Growing kiwis in North Carolina | Food Feature | Indy Week
Pin It

Growing kiwis in North Carolina 

Helga MacAller of Four Leaf Farms with a sample of the bounty. Kiwis will keep for months in a refrigerator crisper. For quicker ripening, place them on the counter or in a paper bag.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Helga MacAller of Four Leaf Farms with a sample of the bounty. Kiwis will keep for months in a refrigerator crisper. For quicker ripening, place them on the counter or in a paper bag.

On the last Monday in October, as Hurricane Sandy lashed the North Carolina coast, 200 miles inland in Rougemont, the skies darkened, the treetops lurched and the annual kiwi harvest began.

Kiwis will tolerate a hard rain and an occasional wind gust, but they cannot stand the cold. Out here in the country at Four Leaf Farm, the forecast that evening called for 36 degrees, leaving a small window of time in which to pick the vines clean.

Helga and Tim MacAller crouched beneath a thick, vine-braided canopy of large-lobed leaves that were as soft as an ear. Scanning the boughs, Helga clutched a fuzzy brown fruit the size of a large hen's egg and as hard as a stone. Kiwis ripen off the vine; they are ready when, to a gentle touch, their skin barely gives, like a baby's fontanelle.

Helga placed the kiwis in small trays. "This is not a good year," she said.

Last year, the tree yielded 200 pounds—the best crop in the farm's history. Today, they would pick 35 pounds.

The ferocity of Hurricane Sandy is a bellwether of a changing global climate, but so was this year's prematurely warm spring that contributed to the MacAllers' paltry kiwi crop. The spate of balmy weather signaled the kiwi trees to produce buds, but it was followed by a late frost. Once burned, the buds are done for the year; they cannot make fruit. The trees eventually made a second set of buds, but there were far fewer of them.

Unlike other hardier species of kiwis, the fruit of the fuzzy kind—Actinidia deliciosa, the most commercially popular variety—also succumbs to the slightest frost. The contraction and expansion of water inside the kiwi damages the tissues and cells of its emerald green flesh.

"The fruit doesn't look like it's hurt," Helga said, "but you cut it open and it's pithy, like a sponge."

Helga, who comes from a farming family in Denmark, and Tim, a Southern Californian with a botany degree, started Four Leaf Farm in 1980. After taking a hiatus to raise their children, they restarted their farm—a half acre on a two-acre tract—in 2001. In addition to traditional crops such as greens, herbs and vegetables, the MacAllers also dabble in recalcitrant plants. They can coax rhubarb out of the ground and persuade lemon trees to bear fruit in pots. Only their olive tree has yet to produce.

"We think of it as a pet," Helga said.

North Carolina is not known for its kiwis. It was on a lark 25 years ago that the MacAllers planted the starts of two kiwi trees—a male and a female—in what could be considered an arranged marriage via the Stark Brothers seed catalog. The couple took root near a shed, which protected them from north winds, yet they received ample sun. Nonetheless, it took four years for the female to mature and bear fruit. The male and female must bloom at the same time, and since her flowers produce no nectar, honeybees pass her by, and she must be pollinated by insects or the breeze.

Over time, the MacAllers erected simple steel trellises to support the vines, the beginning and end of which are now impossible to trace. The two trees seem to be one.

"We don't know who's who," Helga said, admiring their sturdy trunks.

In December and January, Tim prunes the vines, stripping them of their shoots so the trees are easier to manage. By March, vines begin to regrow; in April, fat, furry buds appear. The buds turn into white flowers with yellow stamens. In May, the leaves come on, and all summer the kiwis grow, until October, when it's time to pick them.

The MacAllers don't irrigate or spray the trees, although Tim occasionally tosses a bucket of compost at the base of the trunks.

"We don't pay much attention to them," he said.

After just 20 minutes, the harvest was nearly complete. There won't be enough kiwis to supply local restaurants as they have done in the past—Panciuto in Hillsborough and Lantern in Chapel Hill are among their biggest customers—but the MacAllers could sell a few at the Durham Farmers' Market in early December.

Tim studied the vines for stragglers. "Oh look, an orphan," he said.

In rubber boots, he balanced on a concrete block and stretched to the top of a bough to grab the final kiwi.

"It's like when you take ornaments off the Christmas tree and find that last one," Helga said.

The wind picked up. Clouds the color of gun-metal pelted the farm with a cold spittle of rain. Tim and Helga retreated into their house for a cup of tea. Here's to next year.

This article appeared in print with the headline "So fragile, so sweet."

Related Locations

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Food Feature

Twitter Activity


A great little family Italian restaurant. Good menu. Quiet setting. Good service. …

by Anthony Dean Morgan on Pulcinella's Italian Restaurant (Durham County)

The Refectory is no longer on the Duke Campus. Their new, permanent location is on Chapel Hill Blvd, and yes …

by Beth Owl's Daughter on The Refectory Cafe (Durham County)

Most Recent Comments

I feel the same thing! I love Rockin' Rolls but I find myself craning my neck to get glimpses of …

by Jack Mac on A Japanese American Cautiously Accepts Conveyor-Belt Sushi at Rockin' Rolls--And All That It Means for a New Foodie Generation (Food Feature)

Strong Arm Baking is the BEST! We are so thrilled and proud to have them in Oxford. Entrepreneurs like Julia …

by Jackie Sergent on You Don't Need a Storefront to Run a Popular Bakery, But a Wood-Burning Oven Helps (Food Feature)

When I attended Club Blvd Elementary School in the 70s, we were on the Reduced Lunch Program, because we needed …

by MichaelEdits on A Durham Crowdfunding Campaign Still Needs $50,000 to Pay Down Student Lunch Debt (Food Feature)

This is what community is FOR! Many thanks to Ms. Miel.

by Anne Havisham on A Durham Crowdfunding Campaign Still Needs $50,000 to Pay Down Student Lunch Debt (Food Feature)

@irene_krys We apologize for not catching that. The link is now in the story.…

by victoria_foodeditor on A Durham Crowdfunding Campaign Still Needs $50,000 to Pay Down Student Lunch Debt (Food Feature)

© 2018 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation