Growing Up: Kiwi in the Garden

( If you are reading this anywhere but my blog, you can find the original post here. )


As the leaves fall and winter settles in for its annual tenure - frosty and spare, the structure of the garden becomes more apparent than ever. Herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees disrobe themselves of the bio- mass of foliage they have carried all summer and fall, and the proportions of each plant and the garden itself shifts. This is a moment when you value the skeletal silhouette of a tree or the graceful arch of a vine scrambling across an arbor or fence. It’s also when you might look around the garden and realize that most of your garden perhaps is on just one plane - the horizontal. With the help of this minimalist view of the garden, you may notice areas where you would like to add some punctuation - some verticality. Trees are one way to add verticality; vines are another. Photo: Kiwi vine leaves.

When it comes to vines, you might think climbing roses, clematis, trumpet or grape vines. Or you could think: kiwi. Photo: Kiwi vines twining up at the Hoptowit orchard in Durham.

Kiwi vines produce not only those fuzzy brown-skinned little tangy-tasting fruits, but also a wonderfully ornamental and sculptural vine, according to Jennifer and John Hoptowit, who are gardeners as well as commercial kiwi growers. They tend close to 850 vines on four and a half acres in Durham. Photo: A steel arbor built by John Hoptowit.

According to the California Kiwi Fruit Commission, “the history of the kiwi fruits leads back to the Chang Kiang Valley of China. Called “Yang Tao” by the Chinese, kiwi was considered a delicacy by the great Khans who relished the fruit’s brilliant flavor and emerald green color. Knowledge of the fruit (known outside China as the “Chinese Gooseberry”) expanded to other countries in the mid 1800s to 1900s. Kiwi was first exported to New Zealand and the U.S. in 1904. It was about the same time that the fruit began to be grown commercially in the U.S that it was renamed ‘kiwifruit’ because it looked like the national bird of New Zealand, the kiwi bird which is a brown, fuzzy, funny-looking, round bird.” Photo: Fuzzy-skinned kiwi ripening on the vine.

Interestingly, the Genetic Resource and Conservation Center, located in the city of Chico and dating back to 1917 as a USDA Plant Introduction Center, is home to “Ma” and “Pa” kiwi vines, the oldest producing kiwis in the United States, and planted in 1934 ostensibly to research the agricultural viability of the crop. Apparently not much was done with these early plants, because it was not until the 1960s that commercial growing of kiwi began and, again according to the California Kiwi Fruit Commission: “the pioneers of commercial production of kiwifruit in California were Judd Ingram in the Delano area (planted 1967) and George Tanimoto in the Gridley area (planted 1968). The genus Actinidia has 3 good-fruiting species: A. deliciosa (the common kiwifruit, and least hardy), A. arguta (”hardy kiwi”), and A. kolomikta ‘Arctic Beauty’ (hardy to -40 F).” Hardy kiwi and ‘Arctic Beauty’ (which originated from Russia) are also highly prized in the garden due to ornamental pink and white variegated foliage. These species bear a smooth-skinned fruit “the size of large grapes.” Photo: Fruiting kiwi vines are long-lived and most will live up to 50 years according to books, but these vines at the Genetic Resource Center are still fruiting along at 83 years old.

Jennifer and John Hoptowit’s orchard was planted out in the early 1980s and John’s mother purchased it in the late 1980s. Kiwi are not self-fruiting and require both male and female plants in order to produce. The Hoptowits grow 6 female ‘Haywards’ to every one pollinating male ‘Chico’; A. ‘Chico’ males are the most common male pollinator. Also known as “fuzzy-skinned kiwi” Actinidiaceae deliciosa ‘Hayward’ is considered the best fruiting female variety for Northern California, with appropriate chill requirements and good cold-storage longevity, but the Hoptowits also like ‘Bruno’, which has longer skinny fruit and is “good for canning and preserving,” says Jennifer, who puts up quite a bit of kiwi preserves. Photo: John Hoptowit working with his vines.

“We use kiwi preserves for marinade and tenderizer on meat as well as like a chutney - as a condiment to grilled meat, or soft cheeses.” Kiwifruit is very nutritious with some studies indicating that the fruit has more vitamin C than an orange, more potassium than a banana and ample amounts of folate, copper, fiber, vitamin E and lutein. Fuzzy-skinned kiwifruit are generally harvested while still firm and immature and allowed to mature and ripen in cold storage. They amazingly are cold-storage stable lasting anywhere from three to six months.

Kiwi vines can be started as cuttings from existing stock and once established they are vigorous. VIGOROUS. They can spread up to 20 feet and close to harvest can have up to 250 pounds of fruit on each vine. In general, John Hoptowit waters his vines deeply once a week from the time they start to push buds in late March until harvest in October. He stops watering after harvest and then does his yearly pruning once the vines have lost their leaves and gone dormant - usually by December. Kiwi bear fruit on new growth of 2nd year wood, so when pruning, John pays close attention to this. He feeds his vines a balanced fertilizer two to three times a year: after they push buds in March, after they flower in May and once more sometime in June, when fruit is set.

The 5-petaled white flowers are fairly insignificant but have a light sweet fragrance in spring. Planted in mass as in an orchard, the vines themselves have a little bit of a skunky smell in late summer when they are full of fruit, the Hoptowits told me, but I did not notice it on my walk through the vines. The vines themselves make great dried decorations and structural elements such as wreaths, spheres and even towers.

One of the big considerations when planting a kiwi vine is where and on what kind of structure to place it. Kiwi vines can scramble, but you can access fruit and make the most out of the plant’s dramatic leaves and expansive screening by placing it on a substantial arbor or trellis. John Hoptowit, who is also a metal-worker, has their vines on solid wooden posts with steel cross wires. Photo: The Hoptowit’s trellis system for their kiwi vines.

Besides the various websites of use for finding out more about kiwi, the following books all have good information on growing kiwi in the home garden. My reading recommendations are available in stock (or by special order for the more expensive ones) at Lyon Books in Chico. You can order on-line and Lyon Books is happy to ship. You can also try our wonderful public libraries for these books:

Landscaping with Fruit, by Lee Reich (Storey Publishing, 2009)

The Gardeners A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, by Tanya L.K. Denckla (Storey Publishing, 2003)

In a North State Garden is an outreach program of the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State, based in Chico, CA. In a North State Garden is a weekly radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in California’s North State region. It is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio KCHO/KFPR radio, Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here. Weekly essays are also posted on anewscafe.com a regional news source that is positively North State.

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