My earliest memory of kiwi fruit was when, as a young lad, I was taken off to the grocery shop to buy one of these fabled fruits. In those days (mid-1980s) kiwis were seen as terribly exotic – at least to British shoppers. They cost a fair bit too, and so these small, fuzzy fruits were handled with reverence, brought home gingerly in their brown paper bag then sliced in half and spooned out with genuine excitement. To me they tasted of far off lands – somewhere sunnier, lusher and far more mysterious than the pedestrian suburbs of my youth!
They still carry an air of the exotic about them. But did you know that kiwis are a textbook case of marketing spin? Once more commonly known as Chinese gooseberries, the kiwi fruit got its second name from – no prizes for guessing – the New Zealanders, who cornered more of the market for growing them over the course of the 20th Century.
Nowadays kiwi fruit is more widely grown, so that today you can buy half a dozen fruits for the same money that would have got you just one not so long ago. I grab a net of kiwi fruit every week to drop into my morning smoothies. They are full of vitamin C, so I see them as a delicious defence against coughs and sniffles.
Growing Kiwi Fruit
Kiwi fruit originates from East Asia. They love sunshine and grow best in climates that are consistently warm. In more temperate climates you can still enjoy good results by growing them against a sunny wall where they can romp away to reach – get this – 10m (30ft) tall...wow! A warm wall also somewhat protects tender spring growth from frost damage.
The vines grow okay in shade too, but at the expense of any fruits. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because this is one stunning vine, with chunky, heart-shaped leaves, red stems and pretty, fragrant flowers.
Such a lofty climber needs very sturdy supports. A series of horizontal wires properly anchored into the wall or fence every 45cm (18in) should give them the leg-up they need. Use a thick-gauge wire and tighten them into place with robust vine eye screws. You could also try growing a vine up a pergola or trellis – assuming it’s strong enough for the job.
The plants are naturally dioecious, meaning the female and male flowers are borne on separate plants. ‘Hayward’ is one of the most popular female varieties with ‘Tomuri’ a good male companion planted approximately one to every six females. But not all of us have the space for multiple kiwi vines – and what if the male plant doesn’t bloom at exactly the right time? This uncertainty has disappeared with the advent of self-fertile varieties, which make things a lot simpler. One plant should suffice but like many self-fertile plants, pollination is even better when two or more plants are involved, and there’s one variety that crops up time and again for reliability: ‘Jenny’.
Plant your kiwi fruit into nutrient-rich, moisture-retentive soil. If you are planting against a wall then set the plant at least a foot away from the base so the roots don’t sit in a rain shadow. Space vines at least 3m (10ft) apart so they don’t get tangled up in each other but are still close enough to improve pollination. If you’re thinking about growing them in a greenhouse, don’t bother – unless you want it to completely take over in there to the detriment of everything else!
Pruning Kiwi Fruit
Kiwi fruit are not shy and retiring. They’re bold, brazen and will quickly become a thicket of stems and foliage if left to their thing. You have two choices to keep them tamed: train them into a formal espalier shape, or hack out the oldest stems every winter after they have finished fruiting. In reality the latter is a lot easier and perhaps more conducive to its rambling nature.
Fruits develop on side shoots growing from canes that are at least one year old. You want plenty of older canes for lots of fruit, but not too old that they become less productive. Stems older than four years are generally good for cutting completely out in order to allow younger, more vigorous stems to replace them. Don’t worry if you can’t tell which stems are what age – you’d be a champion pruner to work that one out – just aim to remove canes that look the oldest and thickest. Cut canes right down to ground level. Aim for an even spread of canes that will allow plenty of light to reach all parts of the plant.
Harvesting Kiwi Fruit
For all their bravado the fruits themselves are a long time coming, especially in cooler climates. Fruits typically ripen by mid-autumn, often just a few weeks ahead of the first frosts. Pick them when they look brown (because of the hairs) and give a little when pinched between finger and thumb. If a frost threatens but the fruits aren’t quite ready, harvest them anyhow and bring them indoors where they should continue to ripen. Keep the fruits in a cool, dry place and they should store for up to six weeks.
Back outside, lavish love on your kiwi vines; they may seem indestructible but that doesn’t mean they don’t need looking after! Layer on a thick mulch of organic matter such as well-rotted compost in early spring, and keep vines well-watered should you be lucky enough to enjoy a long, warm summer.
Have you grown kiwi fruit before? I’d love to hear how you got on with them and your favourite recipes using them. Please tell all in the comments section below.