I have just finished reading The Lost Gardens of Heligan, a wonderful book by [fill in name] Smits. The story, which is true down to the last botanical name, is about the rediscovery and renovation of Heligan, a 19th-century estate in Cornwall. Like many other landed estates at the time, Heligan was almost completely self-sufficient, with the various gardens and fields supplying everything that was needed to feed the inhabitants. Not only did they grow essentials, but a wide array of exotic fruits, including pineapple, which was grown in special pits heated by fermenting manure.
Of course, Heligan also had many different “pleasure gardens” full of ornamentals, but it is clear that the author is especially interested in productive gardens. The author is at his most inspiring when he describes the melons, which were cultivated in the old-fashioned way with each fruit growing in its own net hammock. While I have no immediate intention of growing melons, in hammocks or otherwise, I have always harbored a secret ambition to be a fruit farmer.
Over the years I have grown strawberries in the one and only bed my husband has ever double-dug, and raspberries. When we started with raspberries, we had one slender cane. When we moved from our old house we had about twenty, and that was only because we pruned ruthlessly from time to time. In the back of the upper garden of my new house, there are two small trees, slender in form, that look for all the world like those dwarf columnar apple trees that are advertised in some of the catalogs. The trees have apple blossom-like flowers in spring but have yet to set fruit.
I don’t know whether the problem is a lack of light, lack of pollination, or lack of appropriate care on my part. One of these days I will do the research, and hopefully, harvest some fruit. In the meantime, I covet other people’s peach and apple trees, not to mention currant bushes. But what I have wanted the most is a blueberry bush.
I am attracted to blueberries because they are both deliciously edible and wonderfully ornamental. At the Van Vleck Garden in Montclair, New Jersey, Howard Van Vleck created an alee of blueberry bushes that leads from a formal garden in the back of the house to a more naturalistic area that is home to Mr. Van Vleck’s prized rhododendrons. The Van Vleck blueberries are as handsome as any of the more widely used ornamental shrubs, with fruit as an added bonus.
Blueberries are members of the genus Vaccinium, which also includes cranberries, huckleberries, and bilberries. They start the growing season covered with pink blossoms. Summer brings the dark blue fruit, and when fall arrives the leaves of some cultivars color brilliantly.
Since my blueberry bush has to fit in a relatively small space, I have ordered one of the dwarf varieties, ‘Sunshine Blue’. Although the catalog does not elaborate on its species, it might be a dwarf form of Vaccinium corymbosum, the High Bush Blueberry. Hybridizers have used this species, which is found in the wild from Maine to Florida, to produce all kinds of cultivars for the home garden. The catalog prose promises that my plant will limit its growth to about three feet high and three feet wide, and pollinate itself. Though I will have the satisfaction of harvesting the fruit, I won’t have the joy of watching the leaves turn. ‘Sunshine Blue’ is an evergreen variety.
I already have the acid soil that blueberries like, and I will install my little plant in a sunny space near the birdbath in my back garden. I know that when the time comes, I will have to cover it in netting to keep the birds away. I will probably end up doing what I used to do with my raspberries—throwing the net on until I get tired of eating blueberries, baking blueberry muffins and freezing the extras, then taking the net off so the birds can get what they are entitled to.
I expect that if I succeed with my ‘Sunshine Blues’, I will want even more fruit in my garden. I don’t really have the room for raspberries, or for the wild blackberries that spring up unbidden by one corner of the house. Maybe a cranberry. There are cultivars available that don’t require a bog to flourish. The thought is entrancing. It’s just possible that two or three Thanksgivings from now, I will be enjoying my turkey with cranberry sauce made from my own fruit.
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg