If the price of fruit in the market bothers you, if you are worried about the pesticides used on some fruit, or if you want your children to know that food actually grows on plants, then grow some fruit in your own yard. Those are three sound reasons, and there are others: Fruit trees and some fruiting shrubs and vines are attractive and ecologically sound choices for a home landscape. And for simple selfish pleasure, there is nothing like eating a sun-warmed strawberry or tasting the first pear from your very own tree.
I suspect that many people are afraid to attempt fruit growing because they believe it’s difficult or because they think you have to use pesticides to produce anything worth picking. Indeed, if you think you’ll produce a bushel of giant, shiny Red Delicious apples like the ones in the grocery store just by sticking a sapling in the ground, then you’re poised for disappointment. Some effort is required.
However, many kinds of fruit are easy to grow – yes, organically – and you can purchase fruit plants you might not have heard about just five years ago. (When did you first hear of a Goji Berry?) Even more good news: The more challenging fruit such as peaches, cherries and apples now are available as hardier and more disease-resistant cultivars.
Tree fruit such as apples, pears, plums, cherries and peaches all need carefully chosen and well-prepared sites. If you’re considering an orchard, you might start working on the soil and site at least a year ahead of planting. Choose a location with full sun – at least six hours of direct sun daily – and good air circulation. Fruit trees require well-drained soil at least 8 to 12 inches deep, with an average pH. You can improve drainage by trenching or by creating large raised beds. If your soil is entirely heavy clay, add a lot of compost or aged manure to the entire area well ahead of planting.
Early spring, when soil is workable, is the ideal planting time. Keep in mind that the roots will grow outward far past the branch tips of your tree; you can’t just prepare a small hole and expect the tree to thrive in a few years. Don’t bury the tree deeper than it is in its container, nor plant it high in a little mound above the soil grade. A couple of inches above soil level is fine, since it will settle slightly after planting. Do observe the recommended spacing shown on the label; don’t crowd them.
Which fruit trees? Some tree fruit are easier than others, and the cultivar choice makes a difference. Read labels. Look for clues to hardiness and disease resistance. Talk with experts. Pears have traditionally been one of the easiest fruit to grow in our region, a great way to begin. Many newer apple types are much easier than their pest-riddled ancestors, and some cultivars remain short for human-scale home management. Keep in mind that most apple, plum, sweet cherry and pear trees are cross-pollinating and require a different kind of tree of the same fruit that blooms at the same time. Peaches and sour cherries are self-pollinating; you don’t need a second tree. Don’t be afraid to try peaches and even figs these days, as several cultivars are much hardier than in earlier times.
Less familiar trees or large shrubs are also wonderful to grow. Native Serviceberries Amelanchier should be in every yard, the berries sweet and delightful. I grew up with Mulberry trees and remember looking up from my swing at canaries (or perhaps goldfinches); both red and black mulberries are a great treat for birds and edible for us too. Pawpaws are another fruit-producing native tree (two needed for pollination). Aronia (Chokeberries) are native plants that produce a greatly nutritional berry and offer great red fall color.
Everyone loves berries, and you can grow several kinds with relative ease. Plant in early spring. You’ll need information beyond these notes, but these suggestions may help you choose where to start:
• Blueberries: Both low- and high-bush blueberries absolutely must have acidic soil (5.0 pH preferred), so test the soil and take steps to amend it. They produce best in full sun but can grow in light shade and are attractive in the landscape. Really compact cultivars are available.
• Blackberries and raspberries: Provide great drainage, good sunshine, and be ready to water lots, and you can have your own berries on your breakfast cereal. They prefer slightly acidic soil (pH below 6.5). Some new cultivars offer fewer or no thorns, compact sizes and different berry colors.
• Strawberries: If you can dedicate a sunny raised bed, or a 3-foot swath along the edge of the vegetable patch, you can grow strawberries. You will need to fertilize, water well, weed, mulch and keep an eye out for pests and disease. Not a beginner’s crop in my opinion.
• Currants and gooseberries (Ribes): These are extremely easy to grow but may be less familiar to you because they were banned for many decades in New York and many states because they harbored white pine blister rust. The ban has been lifted, and highly disease-resistant choices are available. Some are white, pink, pale green and many shades of red or black.
• Grapes: Frankly not for everybody, grapes need a long season (150 frost-free days), full sun, lots of summer heat, moisture-retentive soil, and they don’t tolerate droughts well. In future years you will need to learn how to prune them, starting in late winter.
• Goji berries: The berries are called a super food and valued as an antioxidant, and the plant is extremely hardy and easy to grow, even in a container.
Putting it all together
The concept of “permaculture” is becoming better known in Western New York – a system of ecological landscaping with attention to both human and animal benefits. The permaculture yard would include fruit trees, shrubs, vines as well as small fruit and vegetables, typically layered rather than in monoculture plantings. That may be your vision of your backyard of the future. Or perhaps you just want a row of raspberries. In either case, the time is now: Get planting!
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.
Coming next week: How to get your vegetable garden started.