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The Dry Garden: Tips for the best persimmon tree

November 11, 2011 | 10:00 am

Persimmon treeOne of the first things that I wanted to do in my new garden last year was to cut down the persimmon tree at the center of the large backyard. As early rains stripped the last of the leaves from its limbs and crows pecked at a few fruit, it looked less like a tree and more like an accident scene. Had the person who pruned its tangle of stumped and crossed limbs been a maniac? A gaping crack where the main branches met the trunk looked like it had been smote from heaven.

Only catching sight of its last fall leaves at twilight stopped me. A year later, restoring that wounded tree has become one of my passions. After scant fruit last year, this fall the tree -- perhaps 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide -- has produced so much fruit that I’ve called in friends and told them to bring crates. Tending it has amounted to an education. Before talking about why, a couple of nods are in order to two must-read treatments on persimmons. The first is a fact sheet from the California Rare Fruit Growers. The second is a survey of the different persimmons grown commercially around California by Times contributor David Karp.

The fruit growers and Karp do a wonderful job explaining the differences between two distinct types of persimmons -- astringent and non-astringent -- including variations in size and flavor. This column seeks chiefly to explain how to care for the more popular of the two, the kind I inherited, the non-astringent Fuyu.

Persimmon Al RennerIt’s said that persimmons are “alternate bearing,” meaning a tree might produce a bumper crop one year followed by a light crop the next. Olives do this.

However, Los Angeles community gardener Al Renner, left, found that the “little 4-foot long stick” that he bought from Home Depot and planted in his frontyard was soon producing hundreds of pounds of Fuyu persimmons every year.

Moreover, the fruits are so beautiful that when he takes them to friends at Larchmont Grill, the owner asks him to deliver the open baskets through the front door so customers can see the gleaming orange persimmons being carried toward the kitchen.

Persimmon greenAs it turns out, it’s this crazy fecundity that is so hard on the tree’s wood. On bumper years, by late spring, when the fruit is barely the size of a crab apple, the branches begin to heave. Left alone, the branches will splinter and split. So don’t leave them alone.

As hard as it is to do, remove excess fruit and even some limbs. It can involve removing a quarter of the fruit or more. There is a beautiful by-product to the discipline. Displayed in shallow baskets in a dry place, green persimmons last for weeks as they rot, poetically, into crumpled little skeletons. If you save the calyxes, the leafy caps where fruit meets branch, they can be strung into wreaths.

Persimmon scaldedWhile culling for weight, Altadena orchardist Kazi Pitelka recommends taking the fruit most exposed to the sun, sparing the persimmons most sheltered by leaves. Fail to do this and you could see the angry scars on scalded fruit.

Successive thinning and slow summer watering (frequent for newly planted trees, monthly for established ones) will be needed until the fruit begins ripening in late October and early November. Though pruning can excite new growth, Renner has noticed that his tree may respond with new shoots, or it may not. “The tree just seems to choose,” he said.

At the height of summer and throughout fall, the leaves are things of frank beauty: big, thick ovals of a good dirty green, rather like that of loquats or magnolias, if a bit brighter. Whether the leaves or the fruit are the first to leave the tree in autumn is a matter of taste and predation. To judge ripeness of the fruit, Renner recommends biting into persimmons that are just turning orange. If the sacrificial fruit is even starting to sweeten, fruit like it can be picked and ripened in the kitchen, or left to ripen on the limb. Evidently the Larchmont Grill likes its persimmons fruit on the hard and less sweet side, for use in salads. Riper persimmons are softer and sweeter, better for spooning back with lime or topping ice-cream or making bread.

Unpicked persimmons will keep ripening until they are “soft as boiled eggs,” Renner said. If a bird begins pecking a soft fruit, Renner recommends leaving it on the tree. The birds may return to the same fruit instead of pecking a new one.

Persimmon fall color
As a persimmon tree begins recalling chlorophyll from the leaves back into its roots for winter dormancy, the foliage produces a blaze of fall color. Put in a place where it catches the last light of day, and a persimmon tree in autumn is like a living lantern.

Because of the weight on the wood, the California Rare Fruit Growers and Renner stressed the importance of carefully shaping young trees for strength from the time of planting. After leaf fall, Renner prunes away dead wood and also does some shaping. Restoring a mangled mature tree like mine is harder. Last year, I took off dead wood along with chafing crossed branches. This year the pruning will focus on distributing weight as evenly as possible around the tree’s broken heart. When it finally dies, the solace will be that it wasn’t hacked by a lunatic or struck by lightning, but was the victim of its own generosity.

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-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Photo credits: Emily Green except fall color photo by Saxon Holt

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