Garden Notes: Harvesting fruit on Martha’s Vineyard

Garden Notes: Harvesting fruit on Martha’s Vineyard

Miscanthus grass, a roadside volunteer approximately seven years old, has been joined by about ten more — one a stripey “Zebrinus” type! — nearby. Seedlings of “Burning bush” euonymus now line the same road, as does autumn olive, likely bird-sown. None of the aesthetically inclined individuals who planted the source plants had any intention other than beautifying their property. Yet, the unintended consequences are the slow degrading of formerly “unspoiled” native woodland. Although only autumn olive is actually on the Massachusetts Prohibited Plants list, as gardeners we all need to pay attention to the potential invasiveness of what we buy and plant.

A friend arrived at our house laden with grapes and quinces from her backyard. The fruit harvest this year has been heavy and bounteous. Is it cyclical, weather-driven, or just an unexpected gift?

This is not so much the time to plant an orchard or arbor as it is perhaps the time to plan one. Visiting established ones is instructive — their owners will be sure to let you know what they did right and what to avoid.

Home grape growing is somewhat cult-like, whether for the table or for juice and wine. This comes from the supporting structures that the vines require, which enclose space. These frameworks and arbors are sometimes beautiful or architectural, and they should be constructed with an eye to permanence and strength, since the vines are long-lived and become very heavy over time. That notwithstanding, the support systems of commercial vineyards are anything but aesthetic, being prosaic, utilitarian wire-and-post affairs, easy to duplicate at home.

The other night at Polly Hill, plant geneticist Phil Forsline mentioned a great many fascinating trends and leads in apple breeding, based on plant exploration in the apple species’ area of origin in Central Asia. Those developments will lead to future breakthroughs in resistance to conditions that plague fruit and fruit growers alike, such as fireblight and scab. Further information about this work and other fruit species research (including grape and cherry) is found at ars.usda.gov/Aboutus/docs.htm?docid=6310.

In the meantime Forsline’s top apple picks include”Empire,” “Honeycrisp,” “Jonagold,” “Mutsu (Crispin),” or “Fuji” for the end of the apple year. Most of these are available at mail order suppliers Miller Nurseries (www.millernurseries.com) and Stark Brothers (www.starkbros.com), as well as Island garden centers.

Quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a pear-and-apple relative that was once prized and grown on the Island but has suffered from being ignorantly destroyed in the process of subdivision and development. Those who own or know the location of Island quince trees often keep the intelligence to themselves, unlike my generous friend. The fruit is used principally in making the sweetmeat known as quince paste, cotignac, membrillo, or dulce de membrillo.

The reason for this is that in quince’s area of origin, Asia minor, the longer, warmer growing season ripens the fruit to the point of eating out of hand; but in our cooler climate here, the quince is hardy, grows and bears, but is unable to ripen sufficiently to be used other than as a cooked fruit. Miller and Stark each list a cultivar apiece while Washington state’s Raintree Nursery (raintreenursery.com) offers eight.

It is a pleasure to see and hear of the success that the growing numbers of Island gardeners are experiencing. Once the garden is producing well, then comes the preserve-the-harvest phase. Admittedly, with many people away from their kitchens all day at work, handling the bounty becomes more of a tightly choreographed act. Some are fortunate to have had a model within their families on which to base their modus operandi; others must reinvent the wheel.

I belong in the latter category, my mother having grown up almost never visiting the kitchen and barely able to boil an egg at the time of her marriage. Perversely however, I have always hungered to acquire practical knowledge and have therefore come to rely heavily upon the information contained in books.

An array of useful books includes these titles, some of which I have recommended before: “Putting Food By: Fifth Edition,” Hertzberg, Greene, and Vaughn; “Encyclopedia of Country Living,” Emery; “Back to Basics,” Gehring; “Keeping the Harvest,” Chioffi & Mead; and “Forgotten Skills of Cooking,” Darina Allen.

A recipe for quince fruit comes from Allen’s “Forgotten Skills of Cooking.”

Quince Cheese or Membrillo

As many quinces as you can lay your hands on

3/4 that weight of sugar

2 9×12 inch jelly roll pans

Preheat oven to 225 F.

Use a cloth to rub off the down from the skins of as many quinces as you can pack into a large earthenware jar. Do not add any water. Cover the pot and place in a low oven for about 4 hours until the fruit is easily pierced with a skewer. Quarter the fruit, remove the cores and any blemishes, and put the pieces through a food mill, using the biggest disk.

“Weigh the quince pulp and add 3 parts of sugar to every 4 parts of pulp. Cook the mixture in a preserving pan over medium heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spatula until the mixture becomes rich in color and stops running together again when the spatula is drawn through the mixture.

“Line 2 jelly roll trays with parchment or silicone paper. Spread evenly with the paste and leave overnight to cool and solidify.

“The following day, dry the paste out in a low oven (225 F) for about 4 hours until quite firm. Check it is ready by lifting a corner of the paste: it should be solid all the way through. When the paste has cooled, cut into 4 strips, wrap in baking parchment, and store in an airtight container. Keeps about 4 months, but is best eaten when freshly made.”