IN RECENT YEARS, consumers have become more aware of the environmental and social costs of industrial agriculture. In an effort to be more conscious consumers, many people have begun eating organic and locally sourced foods. Becoming a locavore means that you “eat with the seasons,” focusing your diet on those crops that are fresh-off-the-vine from nearby farms. Eating locally can reduce the carbon footprint of your diet and provide you with better-tasting, more-nutritional food.
Of course, anyone with an edible garden in the backyard will tell you that eating with the seasons is par for the course. Indeed, there is no better way to familiarize yourself with local foods than to grow some. Even the smallest home food garden can provide space to grow a dozen of your favorite crops. After a few seasons, you are unlikely to ever forget when your favorite fruits and vegetables cue up for harvest.
The range of varieties available for a single crop can be astounding, and often, each variety will ripen at a slightly different time. In the vegetable garden, you can plant carrots that take 60 days to mature alongside other carrots that take 70 days, and a third type that takes 80 days. You can find blueberries that ripen in July or blueberries that ripen in August. However, if you really want to dive deep into the complexities of local seasonality, there is no better place to start than with fruit trees.
While “fruit tree” is a large and diverse category, most fruit trees planted in Seattle-area backyards are apples, plums and pears. Even within this limited category, the harvest season can span four months. The earliest apples, such as William’s Pride, can begin falling off the tree in late July; the latest apples, like Granny Smith, aren’t ready until the end of October. In the weeks between, a new variety ripens up just about every day.
If you like the idea of adding fruit trees to your garden, now is the perfect time for varietal reconnaissance. Take this harvest season as an opportunity to taste as many varieties as possible and discover your preferences. Woe is the gardener who selects a young fruit tree, transplants it to the garden, waits three or four seasons for the first harvest and bites into that first glorious pear only to discover that he doesn’t like the way it tastes.
Knowing your options also gives you the chance to spread out the harvest season. If you have room for more than one tree, you can plant early-, mid-, and late-ripening types, so all of your produce is not ready at the same time.
There are many ways to begin exploring your fruit-tree options. You might start by just going for a walk. Just about every neighborhood street in Seattle has a fruit tree or 12. Finding trees on foot has the added benefit of providing a visual of how the plants look in the landscape. Of course, you’ll have to ask your neighbors — and hope they actually know what variety they planted, and that they are willing to share.
Shopping at farmers markets might be an even more fruitful field trip (sorry). These growers definitely will know the name of each variety and might be willing to educate you a bit on their qualities. For those interested in a more organized experience, there are several fruit-tasting events around the region each fall. I highly recommend the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation and Western Cascade Fruit Society events.
So get out there and take advantage of the harvest season, and learn what’s available and when. Knowing more about your foodshed will make every bite of apple pie this summer taste just a little better … if that’s possible.