It must have been sometime in the early 1970s, not long after the then-exotic kiwi was introduced into the United States from New Zealand, that my sister sent me as a Christmas gift, a box of those fuzzy egg-shaped fruits whose elegant pale green slices with their decorative black-seeds have since brightened so many salads, desserts, and buffet tables. The realization that this succulent treat was available in December and lasted through January seemed potentially life-saving as I began to ask myself whether choosing to eat locally — and mostly what I grew — meant that I would have to forgo fruit entirely in winter.
I knew that the traditional kiwi was not hardy; like so much of our produce they all seemed to be grown in California, so the vines wouldn't survive mid-Atlantic winters. And even though I had learned to keep citrus alive and producing by moving them in their giant pots into the house for the winter, I knew I couldn't handle an aggressively vigorous kiwi vine.
But I had noticed that one of my garden catalogs offered a hardy kiwi that produced grape-sized fruit guaranteed to be as good-tasting as the original. The plant's only drawback was that it didn't produce fruit for seven years. But what the hell, my husband and I agreed; we were in our 50s. We could wait.
We immediately ordered two plants — a male and female were required for reproduction — and planted them on either side of an arbor we had set up in the middle of our shallow oak-shaded back yard. The vines grew vigorously from the start, so vigorously that they threatened to climb a nearby tree; but spring after spring as we waited for a sign of a bloom, there was none. In 10 flourishing years, neither of the plants ever produced a flower, to say nothing of a fruit.
When we left our giant Victorian house and moved 12 miles south to Piermont, New York, to live and grow vegetables, we tried to take the kiwi with us. But after we had dug a trench 20 feet in one direction without coming close to the end of the root, we gave it up. I imagine the vines are still there since the new owners have paid little attention to the yard. I do wonder once in a while whether the female kiwi has climbed the nearby oak tree and is producing her little fruits up there in the sky.
Had we succeeded in digging up the kiwi I'm not sure where we would have put it. When we arrived in Piermont, we quickly realized that we had to be very careful what we planted in a yard only 36 feet wide. We didn't really have a place for what promised to be a sprawling vine because in the only place suitable, we wanted a grape.
We didn't get a grape right away. In fact, it wasn't until two and a half years after our move, shortly after my husband died, that someone offered me a nursery pot with a grape vine in it, which inspired me to have an arbor built. The grape was planted and flourished, if vigorous vegetative growth can be thought of as flourishing. After its first tentative year (it had been heeled in while other activities were going on in the yard and it was initially and understandably miffed) it yearly sent out vigorous canes that quickly ran to the other end of the 13-foot-wide arbor, set bunches of grapes, and even ripened some.
But it wasn't long before trouble set in. After a couple of years, each season's leaves began to unfurl with odd thorny growths on their undersides and although the vine flowered and set grapes, these unfailingly blackened and fell off before any significant number had ripened. And then, every year, when fall came, I had to cut the vine back to manageable proportions, feeling guilty about not building clever garden furniture with the prunings, and wait for next year.
Finally, in late winter several years ago, I decided to do more than gripe. I went to my ancient copy of Ten Thousand Garden Questions Answered and checked under "grapevines" to see whether I was dealing with some well-known grape disease. Since the volume was published in the 60s, at the height of the enthusiasm for pesticides, you have to ignore certain of the solutions it offers, but it's very good at identifying the problem you're looking at. There was nothing under grape pests that sounded anything like what I was troubled with, but prominently stated in the information about grapevines was the following chilling passage: "Grapes require perfect drainage." So that's why they plant them on hillsides.
Since my garden has frequently been flooded and I don't have perfect drainage, I knew instantly that there was no hope for my grape. And since I hadn't pruned it the previous fall, I promptly cut the whole thing down, leaving a shaggy barked Y-shaped remnant on a two-foot trunk leaning against one end of the arbor — and accumulating a lot of unused guilt-producing grapevine canes.
Then it dawned on me. I could have a kiwi in that spot. Of course there was the problem that it wouldn't produce fruit for seven years and I was now 80. I had been less than 60 the first time I tried to grow one, unsuccessfully. I thought about it for a second or two and decided I would opt for my survival.
I got out the tree and shrub catalogue and saw that kiwis were billed as being tolerant of all kinds of soil. Yipee! It was early spring and I immediately sent for a pair. When the plants arrived, the female marked with a splash of red at its base, I carefully read the instructions for planting. "Kiwis tolerate a variety of situations," I read happily, "except poorly drained soils." Now why hadn't I seen that before? Clearly I couldn't plant the swamp-intolerant kiwi right where I had had to kill off the swamp-intolerant grape.
As it happened, however, I had just purchased a series of surprisingly inexpensive, and surprisingly convincing, fake stone urns to put at the ends of some of my garden beds for esthetic appeal. And though I had no idea whether a kiwi could tolerate being planted in an urn that would stand outside all winter, I figured I had no choice — it was either an urn or drowning. So I put an urn up against either end of the arbor, filled them with a splendid soil mix, and planted the female at the north end, right next to the path, and the male at the south end. Both grew well, although the male showed some die off at one point during the summer, and both survived the winter.
The following spring both male and female began breaking bud and showed significant signs of aliveness. Then the male wilted — so I watered it — which didn't seem to prevent its slowly dying. When I finally found time in the midst of spring's gardening madness, I examined it more carefully and noticed water standing on the surface. I poked a stake down to the bottom to try to coax the water to drain, but no luck. It was clear that in my haste to get the kiwis planted, I had picked one of the urns into which I had failed to drill adequate drain holes. I tipped the urn to drain off the water, but it was too late. The male kiwi perished.
As it happened, a friend of mine who is an admirer of my garden learned of my male kiwi's death and said she was expecting delivery of a large order of plants — including both male and female kiwi — which she had gotten for a bargain. She would be happy to replace my male. So I cut off the corpse right above the soil line, heaved over the pot to dump its contents and drilled three large holes into the bottom for drainage. Then I cleaned out the urn, made a delicious mix of manure, potting soil, sand, and compost and filled the urn in preparation for my female's partner to arrive in a few weeks.
We had the rainiest June on record, so my visits to the garden were intermittent for a few weeks, depending on the condition of the path out to the beds, but on one visit I made an astonishing discovery. The female kiwi had three or four clusters of bloom. How wonderful, I thought, without too much surprise. Once it gets a guy, maybe it will even produce fruit by next year, despite its youth. But she couldn't wait. Aged just two years and a couple of months and absent a mate, my vine precociously set fruit. A week or two before my friend arrived with the male kiwi, I saw several clusters of tiny fruit at the ends of sturdy stems: she had done it in her childhood, and without male help. It was an immaculate conception!
I cannot say that the friend who brought the male kiwi by a week or so later was openly delighted. Her kiwi had set fruit and then dropped it before any ripened, and she was — to put it kindly — envious, which can be a problem even with generous gardeners. But she recovered, congratulated me, and I'm sure quietly hoped my fruits would fall off, too. But they didn't. It's now officially fall, and the fruits are out there right now, an inch or so long, blushing red, looking as if one day soon I'll need to pick them.
By now the birds have taken all the apples and Asian pears I didn't get to first, and the wettest June — with its record-breaking disease promotion — finished off my fall heritage raspberries before they fruited. But this year, as planned 30 years ago, I'll add kiwi to my now diminished fall/winter fruit list. There won't be a lot, think "tiny bunch of grapes," but they're a start. And they seem to me a happy metaphor for the importance of continuing to work toward our necessary future even though the prospects sometimes seem daunting. Even when things seem hopelessly unlikely; if you just keep trying, even nature is apparently willing to break some rules.