Years ago, McConkey gave up a career (and late nights) as a musician to become a gardener, but he didn't give up music entirely. He opened his talk with a witty song filled with fruit and vegetable puns. The one line I remember went something like "Come on down to my cornfield and I'll kiss you behind the ears" (you can hear some of his music on cdbaby).
After the song, Mr. McConkey discussed the history of some of America's best edible plants like paw paws, mulberries, strawberries, elderberry and Chickasaw plum. And he had an interesting theory. Every once in a while plant hunters will discover an unusually large persimmon or plum or some other fruit. Could these be remnants of varieties cultivated hundreds of years ago by Native Americans? He suspected that a large amount of the New World's germplasm was lost when pioneers cut down orchards that had been tended by Native Americans for generations. But just maybe a few of these plants survived, waiting to be rediscovered.
Mr. McConkey also gave several tips for growing fruit. For blueberries, be sure you're getting southern varieties—the cheap ones you come across at the big box stores just might have come from somewhere up north and will struggle in our heavy clay soils. The southern varieties will do just fine in clay if you top dress them with an inch or two of decomposing cellulose like leaves, bark or branches.
How can you deal with wildlife poaching your produce? One way is to have lots of it. That way you'll always be able to find something left on a plant. And having a dog around doesn't hurt either, but they don't necessarily help with the peach-loving bears that he has to deal with.
Another tip was spraying clay on some kinds of produce to combat pests. He recalled the owner of a quarry telling him that there were two peach trees at the entrance to his quarry that were always covered with dust, but they grew perfectly. When Mr. McConkey heard about the kaolin based spray Surround, he remembered the story and gave it a try, with good results.
He even gave us advice on what to do with your fruit. For a super purple fruit drink, mix eldeberry juice with honey and add to a cold glass of milk. Kids will love the intense color!
As an added treat, Mr. McConkey brought several plants that he had coaxed into blooming for the symposium:
pink flowering ume apricotBy the way, Mr. McConkey has several videos on YouTube. Here's one of Mr. McConkey explaining how to prune a kiwi vine:
For information on the other speakers at the 2010 Winter Symposium click here.