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Backyard fruit

As residents of Dane County we live in a thriving center of local food production. Many of you probably buy veggies at the farmers’ markets around town, are members of CSA (community supported agriculture) farms, and shop for locally grown veggies at your Co-op. You’ve also probably tried your hand at growing your own, from a few herbs in a container to rows of tomatoes and greens in a community garden plot. While our region also boasts some excellent fruit —early summer strawberries and the fall apple bonanza come to mind—home scale fruit production just isn’t that common. Thankfully, with a little planning and preparation, you can grow a diverse array of fruit at home—often requiring less work than a veggie garden once the trees or shrubs are established. There’s no time like the present to get started on your very own micro-orchard!

Doing Your Homework
Whether you’re the kind of person who draws garden maps to scale and plots the micro-climates in your yard or someone who buys seed packets based on which have the most interesting names and pictures, you and your fruit will benefit from a little planning. Trees and shrubs cost more than a package of seeds or veggie starts and they also stay in one place for many years so it pays to think through the process before ever putting your shovel in the ground. As with vegetable gardening, the first question you should ask is what yield you hope to obtain from your fruit plantings. Maybe you’re a canner looking for bushels of apples to turn into sauce or cider. Maybe you just want a handful of fresh berries to add to your breakfast cereal on occasion. Space is likely to be one of your most significant limits (more on that later), but also think about how much time you want to invest in planting and caring for your fruit. It’s tempting —especially in the doldrums of winter while leafing through catalogues filled with descriptions like “meltingly sweet flesh,” and “pink flowers with a delicate aroma”—to imagine turning your whole yard into an orchard and harvesting fresh fruit daily throughout the summer and fall. While that is possible, it’s better to start with a small planting that you can give enough attention to grow well, than a huge planting that becomes overgrown and pest-ridden because you don’t have enough time to maintain it.

Choosing Varieties
While taste is probably the number one reason people choose particular fruit varieties, there are many factors that might influence your selection. Most nurseries provide information about the best uses, cold-hardiness, disease resistance and ripening periods of each variety. Best uses might seem a little redundant; apples are for eating, right? True enough, but did you know that some apples are best when eaten immediately, while others actually get better over several weeks in cool storage? That some pears produce exquisite cider while some are better for baking? Cold-hardiness is obviously a requirement for fruit grown in Wisconsin. USDA hardiness zones show the average coldest temps across the United States, with zone 1 being the coldest and zone 11 the warmest. Most of southern WI falls into zone 4, with the shoreline of Lake Michigan in zone 5. Some hardiness zone maps even show Madison as a tiny zone 5 pocket, probably due to the temperature moderating effect of our lakes and the urban heat island effect. Almost all apple and pear varieties are hardy in zone 4, but local nurseries like Jung’s also offer a small selection of zone 5 fruit like peaches, sweet cherries, and even figs! Disease resistance can be very helpful, particularly if you’re planning to manage your fruit organically or minimize spraying. Keep in mind, though, that resistance is not immunity, and disease resistant varieties are still tasty to insects, birds, and other critters. Ripening dates are important, especially if you are planting more than one variety of fruit. Ask yourself if you want three different apple varieties that all ripen in a couple weeks in late September or if you’d rather have one ripen in early August, one in mid-September, and one in October. Keep in mind that a mature apple tree can produce hundreds of apples! Your local nursery staff or university extension office can be of great help in the sometimes overwhelming process of weighing all these factors and selecting varieties. Neighbors, friends, and local farmers who grow fruit are also an excellent resource.

Planting and Care Essentials
Figuring out where you will plant your fruit trees and bushes is probably even more important than choosing your varieties. As in vegetable gardening, a site with optimal conditions will improve plant health, decrease labor required, and increase yield. There are some variations in “ideal” conditions for different fruits. Raspberries and especially blueberries, for instance, need soil that is more acidic (pH around 5.0) than average. Your nursery can provide a simple soil test that will reveal the pH of your planting site and can recommend the best approach to modifying the pH if that is necessary. Generally speaking, though, most fruit trees and bushes prefer a site with a few basic growing conditions. Six to eight hours of sun per day during the growing season will allow the plant to photosynthesize enough fuel to grow well and produce a good crop. Full sun will also dry off the foliage after rain or dew, which helps prevent the spread of disease. Well-drained, fertile soil allows the plant to access the nutrients and water it needs when it needs them. Heavy clay soils or a planting site that sits in a low area and doesn’t drain well can deprive the roots of needed oxygen, basically drowning the plant. Adding some compost to the planting hole can help with both fertility and drainage. If the soil is too heavy or the site too wet, planting your tree on a raised mound might be necessary. Finally, good airflow will moderate frosts and help prevent disease. Protection from strong winds is also desirable, particularly for young trees and those that aren’t as cold hardy. Specific instructions for digging the planting hole and getting your plants settled should be provided by the nursery where you purchased them.

Alright, your trees are in the ground. Time to kick back and relax, right? Not so fast; just like any other plant, a fruit tree needs some nurturing if it is to thrive. Of utmost importance is sufficient water. People sometimes think trees take care of themselves in this department. While a well-established (read: at least a few years old and thriving) tree will usually do ok with just rainwater in our climate, berry bushes and younger trees need consistent watering. Even mature trees will benefit from watering during dry spells. As a general rule of thumb, trees prefer periodic deep waterings over daily sprinkles. During the first season, a fruit tree should receive about five gallons of water 3-4 times per week for the first couple months and then 2-3 times per week until late July or early August. For the next two or three growing seasons, follow the 2-3 times per week schedule. As the tree ages, you can allow more time in between waterings, but should increase the amount of water applied. Berry bushes won’t need as much water at a time, but will require consistent watering for their entire lives.

Competition for water and nutrients from weeds can set back your berries and trees just as much as it can your lettuce and tomato plants. If you are very dedicated, you can follow a program of regular hand weeding. A much more desirable solution, though, is to lay down a thick layer (at least two and up to six inches) of mulch all around the bush or tree out to the drip line (the outside edge of the tree’s canopy). Keep the mulch a few inches away from the tree trunk to discourage nibbling from critters that might find shelter in the mulch. Straw will work, but wood chips are even better, and a layer of cardboard or newspaper under either one will help with weed suppression. Mulch really is your plant’s best friend. In addition to weed suppression, it holds moisture, builds organic matter, encourages earthworms and other biological activity, moderates soil temperature swings, and protects delicate feeder roots near the soil surface.

If you have any gardening experience you know that backyard fauna can snack their way through an unprotected garden so quickly it leaves you wondering whether you planted anything at all. The day you plant your trees is not too soon to implement your pest protection plan. In the span of two nights rabbits had eaten all the branches and stripped the trunks of my new pear trees entirely bare of bark. Never again will I delay rodent protection! Wrapping hardware cloth in a cylindrical sort of cage around the tree trunks will keep mice, voles, and rabbits from chewing the bark. Hardware cloth is preferable to plastic wraps because it allows for good airflow and is less of a threat to constrict the growing tree’s trunk. As you might imagine, the fruit produced by your plants is also highly valued by wildlife. Birds aren’t as picky about ripeness as you and are particularly adept at cleaning out most of your berries just a day or two before you would have harvested them. Cherries, peaches, and other soft fruits are also susceptible. The best defense against this kind of predation is a physical barrier. Loosely woven netting, available at most garden supply stores, can be draped over berry bushes and fruit trees to protect all but the outermost fruits. Just be sure to put it up well before the fruits ripen!

Making it All Fit
Most nurseries will suggest planting your fruit trees 20-30 feet apart, depending on the varieties. Unless you have a very large yard this might mean no more than one or two trees will fit. As I discussed earlier, that one mature tree is going to produce hundreds of fruits and they’ll all ripen over a relatively short period of time, leaving you with short feast period surrounded by lots of famine. Most of us would prefer more manageable quantities of more varieties of fruit that ripened over a much longer period of time. Using Backyard Orchard Culture, a concept espoused by Dave Wilson Nurseries in central California, you can accomplish exactly that! The basic tenets of backyard orchard culture are high-density planting, successive ripening, and pruning for size control.

The most common high-density techniques are hedgerows, espalier (training the tree along a fence or wire trellis), and planting 2-4 trees of the same species but different varieties in a single planting hole. By selecting varieties with successive ripening times you can now harvest fruit over2-3 months instead of 2-3 weeks—and all in less space than one full sized tree would occupy. Planting closely also helps naturally control the size of the trees as no one tree will have enough water or nutrients for excessive growth. Smaller trees are easier to harvest, prune, and monitor for disease or pest problems.

Essential to fitting this many trees into a small space is pruning for size control. Most commercial orchardists prune their trees in late winter when the trees are dormant and the branches are bare. The advantage of this is that the pruner can clearly see the structure of the tree and make modifications as needed. Winter or dormant pruning, however, does little to control the overall size of the tree and can actually make the tree respond with stronger growth in the spring. The energy stored in the roots over the winter has to go somewhere and new growth of many feet after a hard winter pruning is not uncommon. Summer pruning after the initial growth spurt of spring, on the other hand, reduces photosynthesis and the potential for a strong growth response from the tree. It also reduces the amount of energy stored in the roots in the fall, thereby slowing growth the following spring. You can still do a light pruning in the winter to clean up any structural issues you may have missed in the summer.

Off the Beaten (Orchard) Path
Most home orchards will probably revolve around apples, pears, and berries, with perhaps a cherry or peach tree thrown in here and there. There is a wide variety of less common fruits that deserve consideration as well. I’ll highlight just a few here.

Paw Paw
Native to the Ohio River Valley and southern US, the paw paw—sometimes called the Hoosier Banana —is a large tropical-looking fruit that tastes like banana custard. Unlike most fruit plants, scavenging insects pollinates the paw paw. The flowers give off a smell some compare to rotting meat in order to attract these pollinators. Interestingly, the larva of Zebra Swallowtail butterflies feed exclusively on paw paw leaves and chemicals in the leaves are thought to make both the larva and adult butterflies unpalatable to birds. Paw paws are only hardy to zone 5, so be sure to plant them in a sheltered location.

Also known as haskaps, honeyberries are an extremely cold hardy shrub that produce a fruit that tastes and looks like an elongated blueberry. Due to their early ripening (even before strawberries), honeyberries are a valuable selection for those desiring season-long fruit.

Touted as a superfood due to its incredibly high antioxidant content, aronia berries are growing in popularity in natural food markets, including your Co-op! Another cold-hardy addition to the orchard, aronia berries are very astringent when eaten fresh, but are often blended with other fruit in baking, juicing, and smoothies.

Seaberry or Sea-Buckthorn
This ornamental large shrub has the added benefit of fixing nitrogen in the soil. Not quite as astringent as aronia, but still with mouth-puckering tartness, the highly nutritious berries are usually blended with other fruits in juices or smoothies.

Additional Resources
Hopefully I’ve included enough information here to get you started on your home orchard. Plenty of websites and books, as well as your local nursery staff, can provide more detailed instructions and advice. Here are a handful I recommend:

  • The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips for all things related to small scale fruit growing.

  • Dave Wilson Nursery: for more info on backyard orchard culture.

  • Carandale Farm: for more info on unusual fruits and growing in southern Wisconsin. Look for their aronia berries at your Co-op in late summer or stop by their farmers’ market stand to try a wide variety of fruit.

  • Jung Garden Center: and at two local locations for plants and growing advice.  

Needless to say, there is enough reading out there to keep you so busy that you never actually get out and plant your trees! Resist that temptation; start small, but start!

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