Yes, you can enjoy a backyard bounty even in an urban setting. Here is what you need to know to get started
Do you long to grow your own tree fruits on your city lot but worry you don’t have enough space in your garden? Does growing fruit trees sound too complicated? It’s not. But you do need to know some basics. With the help of experts across B.C., here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know to get growing your own mini orchard.
1. Sun equals harvests
The single most important requirement for growing fruit is sunshine. Plants get their energy from the sun, and producing good crops of fruit consumes a great deal of energy. The sun’s warmth dries leaves and helps to prevent foliage diseases. And it makes the difference between sweet and flavourless fruit. Before getting your heart set on growing fruit trees, ensure that you have a spot with sun from at least 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Expert tip: “Espaliered fruit trees should be planted against a sunny surface, 3.6 m (12 ft.) apart from centre to centre.” –Gord Nickel, Cannor Nursery Victoria president
2. Soils and drainage
Soils are much easier to alter than the amount of sun a garden area gets, with one notable exception: poor drainage. If the rain pools in your garden and takes hours to seep away, stick to growing fruit trees in containers; otherwise, their roots will die in the soggy soil.
Generally fruit trees like soil pH (acidity versus alkalinity) that is neutral between the two extremes. Test your soil’s pH (easy with a soil test kit) and add the appropriate amount of dolomite lime to get the soil to neutral. Mulch with organic material—such as compost—each year to increase the soil’s organic content.
Watch your garden after a heavy rain to be certain the water drains away within an hour. Note: 'Damson’ plums and pears are more forgiving of poor drainage, as long as the top 45 cm (18 in.) of soil is well-drained.
Expert tips: “Fruit trees mature successfully with a high amount of phosphorous and potassium, and a lot of micronutrients. Fertilizing with a proper fruit-tree food is important. A granular 4:20:20 fruit-tree food of high quality with a lot of micronutrients will do a good job. Apply in March, May, July and September, and you will never ever have fruit drop.” –Alan Reid, GardenWorks horticulturist
“Do not plant grass around your fruit trees! Grass grows vigorously and will take all the nutrients you have given the tree. Commercial orchards have no grass or weeds for a 69-cm (27-in.) radius around the tree. You can certainly plant bulbs and annuals, but take this into account when fertilizing and watering." –Derry Walsh, derrysorchardandnursery.ca
3. Cold, frost and wind
Most urban gardens are relatively sheltered from strong winds. Chilly temperatures vary depending on where you live, but remember that cold air tends to run downhill. If you live in a northern climate, plant your fruit trees out of the wind and above low-lying areas where extreme cold may collect. The ideal spot for fruit trees has full sun, screening from strong winds, and level-to-high ground to avoid cold pockets.
Expert tip: “In Northern B.C.’s climate, the hardiness of the rootstock is the important thing.”
–Barbara Rayment, author of From the Ground Up: A Horticultural Guide for Northern Gardeners
4. Budding, clones and rootstocks
Hundreds of years ago, people grew fruit trees from seed. When one stood out, due to appearance, flavour, vigour or health, the urge to get more of that exact fruit clone was irresistible. By tucking a bud of the desired type of fruit tree into a slit along the trunk of a young sapling, a genetically identical clone (or cultivar) was created. This process is called budding (sometimes called grafting), and the root-providing part is called the “rootstock.” In this way, a desired fruit tree can be produced by the thousand.
Next came research on various rootstocks and how they affect the fruit-bearing part. Rootstocks control the vigour and therefore height of the mature fruit tree; rootstocks vary in cold hardiness and tolerance of dry or wet soils. One particular clone (cultivar) – ‘Gala’, for example—is grown on different rootstocks for different situations. Rootstocks have their own cultivar names, too, such as ‘M27’.
If you have a small urban garden, you’ll need dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks to keep your trees in bounds. Dwarf fruit trees need more staking than those on vigorous rootstocks.
Expert tip: “With apples there are some very dwarfing rootstocks available. The most dwarfing rootstock available is ‘M27’ and it will produce an apple tree that is about 1.5 m (5 ft.) tall at maturity.” –Kent Mullinix, Institute for Sustainable Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University
You probably know that some plants have male and female flowers on separate plants (kiwis are noted for this). This is not the case with most fruit trees. They have female and male flower parts in the same flower. But nature is cunning and knows that inbreeding weakens the genetic line. So many fruit-tree flowers will not produce fruit from their own pollen (“self-sterile”). This is why they have a cozy relationship with bees—to get pollen from another tree. Bear in mind that all trees of the same cultivar (‘Gala’, for example) are a clone, so two ‘Gala’ apple trees only count as one in terms of pollination. You’ll need two or more different clones of the same type of fruit (apples to pollinate apples, pears to pollinate pears) to get fruit. And there are a few more hitches you don’t need to worry about, such as triploids and bloom times. Also, some orchardists use “pollinators” only for pollinating insects and refer to the tree that provides the pollen as a “pollenizer.”
Almost all apples and pears are self- sterile, so you will need to plant at least two cultivars. Good garden centres and nurseries have reference lists that tell you what cultivars to combine to get fruit.
- Plums’ pollination requirements vary by type—‘Italian Prune’ is self-fertile, making it a great choice for a small garden.
- All sweet cherries, except ‘Stella’ and ‘Lapins’, are self-sterile and need a buddy.
- Most sour cherries are self-fertile and tolerate a bit of shade.
- If you only have room for one tree, buy a multi-graft tree (one that has four or five cultivars grafted onto it).
Expert tip: “If your neighbours are planting fruit trees also, that often takes care of the pollination issue. Basically if you’ve got more than three apple varieties in the immediate area then hopefully that’s covered your pollination. Crabapples are also an excellent pollinator.” –Bernie Dinter, owner of B. Dinter Nurseries Ltd.
6. To prune or not to prune
Different types of fruit trees have differing habits of growth. This fact is critical in planning what to plant and how to prune it. First there is the overall shape of the tree: pears are more upright in shape, so they take up less room. More important is the way they bear fruit: on “old wood” or “previous-year wood.” Let me explain!
- Apple and pear trees form nubbly “fruiting spurs” that flower and produce fruit in the same place year after year. This means you can shape an apple or pear to a particular size or shape and continue to get a set amount of fruit each year without too much thought. This quality is ideal for a small-garden fruit tree – or for one being trained to an interesting shape!
- Cherries, peaches and apricots grow new shoots one year, and produce flowers (hence, fruit) on the same shoots the following year. If you prune these types wrong, you eliminate all the shoots that would have borne fruit. Also, to have a constant supply of fruit, the fruit tree itself must be able to produce new shoots—hence, get bigger and bigger. That means these are nowhere near as easy to manage as trees that form spurs.
- Plums fruit on old wood and previous-year wood. They can be kept relatively small and produce reliably each year.
Expert tips: “Know your limitations when choosing trees. We have some dwarf trees that are maybe only going to grow 3 m (10 ft.) high, which would be much better in a smaller environment. Plant trees far enough apart from centre to centre to accommodate their width – semi-dwarf trees grow up to about 6 m (20 ft.) wide so should be planted that far apart.” –Miles Hunter, general manager of David Hunter Garden Center
7. Growing fruit trees in pots
"Fruit trees in containers usually suffer from lack of water. A drip system is best on a timer. In a good-draining potting mix, a gallon of water every third day should do.” –Derry Walsh, derrysorchardandnursery.ca
8. More than 30 cultivars to pick
- Sweet cherries ‘Glacier’ ‘Lapins’ ‘Stella’ on ‘Gisella 5’ rootstock. All three are self-fertile and this rootstock is dwarfing enough to make the tree manageable in a home garden.
- European plums, such as ‘Italian’ or ‘Early Italian’ are self-fertile and are easily managed to a good size.
- Summer apples ‘Yellow Transparent’, ‘William’s Pride’, ‘Gravenstein’, ‘Chehalis’
- Later apples ‘Honeycrisp’, ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, the early ‘Fiji’ types such as ‘Beni Shogun’ and ‘Morning Mist’, ‘Jonagold’, ‘McCoun’
- European pears ‘Rescue’ and ‘Orcas’
- Asian pears ‘Chojuro’, ‘Kosui’ and ‘Mishirasv’
- Figs ‘Desert King’, ‘Peter’s Honey’, ‘Gillette’ and ‘Brown Turkey’
Okanagan (fruit heaven!)
- Peaches, nectarines, apples, cherries, and apricots – all of which thrive in the heat and dry summer weather with good irrigation.
- ‘Siberian’ crabapple, ‘Honeycrisp’ apple, ‘Golden Spice’ pear, ‘Northern Star’ cherry and ‘Brookred’ plum.
Expert tip: “Peaches do okay in the Lower Mainland if they are grown in a southern exposure under an overhanging roof. Yes, they may get peach leaf curl but still produce peaches. There’s one small espaliered peach tree near my home – it produces hundreds of peaches.” –Sharon Hanna, co-owner of Hotbeds, growsomefood.ca