Every fall, year after year, the arctic kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta) that I planted in front of my house, in the deepest shade, gives me a little bowl of miniature fruits that I devour in three seconds! But, given the size of the fruits and the limited production, this glimpse of pure happiness is quickly gone.

With their high productivity rate, hardy kiwis (Actinidia arguta) are the next big thing in the edible garden! Photo: Bjorn Appel on Wikimedia Commons

If there existed perfectly hardy kiwis with bigger fruits and more fruits…the world would be perfect! Well, yes, THEY exist! It was strolling through a catalog that I came across half a dozen varieties with names that were completely new to my ears. What? Plants I don’t know?

What They Have in Common

These new kiwifruits are part of the hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta) group. In Europe, they are called Siberian kiwis or kiwais. Hardy kiwis are climbing plants that can reach about 15 feet (5 meters) in height and width. It’s a towering plant that does wonders for camouflaging frost-type fences and develops cold-resistant woody stems. They are mostly hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8.

The plant flowers in late spring, around the beginning of June. Its white flowers are often hidden by foliage and give off an amazing fragrance. The fruits develop on female plants only. They are the size and shape of a large green grape. Unlike kiwis sold in grocery stores, hardy kiwis have a smooth, hairless skin. You can eat them whole, with the skin! As with all these small edible kiwis, you can recognize the ripe fruits by the touch, when they are slightly soft. Harvest time is autumn.

The fruits of hardy kiwis are hairless and can be eaten whole as soon as they are fully ripe. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lots of Females… For One Male!

Let’s face it, for a residential gardener, it’s much easier to grow currants, blackcurrants and haskaps! Indeed, with kiwis, there is a double challenge. The first is one of space. Hardy kiwis are climbing plants that take up a lot of space, several meters in width and height. The second is that it is a dioecious plant, that is, there are male plants and female plants. To obtain fruits, it is therefore necessary to cultivate at least two specimens of this large-scale plant! Most specialists recommend a ratio of one male to 5 to 8 females… but eight kiwi plants in the same garden? It’s a lot! In any way, the hardy kiwi ‘Meader’ is known to be a good pollinator for most varieties.

How to Plant and Care for Hardy Kiwis?

Hardy kiwis grow very well in full sun or partial shade. The more light, the better the fruit production. They prefer loose, well-drained soils, but they are vigorous plants, able to grow in less than ideal conditions. Kiwis can be planted all year round and the important thing will be to ensure regular watering during the first year of cultivation. At the time of planting, the soil can be amended with a good compost, granular fertilizers or mycorrhizae.

It’s normal for the plant to stagnate a little the first year, while it acclimatizes to its new environment. After two or three years, the plant will begin to grow vigorously. The flowering of kiwis will appear on the tertiary branches, that is to say on the 3rd ramification of the stems. This is why the development of one or two main trunks should be encouraged. On these trunks, you should aim for the development of well-spaced secondary branches. Then stimulate the development of an abundance of tertiary branches thanks to pruning. Once the structure of the plant is well in place, a maintenance pruning is carried out, early in the spring, to remove the branches that are too vigorous and which will not bear fruits.

Pruning techniques seem complex? No problem! The plant produces fruit, even if you don’t prune it! In fact, hardy kiwis are very easy to grow and require little care once established. You can sit back and watch the plant grow!

Varieties of Hardy Kiwis to Discover

The hardy kiwi ‘Anna’. Photo: Battistini Lived

According to the descriptions, ‘Anna’ kiwis would meet all my needs. This variety is known for its high productivity. The fruits, about an inch (3 cm long), have a smooth peel which will take on a slight reddish tint when ripe, if exposed to the sun. This high productivity is closely related to the size of the plant: ‘Anna’ will occupy nearly 18 feet (6 meters) in wingspan and as much in height. The real name of this variety is ‘Ananasnaya’, which would refer to the slight tangent that the flavor takes on the side of pineapple. However, this claim remains to be proven, as there is quite a mystery surrounding the origins of this strain. Some say it is Russian, others Polish, and some descriptions attribute this variety to an entirely different species (A. kolomikta). Anyway, it was introduced in America in the 70s and obviously the name of the variety was simplified to ‘Anna’. Then, by the shape of the flowers and leaves, it is clear that ‘Anna’ is indeed a hardy kiwi (A. arguta).

The hardy kiwi ‘Chung Bai’. Photo: Bamboo Plants

The small heart-shaped fruit kiwi is ‘Chung Bai’. Here too, the productivity and the size of the fruits are interesting! According to the descriptions, this variety of Korean origin is more compact than other hardy kiwis. An experiment held in the Montérégie region, in Quebec, showed that this variety would also be the earliest to produce mature fruits.

Of all the varieties, ‘Michigan State’ looks like the most promising variety for northern gardeners. It is said to be hardy up to USDA zone 2! It’s also the variety that produces larger fruits (by a few millimeters!) than all previous cultivars. Even if, in reality, the fruits are hardly larger, this variety is called the “Jumbo” kiwi! Of course, it is still a ways from being as big as the edible, hairy kiwi from the grocery store. But for a northern garden kiwi, it could afford to bulge out! ‘Michigan State’ is also credited with productivity records that have yet to be proven!

The hardy kiwi ‘Ken’s Red’. Photo : Ogrod Botaniczny Uniwersytetu Wroclawskiego at Wikipedia Commons

Finally, lovers of originality can grow red kiwis, with the ‘Ken’s Red’ variety. In truth, the fruits are rather purple, but just as sweet as green kiwis. This particular color of the fruit is attributable to the fact that this variety is a cross with the purple kiwifruit (Actinidia melanandra), which is a species native to Sichuan and whose fruits are reddish. Of course, with originality comes the fine print. It is said that ‘Ken’s Red’ is less hardy and would be better suited to a garden in USDA zone 4. We also note that the productivity is less important.

Other varieties of hardy kiwifruit are also beginning to appear in nursery catalogues, including ‘Dumbarton Oaks’, ‘Geneva’, ‘Rosanna’ and ‘Tatyana’. In short, there is a whole universe to discover … and so many berries to taste! Now… where to plant them? Maybe with a few jars of kiwi jam I could convince my new neighbors?

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

2 comments on “Hardy Kiwis are Coming to Town

  1. Very interesting. I wonder how they will do in a drier climate such as the Prairie’s?

    • Eleanor Heinz

      I have a male actinidia kolomikta but the female died. Would an arguta be compatible with this male?

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!