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By Trey Pitsenberger, co-owner Golden Gecko

With the interest people are showing towards heirloom vegetables, especially tomatoes, that interest should spill over into the fruit tree world. The reason heirloom vegetables are gaining in popularity is the unique flavors and colors available. We all know that home grown usually taste better than store bought, and this is true with fruit trees. Peaches picked at the peak of ripeness have a flavor that is beyond anything available at the store.

Fruit varieties grown for the supermarket are developed for their ability to travel long distances and remain attractive to the consumer. While the growers try to incorporate good flavor into the fruit it is often impossible to reconcile the two attributes of taste and transport. If the grower waits until the peak of ripeness the fruit is often too soft to travel. We as home fruit growers can pick the fruit when it has reached the peak of perfection. Unfortunately most people plant varieties of fruit that have names they recognize from the supermarket. These varieties are the ones developed for the mass market, not for the home grower. So while you can pick the fruit when perfectly ripe, the fruit it self may not be the best tasting available. I know that if I am going to take the time to care for my home grown trees all year I want taste that is going to wow me. I need to pick varieties of fruit for flavor, not commercial success.

Dave Wilson Nursery, Hickman California, grows fruit trees for the garden center trade. Over the last nine years they have conducted what they call “blind” fruit tasting. They invite nursery people and others to taste fruit without knowing what types of fruits or varieties they taste. They offer samples of fruit at the peak of ripeness and ask the tasters to rate these fruits. The ratings are then available to the retail garden centers to help them choose varieties that are exceptionally good flavored. Often the customer still chooses the well-known name over these better tasting but less known varieties.

Let's look at peaches and nectarines, often sold rock hard and never ripening with the flavor of fresh picked. Most people have heard of Babcock, and Elberta, two popular peaches. In the blind tastings these varieties don’t score at the top for flavor. The most flavorful varieties are the ‘Arctic Jay’ white fleshed nectarine, and the ‘Snow Beauty’ white fleshed peach. These will never be in the store as they are not good travelers. You need to pick these as they ripen on the tree. The flavor is beyond anything you can buy. Those of us who think nectarines are bland will soon find that they can be even more flavorful than peaches.

Apples tend to be dominated by ‘Red Delicious’, ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Granny Smith’, and lately ‘Fuji’ and ‘Gala’. These are in most supermarkets. What about ‘Spitzenburg’? Apple connoisseurs consider this old heirloom variety as the very best dessert apple. Its flavor is renowned, but finding the tree is hard if not impossible. ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ Apple is a small to medium sized fruit, with a greenish to golden brown russet skin with red highlights. Creamy yellow flesh is aromatic, crisp and sweet. From England, discovered in the 1700’s it is widely regarded as on of the all-time best-flavored apples.

Talk to your favorite nurseryperson today and ask if they will be carrying any of the taste test winners this winter during bare root season. See if you can get a copy of the taste test results. Choose varieties to plant in your yard that will offer flavor that will wow your family and friends. I find the ability to grow varieties that are exceptionally good, and not commonly found, part of the fun of home orchard culture. You need to find out where to get these varieties now, since garden centers are putting in the orders for what they will carry next year. Maybe they will order some of these taste test winners for you.

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