Once upon a time, every home and homestead had a few fruit trees—or even a small orchard—on its property. Does yours?
Today, there's resurgent interest in growing fruit trees, for a number of intriguing reasons. With all kinds of fruit trees flowering at the Garden this month (34 apple varieties in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden alone!), it's a good time for smart gardeners to "tour the trees" and to start the process of growing your own fruit.
In modern times, fruit trees fell out of favor with homeowners, who opted for "landscape" trees in their yards instead. Truth be told, fruit trees are both marvelous landscape trees and hardworking production plants. Take a fresh look at what makes them both desirable and practical:
Grow fruit trees…for a gorgeous spring show.
Fruit trees are as beautiful in flower as they are in fruit: Washington D.C. celebrates its cherry blossoms, and Georgia toasts its peach blossoms. Look closely at an apple tree in flower: a froth of ruffled petals, nearly iridescent white splashed with pale pink…who wouldn't want that elegance in their yard? Cherry and peach flowers are particularly captivating because they cluster on bare branches instead of competing with emerging leaves.
And with flowers comes scent: apple and plum blossoms are famous for it. When considering a fruit tree, pay special attention to its ultimate site in your yard, to maximize both the striking view and the sweet scent.
Grow fruit trees…that bear sooner.
An orchard-sized apple tree can take 10 years to bear fruit—too long for some homeowners to consider it a worthy investment in time. But today's dwarf and semi-dwarf apple and pear varieties can produce fruit in half the time—some in just three years. Asian pears are the quickest to fruit, typically producing flowers in their second or third year post-planting.
Why the wait? In their first couple of years, fruit trees are hard at work establishing their root systems.
Regardless of tree size, pollination is the key to both flowers and fruit. You'll need at least two trees from the same genus, since fruit trees pollinate between the species, apple to apple, pear to pear, etc. (Quince is an exception, as it is self-pollinating.)
Grow fruit trees…that fit your space.
Few urban gardeners have the 500 square feet (25x25) of land needed to support a standard, orchard-sized fruit tree. Luckily, many apple and pear varieties are now available in dwarf and semi-dwarf sizes that need just 3x3 or 4x4 feet of space. Even a city lot can handle a tree that stays small but bears full-sized fruit!
Sunny patios, decks, and balconies can all accommodate a dwarf tree grown in a container. Start an apple, pear, or quince in a two-gallon pot and adjust container size as the tree grows. (Note that stone fruits—cherries, apricots—don't do well in containers.) Wheeled saucers make it easy to move trees indoors and out, as they'll need protection (cold garage or basement) during the winter.
Staking is a must for dwarf trees, which have shallower root systems than full-sized trees, and can be uprooted by wind. Semi-dwarf trees need staking at first, too, until well established.
Space nearly non-existent? Tour the Fruit & Vegetable Garden's espalier orchard, considered one of the best in the U.S. There, apple, pear, cherry, and peach trees are trained on wires and walls, just as you can do in your yard.
Fruit connoisseurs, note: also in the Garden are a pawpaw (Asimina triloba), a medlar (Mespilus germanica), and a quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), as well as a peach tree (Prunus persica) happily growing in a container.
Grow fruit trees…for the incredible variety and flavors.
Tell a "foodie" that there are more than 5,000 apple varieties, and watch their eyes light up. Today's food-savvy culture has rekindled interest in all food varieties, including fruit.
In past centuries, different fruit trees were used for specific purposes: one apple variety was reserved for pies, while another was best for saucing; one pear tree was for plucking and eating ripe, while another bore fruit that tasted terrible but, fermented, made fine liqueurs.
Today, most of us have tasted just a handful of those varieties.
The fruit of the quince tree is a good example. (As mentioned above, we're talking Cydonia oblonga, which is different than the flowering quince, Chaenomeles.) In this country, many people are unfamiliar with both the look of the fruit (like a bumpy pear), and its taste (often sour and astringent, it must be cooked). Yet there are many cultivars available, such as lemony Mellow™, pineapple-y 'Aromatnaya,' and 'Lusitanica,' which is growing in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.
While it's impossible to choose a "best" variety of any fruit, the Lenhardt Library can help edit your selections through its inspiring section of books on fruit, fruit trees, and home orchards. Two guides to look for:
- Grow fruit naturally: a hands-on guide to luscious, home-grown fruit, by Lee Reich. Easy to read, with terrific illustrations and a well-edited list of varieties.
- Fruit, berry and nut inventory, edited by Kent Whealey. The mind-boggling listing of varieties available in the U.S. is an education in itself.
Grow fruit trees…for the ultimate in "locally grown"
If it matters to you that the pears in your homemade tart were not picked before they were ripe, grown with an unknowable amount of chemicals, packed in a box for days, or shipped thousands of miles from other countries, then you are ripe for growing your own fruit.
The freshest, tastiest, healthiest, safest, and most economical fruit you'll ever eat can be grown in your own backyard. And that is smart gardening, indeed.