Straight and Narrow

After the first rush of excitement when the plant catalogs start pouring into the mailbox each winter, it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed by the variety of plants available.


While it would be lovely to have the money and space to plant some of everything, that’s not reality for the vast majority of us. Sure, maybe you can plant twenty kinds of seeds, but planting twenty kinds of fruit trees is less likely to be an option. Everything in the catalogs is bound to look appealing in the dead of winter. Narrowing down the choices is part science, part art, and part deciding you’ve packed and repacked your parachute enough times and taking the jump.

In order to spread the costs out and avoid decision fatigue, my own approach has been to focus on one section of our property each year, all the while keeping my big picture in mind: grow a variety of food, plant enough to share, give the plants what they need, minimize labor, and aim for pretty.

The area I am working on this year has a mulberry tree and a small wisteria, each about fifteen years old. The mulberry fruited its first and second years, but hasn’t since. This was a disappointment, as mulberries are one of my favorite childhood foods, so I knew I wanted more mulberries. Other than that, I was open to anything.

For each plant I considered, I researched the following questions:

Will it grow well in my zone? (Zone 6)

When does it fruit? (I’d like to be harvesting continually, rather than all at once.)

How big is it? (Will I have room for it, and will it thrive among nearby plantings?)

Is it self-pollinating? (If not, I’ll need more than one.)

Does it have thorns? (I’m anti-thorn.)

What kind of soil and sun does it need? (Wet, hot, shady, dry?)

Do I want to eat it? (Just because I can grow it doesn’t mean I’ll like it.)

Do I like the way it looks? (I’d sacrifice looks for flavor if necessary, but it rarely is.)

Is there likely to be a market for excess? (Not a concern for everyone, but as I sell produce and preserves and hope to sell a greater quantity in the future, important for me to consider.)

I settled on three varieties of mulberry: Illinois Everbearing, Shangri La, and Weeping Mulberry. The Illinois is a large tree that begins fruiting in June. The Shangri La will fruit a bit earlier, beginning in May, and is mid-sized at about 20 feet. Smallest of all is the Weeping Mulberry, which is the kind I grew up with, making it more a nostalgic choice than a strategic one.

Along with the mulberries I’ll be planting two pawpaw trees, Sunflower Pawpaw and SAA Overleese Pawpaw. Again, one is a bit larger than the other. My objective is to create something of a food forest – a garden which mimics nature, where plants grow in layers, tall trees spaced widely to provide an open canopy, shorter trees, shrubs, and groundcover plants nestled around and under. Plants in straight rows may look tidy, but I want to garden as a participant in nature, not a director.

To begin my shrub level I chose three varieties of honeyberry (Blue Moon, Blue Pacific, and Blue Velvet) and to get started on the groundcover I chose wintergreen. The honeyberries will bloom early and the wintergreen late, extending my fruit harvesting season.

I’ll likely need more for the shrub layer, and will plant some bulbs and possibly some herbs as well, but we’ll be off to a good start this spring. All told, I’ll spend about $300 on this area. That’s about half as much as we spend each month on groceries for our family of four. Not small change, but I’d just as soon have my savings grow in my backyard as in the bank.

Roll With It

More preserves today, because that’s basically what it’s all about these days as waves of produce crash into our kitchen.


A pile of plums languished on the counter in a cloud of fruit flies, too many to eat, too ripe to wait. When in doubt, dehydrate.

Roasted Plum Fruit Leather



Split the plums in half, removing their pits, and put them in a roasting pan.

Bake at 450 for 10 or 15 minutes.


Add sugar to taste.

Spread mixture in thin layer on parchment lined tray.

If you’ve got a dehydrator, cook at 145 degrees for 6 hours or until leathery. If you don’t have a dehydrator, cook at your oven’s lowest setting and start checking at 4 hours. Overall cooking time will depend on the thickness of your leather.

Up Side Down

When I make my peach preserves, I’m sure to set a few peaches aside for upside-down peach cake.


Three or four peaches will do, but you’re probably going to want to make this twice, so you may want eight.

Upside-Down Peach Cake

Preheat oven to 350.

4 peaches, peeled and sliced

3 egg yolks, beaten

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup boiling water

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 1/2 Tablespoons butter

4 Tablespoons brown sugar

Beat yolks til thick and light.

Add sugar gradually.

Add water and vanilla.

Add flour, baking powder, and salt and set batter aside.

In an 8″, ovenproof frying pan, melt butter over medium heat.

Add brown sugar to butter and let cook a minute or two until it starts to become bubbly.

Turn off the heat and layer peaches on top of brown sugar mixture. This is going to be the top of your cake, so you can attempt to lay the slices in prettily but they’re slippery so don’t stress yourself out. This is cake.

Pour your cake batter over the peaches.

Set the frying pan in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes, til golden.

Let it sit for a few minutes, then turn out onto a plate. Remember, the handle of your frying pat is hot!

Serve plain or with whipped cream.

Wait a Second

Canning season is in full swing.


I began the week with tomato jam (I use this recipe, minus the ginger because I rarely have that on hand) and I’ll be ending it with peaches. Our own peach trees don’t produce much of anything yet, so we get our peaches from a local farm. The trick, when canning, is to ask the farmer for ‘seconds’. This is the fruit deemed not quite pretty enough to sell, and it comes at a steep discount. A bit is lost as you trim unusable spots – you don’t want to can with anything you wouldn’t want to eat – but a great majority of the fruit is just fine.

Ordering seconds does mean I’m on the farmer’s, and nature’s, schedule. Rather than plan which day I’m going to can, I have to wait until I get the call that the fruit is ready and rearrange my days to fit the canning in. Any inconvenience is more than made up for in the middle of winter when I’m warmed by a jar of habanero peach preserves.

Sweet Synergy

Fruit butters are greater than the sum of their parts.


As moisture evaporates, the flavors of the fruit condense. Simple ingredients develop depth and meld into ooey gooey goodness.

Plum Apple Butter

12 plums, pitted

8 apples, peeled, cored, and quartered

1/4 cup water

3 cups sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Bring fruit and water to boil in a large pot.

Simmer til tender, about 15-20 minutes.

Remove from heat and puree.

Add remaining ingredients.

Bring back to a boil.

Lower heat and simmer, uncovered to let that moisture out, for about 50 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when it is thick enough that a dollop on a plate doesn’t spread.

Store in fridge or freezer, or process in water bath for 15 minutes.

Yields 4-6 half-pints, depending on the size of the fruit and how thick you make it.