Most people think of fuzzy kiwi fruit that we buy at grocery stores as an exotic food and are surprised to learn it can be grown easily in our own Seattle backyards, in hardiness zones 7 through 10. The fruit grows on a good-looking vine, with large, round leaves and scented white flowers in spring.
The fuzzy kiwi along my entryway arbor is still holding its fruit as the holidays approach, hanging like ornaments on the vine, and I am contemplating painting them gold and silver for the season before I pick them.
A Chinese import
Fuzzy kiwis bear male and female flowers on separate plants, so for fruit, plant one of each. One year, my male plant did not bloom, so I cut some male flowers from another plant in the neighborhood. Kiwis are wind-pollinated, and by waving the flowers near the female plant, pollination was successful, and I had fruit that year.
The fuzzy kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa) is just one of the kiwis we can grow here. The hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta) has smaller, grape-size fruit, eaten skin and all. It can be grown in colder zones, from zones 4 through 9, including Eastern Washington.
Arctic beauty kiwi (Actinidia kolomitka) is an ornamental vine with heart-shaped, variegated leaves splashed with white and pink. It grows to 15 feet and prefers part-shade.
Fuzzy kiwi fruit originated in China and were imported by New Zealand, the first plants fruiting there in 1910. The fruit was called the Chinese gooseberry, even though the two are not in the same genus — kiwis are related to camellias, which can be seen in the multi-petaled flowers.
In the early 1960s, California fruit wholesalers, who were importing the fruit from New Zealand, renamed it kiwi fruit to better market it. The fuzzy skin of the fruit resembles the shaggy, brown feathers of the kiwi, the flightless New Zealand bird.
California began growing kiwi fruit in the 1970s. Kiwifruit is now planted all over the world.
Prune in winter
Grow fuzzy kiwis on a trellis or overhead arbor. The female plant needs at least 100 square feet; male plants can be pruned to take less space.
They will also cover a wall or fence. The vines don’t cling on their own so tie them to the support. Plant the female on one end of the support and the male on the other so you can distinguish them when pruning.
From a gallon pot, expect to wait four years or so for fruit.
Managing a kiwi for maximum fruit production requires attention. Prune kiwis in winter: Late February or early March is ideal so that if any dieback occurs in sharp freezes, you can prune off damaged shoots. Don’t wait too long because kiwi plants are bleeders, and sap will flow copiously from spring trimming.
When starting a new kiwi plant, limit it to one to three upright stems. As it grows, allow horizontal branches, known as cordons, to extend horizontally. These stems and cordons provide the permanent framework of the plant.
Allow side shoots to emerge every 24 inches along the cordon. The fruit is borne on these side stems, on 1-year-old wood, that grew the previous summer. Prune them off every few years, allowing replacement stems to develop.
Learning as you grow
At 10 years old, my kiwi looks a little haphazard — I am still mastering kiwi pruning. This year, the long fruiting branches hang down like a veil from the arbor above, which has been a good thing.
My fuzzy kiwi grows in full sun with just occasional water. Although some sources say kiwis need 50 gallons a day, I water mine once a week or so and have never fertilized it, and it has been vigorous and fruitful.
Pick kiwis after the first frost, usually around Thanksgiving. They ripen off the vine by leaving them on the kitchen counter to soften. Some of the crop can be stored in the refrigerator for several months.
PHIL WOOD is the owner of Phil Wood Garden Design in Seattle.