Whether you’re planting just one tree in the corner of a tiny back yard, or converting your urban lot into a permaculture food forest, the first step is usually picking the types of fruits, nuts, and berries that are right for you.
Trees are one of the few elements of a home garden that need any planning. You can move a garden bed in one weekend if you want to. If you don’t like how cabbage worked out, you’ve only lost a few weeks. But trees take a long time to grow, and don’t produce the first few years. It’s a much bigger time investment.
Once a tree is too big to move, the only way to move it is to plant a new one and wait 3-5 years (sometimes more!). If you planted one type and wish you had planted another? Same problem. So it’s worth taking some time to make sure you’re going to be happy with the result.
Note: Some of the information in this is specific to the Houston area, gulf coast, or southern United States. But most of it will apply anywhere.
Probably the most obvious thing to check is to make sure the trees grow in your area.
You’re probably already familiar with hardiness zones, but to quickly summarize, they tell you approximately what areas of the world a plant will grow in. It’s easy to find this information online. A good online nurshery will even send you an email if they think you’re making a mistake.
For a lot of people, the hardiness zone is all you really need to know. In the southern US states (like where I live, on the gulf coast), there are two additional things to check.
If you get an occasional freeze but it’s not common, it’s worth going beyond just checking the zone, and also checking the lowest temperature the tree can survive, usually called “cold hardiness”. This will mostly apply to subtropical plants like oranges and bananas. Even the plant is listed for your zone, if the temperature drops below this number for more than a few hours, it will usually die.
Cold hardiness applies when you’re trying to bring a plant further north than it would really like. The opposite is also a problem; sometimes you would like to plant a tree further south than it would really like. In this case, the number we care the most about is “chill hours”. Fruit trees with chill hours won’t produce any fruit unless they get a certain number of hours of cold weather. Peaches, apples, and cherries all have chill hours, although there are others.
Surprisingly, there is not as much consensus as what counts as an hour of chill as you might think. Typically you’ll hear “under 45F” as a definition. It’s not super-important because you’re not going to measure this yourself. You’re going to look it up.
In my area (south Houston), we get about 400 chill hours a year. I have some special low chill hour trees that “only” require 350 hours. That’s not much safety factor, which means: most years I’m fine, but if we have a warm winter, I don’t get any fruit from these trees. Keep that in mind when you are deciding how much safety factor to give yourself. Choosing the exact variety that you really want may mean some years you won’t get any fruit. Keep that in mind when choosing your trees.
Some people will want guaranteed production, some people will want their favorite variety. If you have room, you may be able to plant some stable producers AND your favorite but variety. If you’re only planting a small number of trees, you should probably select ones that produce without risk. And if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with lots of chill hours, you won’t have to make any trade-offs at all.
Many fruit trees are not self-fertile and will require a “pollinator” – another tree of the same type to fertilize it. Other trees are self-fertile and will produce even without a pollinator. Even so, many self-fertile trees will produce better if you provide them another plant to cross-pollinate with.
I would generally recommend you get at least two of every tree If you like apples, you need two apple trees. If you like peaches, you need two peach trees, and so forth.
However, while you have to pick the same type of tree, nothing says you have to pick the same cultivar (variety). For example, at my old house, I had two varieties of peaches: “tropic beauty” and “tropic snow”. The peaces were completely different flavors. But they satisfied each other’s pollination requirement.
When picking a pollinator, it is important to pick two varieties that flower at the same time. Many online nurseries will help you find compatible pollinators. If you don’t want to mess with it, buying two of the same variety is the easiest solution.
There are some special cases that further complicate things on a species by species basis. I’ll give two quick examples to illustrate how things can get a little complicated: muscadine grapes and avocados.
Muscadine grapes are either hermaphrodite or female. A hermaphrodite plant needs another hermaphrodite plant to pollinate it. The hermaphrodite can pollinate a female, but the female can not pollinate the hermaphrodite. So a minimum set of plants is two hermaphrodite. From there you can add females if you wish.
Avocados are hermaphrodites, but at any given time, only their male or female half is active. This severely reduce self-pollination, but still allows them to pollinate other plants. I won’t go into details here, but if you intend to plant avocados, you will certainly encounter it.
Many varieties of fruit trees are grafted. For those that don’t know, this means they have taken the branch of one plant and attached it to the root of another plant.
My default position on this sort of thing is “why are we doing that?” I’d much rather take a seed for the plant and just grow a new one, not have to find a special root stock. That is still my default choice. However, this is one of those cases where you may need to make an exception.
1) Some plants are just not readily available in non-grafted varieties. This is usually, but not always, because the plants are all clones of each other, propagated by cuttings. A designer has to work with what is available.
2) As much as it pains me to say it, in many cases the grafted plant is so much more resistant to the root-pests, drought, ans so forth, that it’s almost understandable why people only sell grafted plants when the tree benefits from them.
3) It’s possible to buy a tree that has several varieties grafted on them. For example, it’s not unusual to find 4-in-1 apple trees, that produce Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Fuji – all on the same plant. Each branch produces its own time. If you are working with a small area, this can be a game-changer.
4) Probably the big one for a non-commercial suburban orchard, it allows you to control the size of the tree. Many fruit trees are available with multiple levels of dwarfing rootstock, so you can decide what size you want the tree to be when it’s fully grown.
Probably the biggest disadvantage to a grafted root is that it will sometimes send out branches of it’s own. This is called “suckering”, or “reverting to root stock”, and it’s a huge problem with grafts. This happens most often after a freeze harms or kills the scion, but leaves the root intact. The root stock responds by sending up brances of it’s own in an attempt to regrow itself. The scion does not have to die off completely for this to happen. If the roots have more “vigor” than the scion can accept, they can respond by growing their own branches.
When new branches grow from the root stock instead of the scion, they will have all the characteristics of the root’s mother plant instead of the characteristic that we wanted from the scion. The new branches may not fruit at all, and if they do, the fruit will probably not be very good. Sometimes they have nasty thorns that were not present on the original tree.
This can happen without you noticing it. I once lost 2 grafted pomegranates in a freeze and didn’t know about it until the following October. Lesson learned. At the time, I wanted to know why they even sell them like that, without a warning label or anything. Well, I am warning you here and now.
I would consider this reason enough to avoid grafts unless you have good reasons.
When I am forced to use a grafted one because of availability, then I will pick one with the pest resistance I can get and consider using a dwarfing root stock if it makes sense. I will usually not use a graft purely for dwarfing purposes, but I have made exceptions.
Since I’ve brought up dwarfing root stock, this is as good a time as any to talk about size. You need to know how big the trees are going to get so you know how far apart to put them.
Don’t hate short trees. They are very convenient. Most people tend to think that big trees are going to be better, and if they have the room they should prefer them to small ones. These people usually haven’t picked fruit off of a 20+ foot tall tree. Commercial orchards have boom lifts and special harvesting machines. We have telescoping poles and 3-legged fruit ladders. It’s not great. Even if you are resistant to using a grafted root stock (like I am), you may want to consider making some exceptions, particularlly if you have a small area.
You can still get very good production per unit area and harvest is much easier. Squirrels and birds are also more afraid of short trees than they are of tall ones. And multiple cultivars on a single dwarfing root stock can make a small area very rewarding.
Directly related to size is spacing.
When I do my vegetable gardens, I use “bio-intensive” planting. That words means a lot of different things depending on who you’re talking to and what the context is. Here, I mean that I put the plants much closer together than is typically recommended and make it work by having very good soil.
When I designed my first orchard, I thought I would be able to apply the same technique. It was not very effective. I would highly recommend you use the recommended spacing unless you have a lot of experience. Gardens are typically attacked by insects. Fruit trees are typically attacked by birds, squirrels, opossum, and so forth. They same principles of bio-intensiveness do not apply.
Follow the nursery’s spacing instructions. If spacing trees 10 feet apart, it’s generally easier to layout if you think of the tree as a circle with a diameter of 10.
Or better yet, a circle with a radius of 5. This is particularly helpful if you are asking yourself how close together differently sized trees can be. If you have one tree with a radius of 5, and another with a radius of 7, they will be 12 feet apart.
Typically spacing will say something like 8-10 feet. As much as I would prefer picking the smaller number and getting more trees in, you will probably find you get much better results picking the higher estimate.
If you see references to “distance between rows” you can generally ignore it. We’re not designing a commercial nursery.
One trick you can do, if you want to maximize production, is to “overplant and thin” sections of your orchard. Imagine you you had two trees that were supposed to be 15ft apart, but take 7 years to reach full size. You could plant something between them, knowing that in a few years you will have to remove it, but getting it’s fruit in the mean-time. This is common for commercial nurseries, where they plant a single plant in a massive grid. In my opinion, it’s not very useful for home-scale. It’s complicates planning, adds cost and effort, and doesn’t produce enough to justify itself.
The next question to ask is: what season is the plant productive?
One of the shortcomings of my first design was all the fruit was concentrated into a few months. In late April and early May I had more fruit than I could possibly eat. In citrus season (December-ish) I had more fruit than I could possibly eat. The rest of the year I had basically nothing. This isn’t a disaster, but I would not do it again on purpose. You may not want to either.
Consider having something for every season, if possible.
Some fruits have cultivars/varieties that produce in different seasons. This is true of many fruits, but avocados are probably the best example. No single variety of avocado produces for more than a month or two. But one variety will produce for a month or two in spring, a different variety will produce for a month or two in summer, and a third variety will produce for a month or two in winter.
If you were to plant each of these varieties, you could have avocados 9 months out of the year. Remember, however, that since they are fruiting at different times, they are also flowering at different times. You will probably need 2 of each variety to insure good pollination.
This by no means applies only to avocados; they are just the most illustrative example. Many other types have cultivars that can produce potentially months apart.
The main thing to remember is not necessarily to provide a steady supply of a single fruit, it’s to provide a steady supply during the year. If you have a month where everything is producing, you may want to remove a few of those trees from your design, and replace them with some trees that will produce during a month where you have a production gap.
While researching your types and cultivars, pay special attention to pest susceptibility. For example, the pecan is susceptible to dogwood borers and the chestnut is susceptible to blight.
Sometimes a pest in that exists in one area won’t exist in your area. In some cases, a tree will only be susceptible and you can nurture it through it’s vulnerable stage. But in some cases, you simply will not be able to plant all the cultivars you might like to.
Research potential pests for each cultivar and in your area before putting a plant into the ground.
It goes without saying you should plant more of the fruits you like and less of the fruits you don’t. Keep in mind that you might like the fruit more or less than you realize when you think it all the way through.
The orange is possibly my favorite fruit, but I can only eat 1 or 2 a day, and there is no great way to preserve them. Freezing the juice takes up more freeze space than I have to spare. I’m crazy enough to have priced a machine that makes orange juice concentrate, and unfortunately, it’s not something I am probably ever going to have. This means I might not plant as many orange trees as you might otherwise think, given my love or oranges.
On the other hand, I am not a big fan of apples. Particularly not the apples that grow in my area, which tend to be the green/sour variety. On the other hand, the apples can be fermented into a hard cider that keeps for over a year. Or you can make apple sauce that keeps for years. Even though I like apples a lot less than oranges, I might plant more of them.
You can also make peach wine, and I like raw peaches almost as much as I like oranges, and I like peach wine almost as much as I like hard apple cider. Peaches are definitely an “all of the above” situation for me.
Nuts are also worth mentioning, because they keep so well. You can think more in terms of “how many do I eat in a year” instead of “how many do I eat in the season they produce”, because unlike most fruits, nuts store very well.
Blueberries do well in the freezer. Figs can be dehydrated. Grapes can be made into raisins.
I have not found jellies, and jams, and fruit leathers to be an important in calculating quantity. It’s not that I won’t make them. I will. It’s just that the quantities required to make them are trivial. You can make a year’s supply of peach jelly out of a small bucket of peaches.
So, at this point, you’re ready to make a spreadsheet with all the types of fruit and their cultivars. Only add plants that grow in your zone. Have a column to let you know if you need a pollinator, and a column for what month the fruit comes. What next?
Well, if you’re only only planting a few trees, I would say “just get them purchased and in the ground”.
If you’re going to pack the area to maximum capacity, you’ll need to do additional planning. At high capacity, knowing the sorts of spots you have available will determine what you can plan. That’s more than I can cover in this post. Hopefully I can cover it in a follow up.