Saturday, March 5, 2016

Strategies for Growing Fruit on the Oregon Coast

When you live on the coast, one of the things a gardener is told is "you can't grow fruit here."  Which is bunk. Here's what you need to know about growing fruit near the ocean:

1. Pay attention to microclimates.
Most gardeners know about microclimates, little areas of your yard or neighborhood that experience radically different conditions-- like late frosts in a shady corner of the backyard, and intense heat next to a west- or south-facing wall in summer. On the coast our microclimates are intensified, especially where it concerns the effects of wind. 

Your neighbor might be able to grow a certain thing very well, but in your yard the wind comes whipping around the corner of the house and destroys the same plant. So with this in mind, a fruit grower can succeed on the coast; however microclimates must be strictly observed and can be used to advantage.

2. Carefully choose your varieties.
It's tempting to visit the big-box market an hour away from the beach and select a robust fruit tree or shrub. This can be a big mistake. Likewise, that coastal supermarket whose fruiting trees line the sidewalk for a few weeks in springtime should be avoided. I've yet to see a Bing cherry succeed here.

In both cases, you are likely to purchase a plant that is ill-suited to this specialized climate. Average winter temps are warmer than inland, and cooler in summer due to the moderating influence of the sea. Many fruit trees require cold in winter to produce a good fruit set, and long, warm summers to ripen. Choosing varieties developed for production inland may just set you up for frustration. Click here for some of the edible plants that have performed well in my Oregon coast garden.

The solution? Get to know a nursery in your community, particularly if the owner enjoys growing food. They can advise you and obtain the right plants at the right time. Locate your nearest coastal extension office-- for my location, that's in Newport. They have loads of helpful information and may even hold a seasonal plant sale with the right varieties. Finally, seek out neighbors and garden clubs in your community for advice. There's always an expert nearby if you pay attention. Read more about my choices for fruit in these articles.

3. Provide shelter from wind.
The best wind screen for your new fruiting plants is permeable rather than solid. If the wind can be diffused on its way through, the damage on the lee side will be significantly reduced. A solid barrier can actually force the wind to find its way up and over, creating increased eddies and more damage. Knitted shadecloth stretched across a frame (pictured) or existing fence can do the job nicely. I've found 30% shade cloth to be ideal, and knitted holds up in high winds better than woven cloth. Secure it with zip-ties or strong clamps. On the Oregon coast, persistent wind comes out of the north in summer and strong, gusty winds out of the southwest in winter.

A related strategy is to plant a hedge on the north side of your garden to minimize the drying winds of summer. Use coast-adapted hedge plants like these.

4. Make necessary soil amendments.
Due to heavy rainfall, our coastal soils tend to be highly acidic.  Additionally, the sandy makeup in many areas is quick to leach nutrients. Adding lime to boost pH and compost for organic matter are commonly added as topdressing, but testing your soil is a good place to start. If you can't locate a place to send samples, or the wait time is too long, get a high-quality home kit like this one for basic measurements of pH (acidity/alkalinity), nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Correcting these major nutrients-- and choosing the right plants-- will go a long way toward growing a successful garden.