Black Currant Tasting & Varietal Comparisons

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Upon first taste black currants fascinated my palate and they’ve succeeded in doing so ever since. Over the years I’ve increased my collection to a dozen or so varieties. With white pine blister rust being a prevalent issue in Michigan my selection criteria has been narrowed down to only varieties which exhibit partial or full resistance to WPBR. I started with Consort and since then the collection has grown to include Crusader, Titania, Blackdown, Minaj Smirou, Ben Sarek, Belaruskaja, and various others that aren’t bearing yet like Kirovchanka, Vertti, Otelo, and a few that aren’t coming to mind.

There is a wide variation amongst varieties in both bush habit and fruit quality/flavor. That to me is very exciting as I love subtle nuances in flavor and its a fun way to broaden the palate. For the 2014 season I’ve taken tasting notes for the seven cultivars previously mentioned in an attempt to compare and assess the different traits of each and acquire first hand varietal information–

Crusader

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Large shiny jet black berries of Crusader.

Crusader was an early introduction from the Central Experiment Farm in Ottawa, Canada. It was released in the 1940’s as a rust resistant variety for North America. For me it has been a very consistent producer of medium sized fruit. They tend to be thicker skinned and very sharp(high acidity)…not one of my favorite for eating out of hand but still enjoyable, especially when dead ripe. Crusader holds onto its fruit for a long time and the thick skin slows down their perishabilty which is a nice quality. The bush itself, like all of the others developed by A.W.S. Hunter, is upright and open compared to some of the more dense varieties, particularly those from the Scottish Research Institute.

 

Consort

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Consort was released from the Central Experiment Farm to replace Crusader as a commercial variety in the 1950’s. Why,  I’m not sure…as I tend to prefer Crusader. Consort fruit are small and relatively poor quality in my opinion. They’re sharp and have that characteristic ‘musky flavor’ but lack depth and seem inferior to Crusader. Consort does produce long strigs that tend to ripen pretty evenly. Consort is entirely WPBR resistant. Coronet is another one from the Canadian breeding program that I’ve yet to try.

 

 

Titania

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Titania is a Swedish variety that was developed in the 1980’s using Consort as one of the parents. This is the first season I’ve had a substantial crop from Titania and so far it seems similar to Crusader and Consort both in fruit quality and bush form. It was very productive this year and is a vigorous grower; thus far it seems rather quick to mature compared to other cultivars that have been in the ground 1,2, and 3 years longer. Titania is reliably resistant to WPBR.

Minaj Smirou

Stem density on Minaj...always have to remind myself to prune more than less because of its vigorous nature.
Stem density on Minaj Smirou…always have to remind myself to prune more than less because of its vigorous nature.

I haven’t been able to find much information about this variety besides that it was developed in Bulgaria and is a more recent introduction. This has been hands down the most productive variety for me. Also the most vigorous grower that requires aggressive pruning. The branches tend to lodge when holding big crops and are more laterally dominant than varieties like Consort and Titania (conducive for layering). The berries ripen over a long period starting early in the season (need to take more notes on ripening times*); generally its the first to ripen here. This is a great variety for somebody new to black currants or for the more tamed palate as it is very mild. Thick skin can be a turn off for some folks, Minaj scores well in this department with the thinnest skin of all. It lacks the tart punch that almost all black currants have which makes it nice for eating out of hand. However, if you’re after that traditional black currant flavor than Minaj is probably not for you. I enjoy the berries because they ripen first and I always realize its blandness when compared to some of the later ripening cultivars. Minaj is reliably resistant to WPBR.

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I know— 5th grader hand writing, maybe worse.

Blackdown

Blackdown is an English variety that is reportedly not 100% rust resistant, however its never showed any signs in my trials. The bush is more compact than most with very close leaf nodes making the canopy dense. So far it has been a little less productive than the other varieties but produces the highest quality fruit in my opinion. The flavor of blackdown is outstanding– they have the same acidity thats common with varieties like Crusader except they’ve consistently had a higher sugar content which really supports the sharpness and makes for an overall more pleasant mouth experience. The berries are medium sized with moderatly thick skin. Higher sugar content would make Blackdown more acceptable for the average American palate I think. I am going to plant a lot more of this variety because I like it so much.

Ben Sarek

Ben Sarek is very compact and good for small spaces.
Ben Sarek is very compact and good for small spaces.
Large berries and signs of the unusual rot that hits even unripe berries sometimes. Any insights?
Large berries and signs of the unusual rot that hits even unripe berries sometimes. Any insights?

All varieties with Ben in their name come from the Scottish Research Institute. Ben Sarek is a more compact plant making it nice for the home garden. It bears resemblance to Blackdown in bush form and holds its berries in tight clusters. For me it has been only moderately productive. The berries are larger than all of the other cultivars and tend to have a unique flavor that I’ve yet to figure out. Less complex and less tart and almost a mild dirty flavor…as if they’re slightly rotten. It also gets this weird rot where the berries become very soft with an unagreeable flavor, unlike any other cultivar. Aside from the compact nature and large fruit size Ben Sarek doesn’t have much going for it. It is partially resistant to WPBR but has never shown signs in my trials.

 

Belaruskaja

Young Belaruskaja with dwarf comfrey.
Young Belaruskaja with dwarf comfrey.

This is a variety I added to my collection per request from Lee Reich and I’m happy I did. I planted it in the spring of 2013 and cut the bush back to a few buds and it put on considerable growth last season and set a small crop for this first time this year. The berries are somewhere in between Blackdown and Titania in flavor with a nice sweetness as described with Blackdown. So far I’ve only sampled a few dozen of these and look forward to further evaluation. I see good prospects for Belaruskaja as a premier fresh eating variety.

Summary

It has been a joy to compare these different varieties and if it weren’t for the diversity than the contrast would be minimum and there wouldn’t be much to judge against. I hope to pay closer attention in future years to ripening times and pest resistance, primarily regarding currant borer and aphids. Also, further experimentation in the kitchen will prove which varieties are best for cooking, juicing, etc. All in all black currant has been one of the most successful, less-maintenance fruits in my gardening experiments.

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2014 Course Schedule

I’ve finally gotten around to posting the Roots To Fruits 2014 schedule of events! We are psyched to be offering many exciting classes and workshops in the coming year. More information for each event will be posted to the RTF website soon. Stay posted for registration details…

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Cider Rant & Review: Adam’s by Shepard’s Hard Cyder

With the conclusion of the growing season I am starting to focus more energy on renovating the website, adding new podcasts, and writing more— with that I am introducing a new aspect to the blogroll, that is CIDER REVIEWS!

I’m certainly far from a cider expert, but I am extremely geeked on this lovely fermented beverage we call cider. Before going much further I’ll make the necessary distinction between what I’m referring to as ‘cider’ and the raw, unfermented fresh apple juice that most Americans call cider. In England, France, Spain, and practically every other neck of the world the term ‘cider’ refers directly to fermented apple juice, not fresh apple juice that has been misleadingly called cider with the craze of the autumnal trend of cider and donuts.

I digress. There’s an artful craft and beautiful tradition to cider making that is ages old and is making a timely resurgence in North America and particularly here in Michigan. Not to mention it’s the second fastest growing beverage industry next to craft beer! The apple after all has become a universal fruit whose fermented juice is not only an excellent, nutrient dense, preservable food source and inebriating drink, but also a very delectable beverage that can range from sweet and bubbly to dry and tannic, and everything in between. As I write this I can hear the rhythmic ‘plump…plump’ of the airlocks releasing gas on the some 70 gallons of cider fermenting in my basement! More on that later…can you tell I’m a bit excidered?

The cider I’ll be reviewing today comes from the outspoken permaculture expert and tree crop guru— Mark Shepard. New Forest Farm is his 106 acre perennial ag sanctuary in southwest Wisconsin; there he raises chestnuts, hazelnuts, hazelnut finished pork(!), apples, and a variety of other crops. They’ve been producing cider for a few years in an expanding on-farm facility and the cider is currently available only in southern WI (I got mine from a friend who took his PDC earlier this year). His ciders go by the name Shepard’s Hard Cyder. Note the spelling here… cyder with a Y is another variation simply referring to the real-deal stuff made with love and craftsmanship, not the watered down,  from-concentrate, preservative ridden, commonly available neo-American hard ciders! Whew.

IMG_2291 2Out of the three cider offerings from Shepard’s Hard Cider we’ll be looking at one called Adam’s (which you could guess accompanies it’s counterpart—Eve’s). Upon opening it was very gaseous and perhaps too carbonated from being over primed, furthermore we had to open the bottle over the sink and it took a few minutes to settle down. Once poured the cider had a light golden color and moderate clarity, with a foamy head that slowly receded to about a quarter of it’s initial size. In both appearance and aroma it resembled a champagne with a very subtle apple pie fruitiness on the nose. Upon first sip the boldest character was its crispness and effervescence. It was relatively dry and lacked the sometimes overbearing cloyingly sweet flavor so common in the lesser grade commercial ciders. I also appreciate the moderate acidity that gave this cider its refreshing tang. However aside from it’s dryness and mild sharpness, it lacked overall body and depth of character…almost bordering bland after the immediate burst of flavor. I am unsure but perhaps this is because Shepard is using run of the mill dessert apples rather than some of the bitter and bittersharp cider varieties that offer richer body and complexity. For a mid-range gravity sparkling cider weighing in around 5.5% ABV it was GOOD…one I’d really enjoy on a hot summer day. I look forward to eventually tasting more from the Shepard’s Hard Cyder line.

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Fruit Tree Polycultures: Summer Pomona Feature

POMONA
The Member-Written, Quarterly Journal of North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX)
Vol. XLVI, No. 3, Summer 2013

Fruit Tree Polycultures
Trevor Newman
tnewman92@gmail.com
(P) 248-535-9419
(F) 248-625-7676
The Fruit Nut | http://www.thefruitnut.com

Unlike monocultures, polycultures contain diverse mixtures of species growing together in symbiosis. Creating polycultures around fruit trees can reduce the need for offsite inputs, increase biodiversity in the orchard, and provide various secondary yields such as medicinal herbs, perennial vegetables, and much more. Establishing polycultures around fruit trees is all about analyzing the needs of the tree and matching those needs to the functions of various support species or ‘companion plants.’ The aim is to provide the basic needs of the tree (fertility, pest management, weed control, etc.) by using biological
resources. Instead of ‘planting a fruit tree,’ we can think of this integrated approach as ‘planting an ecosystem’.

Dynamic accumulators are plants whose deep taproots mine hard-to-reach minerals from the soil and deposit them in their aerial parts. These plants can be grown around the base of fruit trees and managed on a ‘chop-n-drop’ basis whereby their aerial parts are occasionally cut and spread as mulch directly beneath the trees. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a great example of a dynamic accumulator that is high in calcium, phosphorus, and manganese. I put at least one comfrey plant at the base or around the
drip line of each tree and generally cut them back for mulch 3-4 times throughout the growing season.

Nitrogen-fixing plants are commonly used in organic agriculture as cover crops and green manure. The same principles can be applied to the orchard by using nitrogen fixing trees, shrubs, and herbs to act as nurse crops for young fruit trees. A great multi-purpose nitrogen fixer is goumi (Eleagnus multiflora), which produces an early-season berry and provides an abundance of nectary flowers which honeybees
love. When goumi and other nitrogen fixers are cut down, their roots respond by releasing a plume of nitrogen into the surrounding soil. Fruit trees and other crop plants can tap into this fertility source.

Groundcover plants are excellent weed suppressors and should be integrated throughout the orchard understory to act as living mulch while excluding any potential for weeds to grow. Applemint (Mentha suaveolens) and white clover (Trifolium repens) are two groundcovers that can be effectively integrated with orchard grass to create a dense mat. Creeping comfrey is an excellent groundcover that spreads
indefinitely, can tolerate shade, and also serves as a dynamic accumulator.

Another class of functional plants are known as insectaries. These are plants that provide fodder for beneficial and predatory insects. By attracting these ‘good guys’ to the orchard we can increase pollination and limit pest outbreaks by encouraging a balance among predator and prey populations. Plants in the Apiaceae family (carrot, lovage, etc.) and plants in the Asteraceae family (yarrow, coneflower, etc.) are especially good at attracting predatory insects like parasitic wasps, lace wings, and lady beetles. Having insectary plants flowering at different times throughout the year ensures that beneficial insects will have a plentiful supply of food and reason to stick around.

The core of good polyculture design lies in a basic understanding of ecology and plant functions. Polycultures mimic functional interconnections found in natural ecosystems while producing an abundance of yields and reducing off site inputs. Visit www.apiosinstitute.org to see numerous case studies and find out more about designing fruit tree polycultures.

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Michael Phillips Holistic Orchard DVD Review

662Michael Phillips is an organic orchardist, consultant, and writer who has titled two popular fruit growing books— The Apple Grower (Chelsea Green 2005) and The Holistic Orchard (Chelsea Green 2011). His books have been crucial resources for me in my orcharding endeavors. Both books describe innovative and cutting edge strategies for managing orchards in an ecologically regenerative way that doesn’t rely upon synthetic fertilizers and toxic biocides. The Holistic Orchard DVD guides viewers on a highly informative and visually stimulating tour through a year in the orchard. Phillips takes us around his New Hampshire farm through the four seasons showing many of the happenings of a healthy orchard ecosystem.

Phillips jovially shares his 25+ years of orcharding experience in over four hours of engaging video footage. He covers everything from planting and propagation to pruning and harvesting. This instructional video will be an invaluable resource for growers of all skill levels. Phillips lays the foundation for an ecological orcharding protocol that can be replicated and adapted from region to region. He emphasizes an integrated, ‘health based approach’, which like holistic medicine— is all about boosting the health of the entire ecosystem from the fungi and microorganisms to the birds and insects. Phillips goes through the best practices for managing a number of common orchard pests like apple tree borer, plum curculio, and codling moth. Furthermore he breaks down the life cycle of each pest, shows what to look for, and explains when the best times are to intervene in that pests life cycle. This is the type of detail you will find in the Holistic Orchard DVD.

The depth and range of Phillip’s knowledge will surely clarify any hard-to-grasp concepts for beginner and advanced orchardists alike. Phillips not only offers an alternative to today’s conventional, chemical-based orcharding approach, but he presents the information in an exciting and easy-to-digest way that will motivate any gardener or fruit grower to think more holistically. I am grateful for Michael’s contributions to the world of fruit growing and I highly recommend this DVD. Whether you’re dealing with a small backyard orchard, a community orchard, or a production scale farm this video will provide valuable insights. Click here to purchase a copy of the DVD and to learn more about Michael Phillips visit his websites at: herbsandapples.com and groworganicapples.com.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE FRUIT NUT PODCAST WITH MICHAEL PHILLIPS

Old Apple Tree We Wassail Thee

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Wassail-Image-1It was an unusually mild January night amidst a long stretch of bone-chilling cold. Warm air blew in during the day raising temps to 45 degrees Fahrenheit…pretty warm for January 19th. This was last Saturday, the evening of our 1st annual wassailing ceremony. ‘Waes hael’ is an Anglo-Saxon word that means ‘to wish well’, or ‘to wish whole’. Orchard wassailing is an old English tradition where each year around January 17th (The Old Twelfth Night) people gather together to perform a ceremony in honor of the apple trees. The ceremony is meant to promote the health of the trees and to ensure a bountiful harvest in the coming season. This age-old custom is still practiced until this day, particularly in England and throughout the British Isles. With apples being a cornerstone to British culture, this tradition was at the center of seasonal festivities and followed the celebration of Christmas.

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Serving mulled cider to the group…

The ancient earth rite begins with the group gathering in a circle around the largest or most significant tree in the orchard, known as The Apple Man, which is meant to represent the rest of the orchard treesfrom there the butler, or ‘king’, brings forth a piece of toasted bread; the master, or ‘queen’, then takes the bread, dips it into mulled cider(which all ceremony participants are given), and then hangs the bread on a fruiting spur of the chosen tree. The cider-soaked bread is an offering to the robins, which are thought to be guardians of the orchard. A proper toast is then given and everyone drinks to the tree. The ceremony comes to a finale as the group sings a wassailing song. Everyone bangs on pots and pans, drums, and tambourines to ward off any evil spirits that might be dwelling in the tree and the ceremony is concluded. After researching numerous wassailing traditions and songs, I synthesized this version:

Old apple tree we wassail thee in hope
that thou will bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
’til apples come another year
to bear well and to bloom well, and so
merry let us be
Let every man take off his hat
And shout to the old apple tree
(Repeat twice more)
Old apple tree we wassail thee in hope
that thou will bear
Hats full,
Caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
And a little heap under the stairs.
Hip, Hip, Hooray! Hip, Hip, Hooray!
Hip, Hip, Hooray!

That’s a basic overview of one wassailing ceremony; there are many, many slight variations and each has its place in a different locality. The beauty is that it can be adapted to any place, and although there are some general guidelines, anybody can do it anywhere. For me it seemed like a custom worth integrating into our community, and in a very real sense we are only RE-integrating, as a lot of us trace our ancestry to places like the British Isles and other European countries. I speak on behalf of many when I say there is a major hunger for connection in our modern, technologically-rampant culture. There is a hunger for connection to place, there is a hunger for connection to community, and there is a hunger for connection to our customs and traditions which have been stripped away over the last 300+ years. I see it all around me as full moon potlucks, skill share groups, harvest parties, and other community celebrations once again become common. After all, how can something so central to human existence be left behind?

Our first annual wassailing ceremony was met with great interest as 20+ friends and fellow apple-lovers came out to celebrate. We started the evening around 5:30 with the ceremony and a large bonfire in the orchard followed by a lovely potluck indoors. The evening went on with drumming, delicious and seasonally appropriate food and drink, and many wonderful conversations and laughs. Simple gatherings like these bring us closer together as a community and feed the deep hunger within—the hunger for connection.

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Fall Closure, Garden Update, & New Podcast

Winter is coming and you can feel it in the air. While Hurricane Sandy was wreaking havoc on the east coast Michigan got hit with serious winds, heavy rain, and some hail. That storm swooped away the remaining tree leaves bringing a conclusion to the beautiful display of fall colors. Now the bareness is kicking in. I’ve been struggling to find time to write amongst the busyness of closing down the gardens and getting everything ready for winter. You have to make hay when the sun shines- soon enough we’ll be snowed in.

A LOT has been going on, though. Many renovations  have been made in the garden/orchard as well as some new plantings. My company has been doing well this fall and we’ve hosted some exciting workshops and secured some enthusiastic new clients that are ready to take on and transform their own landscapes. The elections have just passed, thankfully, and obviously everybody has their different views on voting…but we can all use this time as a reminder that perhaps the most effective way to vote and cast your voice is with your everyday actions. ‘Vote with your dollar’ is a powerful saying. We all have an opportunity to be the change we wish to see. Make positive changes in your own community, small or large.

Thats a wrap for my political rant; this is after all a website about fruit and orcharding, not politics. I vote for apples. Speaking of apples, I just finished the latest episode of the The Fruit Nut Podcast with Michael Phillips, the author of The Apple Grower and The Holistic Orchard. It was a great conversation and Michael shared so much valuable information. We talked about holistic fruit tree care, community orchards, and more. CLICK HERE to listen to the interview. Unfortunately the past three episodes have been recorded with a low quality microphone so the audio on my end breaks up a lot and doesn’t sound that great. HOWEVER, I am investing in a new recording system to produce much cleaner audio. Look forward to episode 4 with Lee Reich.

Here are some recent photos of field trips, events, and happenings in the garden…

Spacing out blueberries for the new blueberry bed. 10/9/12
Planting potted blueberries in the ground. 10/9/12
Vibrant blueberry fall color. 10/17/12
Sheet mulched blueberry bed complete…ground level rose some 10″. Organic matter is the name of the game when it comes to blueberries! 10/27/12
Golden raspberries are best when the weather gets cold and sugar levels increase. 10/27/12
Giant daikon radish doing it’s work building soil at a client’s site in Plymouth, MI.
Mike Levine of Nature and Nurture sharing the remains of his hardy kiwi crop.
This was my first time eating fresh hardy kiwi…I’ve hard store bought but these put ’em to shame!
These little kiwis are extremely sweet with a complex flavor. They have smooth skin and can be eaten whole…much tastier then fuzzy kiwis in my opinion. Plus they can grow in zone 5!
Ken Asmus of Oikos Tree Crops shares a lovely presentation at a recent Roots To Fruits edible forest gardening weekend intensive. 10/20/12

 

Ken talking chestnuts and explaining the benefits of ‘rough mulch’ in an orchard setting. This means leaving pruning in place beneath the tree they came from. Nutrient cycling at it’s finest…
Ken and I feeling accomplished after leading a successful edible forest gardening workshop. Beautiful hickory color in background. Photo courtesy PJ Chmiel
‘I-94’ American persimmons tree ripening at Nash Nursery in Owosso, MI. 10/13/12
Ripe ‘I-94’ American persimmons…this variety comes from the breeding work of the late James Claypool.
Beautiful stand of pure American chestnuts growing free of blight in Owosso, MI. These were planted some 30+ years ago. 10/13/12
Elegant variegated silverberry, E.pungens… 11/7/12
New seedling persimmon planting from a seedling tree grown from ‘Morris Burton’ fruit. The parent tree had lovely deep red, very sweet fruit. 11/7/12
Latest persimmon planting featuring several grafted D. virginiana varieties. More on this later…