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Updated: Feb 25, 2020

Hard Grafter

Horticulturist and fan of the natural sciences, when Evergrow Orchard’s Sheryl Black isn’t grafting varieties to make a better cherry she’s trialling avocado growing in North Otago. Joseph Banks, eat your heart out.

Five minutes outside Oamaru, snuggled in the bosom of the rolling hills is a cherry orchard where innovation and experimentation meet good old fashioned green fingers. A pocket handkerchief sized piece of land, on an acre 1200 trees produce over a tonne of fruit inside plastic-covered tunnels that look like transparent caterpillars - and that’s with half the orchard only starting to fruit this year. Cherry trees can be Methuselahs, living for up to 80 years but their longevity does not mean they are easy to love - in fact cherries are one of the hardest things to grow. “You can’t just plant one and hope for cherries in Summer: you have to keep the rain off or they'll split, you need to keep the black aphids and the birds off them … you have to be dedicated to this tree,” says Sheryl.

For the last four years Sheryl and Warren Black’s cherries have been sold on Wansbeck Street over the summer, having bought the trees off Fred and Jill Field of Oamaru and moved them here. The cherry varieties are Stella and Lapin - French for rabbit. “And maybe they are named that because they are really big bunnies.” They also grow Tart (sour) cherries, plums and other stone fruit.

Oamaru is a great place to grow cherries. They ripen slower here than in central Otago, 120 days to ripen from blossom to picking versus 70 in Central Otago. The result is that they have a better cell structure and last longer once picked.

The ultimate grow-hards, today Sheryl and sister in law Suzanne are busy pruning, “dealing with pockets of chaos that happened over Christmas but we were too busy to deal with.” The Black family business is divided along the sexes in an interesting way: the husbands are away working as loggers, while the women are propagators. Planters married to choppers.

In the grow tunnels the trees have boughs like short bumpy arms with fat fruit fingers. They aren’t planted normally in the ground, but inside special bags made on site called EverGrow Bags, and this is the secret of their success. Filled with local soil, the bags cause a ‘bonsai’ effect: sat above ground they cause ‘air pruning’, where the root embeds in the soft inner fabric instead of circling until rootbound as in smooth walled pots. It then senses the air and thinks “nope’ before branching out back along its length. If the bag is planted in the ground, as most of the orchard is, the roots grow through the rot proof fabric into the surrounding soil, but as they thicken they get squeezed and this also causes them to laterally branch within the bag. This stops the tree being too vigorous and “because they are not having to be a huge tree, as soon as they realise they don’t have to put all their energy into that they focus on fruiting,” explains Sheryl. You do have to prune them but not nearly as much as you would if their roots were given a free reign in the ground.

"We make EverGrow Bags right here and they are becoming popular with people who want to have a patio or backyard orchard, keep the trees small and easy-care, and even dig them up bag-and-all and take them with them if they shift house."

This really should end with a joke about cherries, but they’re all pit-iful.

By Lisa Scott

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