Planting Pawpaws on the Porch

November 30, 2008 at 11:53 am

Brad Moldofsky

Oriana’s Home Orchard kindly gave me a few pawpaw seeds last week and encouraged me to grow trees. The Winslow, Illinois-based farm hosted a table at Family Farmed Expo last week at the Chicago Cultural Center. They grow some exotic fruits, including white currant, persimmon and juneberry. Though these delicacies are not completely unheard of in these parts, apples seem the mainstay of the few remaining northeastern Illinois orchards. The ones closest to Chicago have fallen to development in the last decade or two, and Winslow is much closer to the Mississippi than to Lake Michigan. I tip my hat to Oriana both for her promotion of pesticide-free growing as well as for the best-tasting walnuts and dried Asian pears I’ve ever had.

But back to pawpaws. Little did I know that these smooth brown seeds actually thrive in a bracing winter. My only experience with pawpaws is from Disney’s The Jungle Book. Balloo the bear, an Indian native, explains that he has no need for claws when picking the fruit in The Bear Necessities. So I had assumed pawpaws were tropical. Once again, Disney has misinformed me about biology. (Also, bears can’t sing.)

Photo by Flickr user cdresz

Photo by Flickr user cdresz

Turns out it was the native American Indians who’ve been eating the pawpaw. And although it’s called a Hoosier banana or a Michigan banana, it’ll grow just fine in Illinois. Click here for more info. With few natural pawpaw pests in existence, it requires little chemical protection. On the down side, getting fruit from the tree requires a nearby pawpaw partner as well as blowflies or carrion beetles to carry the pawpaw pollen. The insects dig the flowers’ stench of rotting meat, which also keeps deer away. On the plus side, the coin-sized seeds dig the big chill. So I’m leaving these guys in pots on my unheated porch through March to see what happens.

Winter in my yard also means releasing the water from the rain barrel and removing the fencing from the garden. Saving the metal from rust is less important than saving me and the kids from accidentally impaling ourselves on the fence when we play in the snow come January.

Instead of raking the backyard’s leaves out front to the street for pickup by the Streets & San. trucks, I collected them on the garden, which not only makes a colorful blanket, but saved me a bunch of trips to the curb. I’d always just left the soil exposed until spring, but a landscape architect friend recommended the leaf mulch. That’s exactly the kind of advice I crave: cut back on my labor while improving the soil.