Few things can compare with the feeling of walking out on a warm summer night and picking fruit from trees you've grown and nurtured in your own backyard. While many people dream of having fresh fruit at their fingertips, most don't realize how simple it is to set up a mini-orchard. Regardless if you have a giant field or a mattress-sized plot of lawn, there are a variety of options for people who want to grow their own fruit.
First and foremost, I must warn you that, depending on the type of tree, it will take approximately two to five years after you have planted them before they will start producing fruit. Don't get your hopes up that if you plant some trees today you'll have fresh pears by the end of the year. Instead, think of this as an investment for the future. Your initial time and effort for the first few years will yield dividends for a lifetime.
There are three main aspects you need to examine when you are selecting a fruit tree to plant in your yard: size, climate zone, and fruit. This will determine what trees are suitable for your home.
For most of people, the one thing that is holding us back from growing our own fruit is space. Not everyone has an acre-sized yard to plant an orchard, but with the cultivation of naturally stunted trees, there are a variety of options available. Fruit trees are readily available in three main sizes:
DWARF: Dwarf trees reach full size between 5' to 10' tall. Don't let the name fool you, they still produce regular full-sized fruit, just in smaller quantities.
SEMI-DWARF: These trees grow to about 20' tall. They're more hardy and yield more fruit but take up more space.
STANDARD: These are the regular sized trees you were probably thinking of at the beginning of this article. They can grow upwards of 30' and produce an abundance of fruit. However, they are a lot harder to harvest and prune.
Be aware that there are two types of fruit trees, self pollinating and cross pollinating. To produce fruit, a flower on the tree must be pollinated. Self pollinating trees pollinate their own flowers with each other - you can have one plant and it will still bear fruit. Cross pollinating trees, however, require pollen from a different tree of the same type. As such, if you are planting cross pollinating trees, you will need to plant multiples no more than fifty feet from each other. While a lot of fruits, such as peaches and nectarines, are self pollinating, most, including apples, are not and will require multiple trees to be planted.
With that in mind, dwarf trees are the best option for the suburban home. They're small enough to have multiple plants around, they produce a family sized amount of fruit, and they mature faster so you'll see results a few years sooner than if you plant semi-dwarfs or regular trees. They do not take up a lot of room and some varieties can even be planted in containers. Of course, if you have the space, semi-dwarfs may be a better choice as they are hardier and will produce enough fruit to start giving away to friends and family members.
Once you have surveyed your growing space and decided on the size of the trees you want, it's time to look at what you can actually grow.
Not all trees can be planted just anywhere. A big part of your decision on what to grow will depend on what you are able to grow. Different trees require different temperatures and hotter is not always better. Cherry trees, for instance, need a cooler climate than orange trees. The USDA categorizes plant hardiness climate zones in the United States from 1 to 11. You can visit an interactive climate map of the US here.
Climate maps for other areas around the world can be found at: http://www.backyardgardener.com/zone/
When you find out what category number your climate zone is, you can begin to look for plants rated for that category. Be aware though, that while these maps are great for giving you a broad idea of your climate zone, your local area may differ slightly due to a number of localized variables such as elevation, rainfall, and temperature spikes. The best thing to do is to check with your local nursery. Not only will they be able to point out the specifics climate challenges of your area, but they can also give good recommendations on what you are able to easily grow.
After finding out what is possible to grow in your area, the big decision comes down to what fruit you actually want to grow. Factors to think about include:
Ripening times: Do you want something that can be harvested from June to November like apples, or would you be happy even if you only had four weeks of fruit on the trees, like pomegranates and Asian pears?
Variety: Do you want to plant a variety of trees to create a sampler of fresh fruit or all of one tree to harvest a bounty you can give away?
Uses: Are you looking for fresh fruit at your fingertips to supplement your meals or are you planning on canning or processing the fruit for year round consumption?
Aesthetics: Are you planning on using the trees as decorative pieces or are you just in it for the fruit? I've known people who were allergic to cherries grow the trees for the yearly blossoms.
Yields: Are you looking for something that will give you branch bending bumper crops or do you just want to be able to pluck a few fruit whenever you felt like it?
Even though you are limited by climate, you'll be surprised to find out what you can actually grow if you look around. Last week I had fresh avocados picked right off my friend's front yard. The thought had never even crossed my mind that it was possible to grow your own avocados at home. Once you have your trees picked out, all that is left is the planting.
PLANTING YOUR TREES
When planting your fruit trees, there are two main things to keep in mind: sun and space. Choose locations where the trees will get a lot of sun and space them according to how big they will eventually get, not their current size. You don't want roots overlapping or digging into the foundation of your house in five years. In most areas of the US (anything south of zone 5), the best time to plant your trees is in the fall. Different nurseries will have different sized plants but as a general rule of thumb, dig the holes about twice the diameter of the root system of your tree and about a foot deeper. Spread out the roots and refill the hole, pressing down firmly. With young plants, it's important to water them regularly until they're established and settled in.
Depending on your area it may also be a good idea to put in some wildlife protection for the tree. Vole guards, deer protectors, or netting may be necessary if these are a problem in your area. Organic repellents could also be used but they usually need to be constantly refreshed on the plant.
Many dwarf-sized trees can also be planted in containers. Almost any type of pot can be used (clay, ceramic, wood, etc) provided it has sufficient drainage. As with digging a hole, choose a pot that is twice the diameter of the root system of your tree, or if it came potted from the nursery, transfer it to a pot six inches wider. The advantage of growing a potted tree is mobility. As a potted plant, it can be used as decor in a patio set up in the summer and transferred to your living room in the winter. By moving it indoors during the cold season, it's possible to cheat climates and grow fruits that normally would not survive the winters in your particular area.
PRUNING AND MAINTAINING YOUR TREES
After you have planted your fruit trees, it is important to do yearly maintenance in the form of pruning. Pruning your tree not only gives it shape, but also promotes development by removing dead wood/unwanted growth and is necessary to obtain maximum yields. By removing unproductive growth, nutrients are redirected to flowers and buds to bear better fruit. Would you rather have a decent sized crop of large fruit or a large crop of small inedible fruit? Pruning is most important during the earlier stages of your trees as it sets the foundation of what the tree will grow into.
Pruning is often done during the dormant months in the winter, but different types of trees require pruning at different times and you will need to look into which timeframe is ideal for your type of plant. Included below are some links with further information on pruning including some how-to guides. Be aware, however, that over-pruning is counter productive as the tree may grow larger fruit at the cost of quantity and taste.
An overview of the importance of pruning from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fruit_tree_pruning
A guide from the University of Arizona: http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/mg/pruning/fruit.html
A guide from North Carolina State University: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/ag29.html
It may take a few years of hard work watering, pruning, and fertilizing to start up your home orchard, but it's all part of the fun. Planting fruit trees is definitely not for everyone, but for those that enjoy growing their own food, once your trees are set up, they are relatively low maintenance and provide you with fresh organic pesticide free fruit year after year.