demand excellent drainage to prosper.

Where to ordre plants: CactusStore.com

key lime tree
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Key Lime

Citrus is for everyone. Beyond typical citrus country (zone 9 or warmer), organic gardeners can grow citrus in large containers, moving the pots to a cool greenhouse or sunroom to escape frost. Key lime (Citrus aurantiifolia) is an ideal candidate for this mobile lifestyle.

Related: 8 Fruit Trees You Can Grow Right On Your Balcony

The tart, thin-skinned key lime, also known as bartender’s lime, grows on a thorny, shrubby tree that reaches up to 15 feet outdoors but remains much smaller when grown in a container. A 12-inch pot is sufficient for a young citrus tree, but be prepared to gradually step up the container size as the tree grows. Keep the pot on a sturdy wheeled platform so it can be easily moved from indoors to out and back again as the weather demands.

Landscape consultant Thomas Durden, who grows lemons and limes in southwest Virginia, shares his secrets for container cultivation: “Use the biggest terra-cotta pot you can move, to pull inside and outside during the season. In winter, if there are 2 or 3 days above freezing, put the tree outside and bees will appear from nowhere.” Even though citrus trees are self-fruitful, Durden recommends using a small paintbrush to hand-pollinate the flowers and improve fruit set.

Where to buy plants: Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards 

serviceberry
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Serviceberry

Several species of Amelanchier thrive in moist woodlands across the United States. These graceful small trees or shrubs are known by many names, depending on the region: serviceberry, Juneberry, shadbush, shadblow, sarvis, saskatoon, or, in the Crow language, baáchuuawuuleete, meaning “berry without big seeds.”

Related: Everything You Should Know To Grow Native American Fruit Trees

In fact, researchers have confirmed what Montana’s Blackfoot Indians already knew: An extract of serviceberry leaves—the Blackfoot harvested western serviceberry or saskatoon, which grows to 6,000 feet elevation—can successfully treat type 2 diabetes. Such extracts are “potent inhibitors” of an enzyme that turns carbohydrates into glucose and “may offer a complementary approach in the treatment and management of diabetes,” according to the USDA.

With a vase-shaped, open branch structure, serviceberry blooms in early spring with clusters of white blossoms. Dark red berries follow in June or July; they are delicious in pie or jam, but in order to harvest ripe fruit before birds devour it, you may need to cover plants with bird netting. In fall, the leaves turn brilliant orange. Serviceberry is a valuable landscape plant and a food source for humans and wildlife alike.

Where to buy plants: Nature Hill Nursery