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Growing Hardy Kiwi Fruit: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

I don't remember exactly how long ago it was that I went to our local Giant Eagle grocery store and bought a little plastic clamshell full of grape-sized kiwi fruit. I think it was easily eight years ago.

The kids were little. Liam maybe 7, Phoebe 10. They loved them. We ate them up. All but one. I saved one back. I had an idea.

I looked every time I shopped for years, but Giant Eagle never stocked those little grape-sized kiwi fruit again. I literally haven't laid eyes on one  or tasted one since that fateful day. But I remember loving them.

From that one fruit we didn't eat, I saved some tiny black seeds on a paper towel, and I planted them in the moist soil of one of my big pots in the Garden Pod. I often plant seeds for fun in the soil of my hibiscus and jasmine pots. I'm watering them anyway; the soil in those big pots won't dry out like a little pot will, and when the seed finally emerges I get to scratch my head and wonder what I've done this time. I was just looking at three mystery seedlings in that hibiscus pot today. It's like Secret Santa for horticulturists. Labeling them, I believe, would jinx their germination, take away all the fun.

Lo and behold I got three little seedlings which grew into tiny vines. I kept them in the Pod for a couple of years, moving them down near the floor in the winter, until I was ready to plant them out. 

I chose the lower rose bed, because I could let the vines climb up the deck struts.  They willingly obliged.

Seven years went by. The vines kept rambling onto my tea roses and zinnias. They killed two clematis vines.  I kept tearing them off where they weren't supposed to go. They went sideways with a vengeance, but mostly up, all three of them twined together in a huge, heavy, impenetrable tangle.

I remember going on a garden tour in Devola (a suburb of Marietta, Ohio) about six years ago where I saw a backyard with an arbor of gigantic hardy kiwi vines. I had already planted mine out by then, and I asked the homeowner about yield. 
"Well, they haven't done anything yet. I'm about to rip 'em out."
He sounded so disconsolate, having built this arbor, and gotten no yield but leaves and vine.
This gave me pause. Those vines were enormous. And producing nothing. For years.

I did a little poking around and found out that hardy kiwis take about eight years to mature to fruiting size.


Do I wish I'd known that when I planted those tiny black seeds? Several times I have wished I had known that before I planted them. Maybe like a hundred times, as I curse this pillar of verdant nothing. To tell the truth,
I never would have tried it.

So last year, which I think was Year 7 of putting up with this hulking mass of greenery, one vine down on the lower left made about a dozen little white bell-shaped flowers. Which withered and fell off forthwith.

I was so unhappy about that. And I wondered if I even had a male and a female plant in the threesome, since only one had even flowered. I came SO CLOSE to clipping the damn things off at the root last fall, but the thought of hauling away what is doubtless a hundred pounds of vegetation gave me pause. I let laziness rule, and gave the plant a stern talking to instead.

"You flower next spring, and one of you had better be a freakin' male plant and one a female, and you had better make some !@#@##@$ fruit, or OFF WITH YOUR HEADS!! I am SICK of this OVERBURDEN of VEGETATION that does NOTHING but SHADE OUT my BUDDLEIA!!" 

Yes, two buddleia, down for the count, though the last two winters could have accounted for that.

I meant it, too. I could have been growing Heavenly Blue morning glories, which bring me limitless joy, ALL THIS TIME. But no. I'm growing hardy freakin' kiwis. This is my bed, and I am lying right in it.

I will note that the vines made it through the worst winter I can ever, ever remember, the winter of 2012-13. They didn't even die back an INCH. Holy crap. Maybe they'll take over the world, if they EVER make SEEDS. 
Psst: You have to reproduce to conquer the world. So reproduce already.

All right! says the vine. How's about these flowers? 

Good God. 15 feet of somethin'.

This spring, the biggest vine flowered with a vengeance, rows of little umbrellas. Not much scent to them, though I tried to find some redeeming feature.

I kept checking them, and this time the flowers didn't wither and fall off. The petals fell off, and the ovaries got a swollen look to them, like they were maybe going to TURN INTO KIWI FRUIT!!!!!
I am shouting because I just discovered this today, and blogposts are best written in the moment, even if they are saved for a week or so so you can see if the baby bird croaks or the swollen ovaries fall off before you post.

 See how the top flowers have a little ring of purplish stamens around a big pistil and starburst white stigma? The stigma is the pollen-receiving tip of the pistil. And the ovary is that greenish ovoid thing that, on the older flowers lower in the picture that have dropped their petals, is SWELLING into a FRUIT. That I plan to EAT and feed to my FAMILY.

So today I went looking for the staminate, or male flowers, knowing there had to be some on one vine or another, and by gum I found some on one of the two smaller vines. Not that I can tell which vine is which anymore. No pistil, no ovary, just a nice ring of purple stamens. Pollen dispensers. Male flowers.

Through pure, dumb luck, one of the three seeds I planted eight years ago had been a male. And bees had visited these staminate flowers, and brought their pollen to the pistillate flowers on the one or two huge female vines. It was as if I'd planned it. What if all three had been male? Or all three female? It would take eight years before I'd know if I'd goofed. All spring I've been thinking of trying to find someone in the area patient or (probably) dumb enough to try growing hardy kiwi, to ask if I could cut a sprig of male flowers to bring home. I was thinking about driving through Devola, looking for that backyard arbor. If the homeowner is even still living there. If he hasn't gone into a deep depression about giving over his backyard arbor to fruitless massvines, and gone into seclusion.

I didn't have to hunt anyone down in the end. The Kiwi Fairy visited Indigo Hill. I cannot believe my luck. I know I'm putting the cart before the horse. Nobody's actually eaten any hardy kiwi fruit here. Maybe the coons and flying squirrels will get them all. I don't know how long they take to mature. Can't be eight years. Has to be measured in weeks or months.

But just to make sure, I just handed Phoebe a paintbrush and said, "Go dibble this in the male flowers and pollinate all the female flowers you can find, please." 

"Weird stuff Mom asks me to do," she replied, and glided out to do my odd bidding.

This photo was taken May 30, a bonus update a week along. Yessir, that's my babies, swelling and growing right along.  We're going to need a ladder to harvest them all.

The hummock of green to the left of the leftmost rose is the male plant. That plant that has climbed all the way up the deck? That's the female. They bloomed simultaneously. Bees found their way from the one sprig of male flowers to a kazillion female flowers. And she's LOADED. This is almost too much miracle for me to comprehend. I love miracles. Especially ones that take eight years to come true, and by all odds really shouldn't.

Chicago Peace Rose says Clap Your Hands Say YEAH!!!

Update: As of June 2, about 90% of the abundant fruits have aborted, dropped off. At first I feared our beloved flying squirtles, who rumble nightly on the deck, were harvesting them prematurely, but a closer look shows that the petioles browned and the fruit simply dropped. Well, it's been very dry this spring, and I should have been supporting my beloved hulk with watering. Just went down and set the hose at a slow trickle on the roots. Weeded the pitcher plants while I was at it. I guess that sounds like something a horticulturist would do. Here's a good link with some general points on growing kiwi by Burpee. Looks like they may not ripen until September?!? OK!

 The point is we have plants of both sexes; it CAN happen, and we're going to taste a hardy kiwi fruit this summer. This fall. Before frost. Even if it's only one, sliced four ways. More waiting, I guess. Done it for eight years, might as well go nine. As DOD said of planting fruit trees, "You're waiting anyway."


One of the things I love about gardening is the development of patience in the gardener. In our current world of instantaneous gratification, patience is an endangered virtue.

Posted by Gail Spratley June 2, 2015 at 7:21 AM

My neighbor planted a male and female kiwi on an elaborate, welded structure made of plumbing materials, and she might need to reinforce it with something like the Washington Monument. She's had kiwis fruiting for years, but I can't remember just how far back she planted them. They are ramBUNCtious. And she is a botanist, and regales me with sex talk about flowers till hell won't have it. Not that she's any help at all when I'm trying to find out why a plant doesn't survive. "I'm a botanist, not a horticulturist," she says, "ask your niece." Who IS a horticulturist. You'd think between the two of them I'd know what I have and why they die, but I don't.

Thanks so much for your hilarious kiwi post...this sounds just like something I might do. I have trouble giving up on a plant and can wait endlessly (and play with various remedies) to try to get them to prosper. My Kirengeshoma plant has been coming up faithfully every year (I've moved it around a lot to try to help it along)...gets about a foot and a half high and sometimes it even makes one lovely flower for me. These guys are supposed to be 3-4 feet high and covered with blossoms so clearly it's not happy (unlike your happy kiwi vines). But I just can't give up on it....I want those creamy yellow flowers.

So I get waiting for the kiwi fruit to come. I look forward to photos of you and your family happily consuming the fruit in the fall- grins all over your faces.

Posted by Anonymous June 4, 2015 at 12:12 PM

I can't remember how, but somehow I stumbled upon your site and am having a delightful time catching up on old posts. Enjoyed reading about your kiwis. I never would have guessed they'd grow in Ohio. I live in Central Ohio and this has me musing about what I might grow.

Posted by Anonymous June 4, 2015 at 7:19 PM
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