As the eat-local movement picks up steam across the country, more people are visiting farmers’ markets, eating at restaurants that support local farmers, planting gardens and investing in edible landscaping.
In Seattle and Philadelphia, food forests are being planted in urban areas. Madison recently passed ordinances allowing people to plant food in city-owned terraces and parks.
Walking around Madison, it’s hard not to notice an increase in edible landscaping and the transformation of lawns into places to grow food. While a lot of these spaces are devoted to vegetable gardens, more people are starting to grow fruit, too.
It doesn’t get much more hyper-local than picking apples or pears from a tree in your own yard, says Joe Muellenberg, horticulture program coordinator with Dane County UW-Extension. Muellenberg says people are investing in fruit trees because they provide food, add value to properties and are beautiful to look at. They’re also fairly low-maintenance.
Before planting fruit trees in your own yard, it’s important to do some research. While it doesn’t take a ton of work to grow fruit, it does require patience. And in order to maximize the quality of the fruit, there are some important rules that need to be followed.
Jeff Epping, director of horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, advises that fruit trees need full sun. “Can you do it with less? Yes, but you are compromising quality and quantity of fruit,” says Epping.
Apple trees and pear trees need a “partner” tree — of a different variety — nearby, to be cross-pollinated, with the help of bees. For apple trees, this could be as simple as having a crabapple close by. Epping says pear trees will not produce fruit unless there are two different varieties of pears on site.
If you’re looking to add just one tree to your property, Muellenberg suggests trying a cherry tree, which will self-pollinate.
Fruit trees should be planted in well-drained, fertile soil. They need to be pruned annually and will require protection from harsh weather in the winter and from pests in warmer seasons.
In the winter young trees need protection from sun scald, which is characterized by dried or cracked areas of dead bark usually on the south or southwest side of a tree. Sun scald can be prevented by wrapping the trunk with a commercial tree wrap, plastic tree guards or light material. To protect roots in the winter, mulch new trees with six to eight inches of wood chips or straw. To prevent mice and rabbits from gnawing on trees, place a cylinder of mesh hardware cloth around the trunk. Make sure it goes two to three inches below the ground for mice and 18-24 inches above the anticipated snow line for rabbit protection.
If bugs seem to be a problem, there are several insecticides that are low risk to people, pets, other non-targeted insects and the environment — including horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps. For instance, pyrethrin insect spray, a botanical insecticide, is safe for bees. (A longer list is available from the National Pesticide Information Center website, npic.orst.edu.) Fortunately, often nature will take its course, too. Rain can knock aphids off of trees, and well-established trees should be able to resist most pests.
If you have a limited amount of space, Epping recommends training trees using the “espalier” method, which is what he uses at his own home on the west side of Madison. Espalier is popular in England, where the climate is cool. Fruit trees are trained to grow on trellises or fencing on south-facing walls that absorb the heat all day. Epping says that if fruit trees don’t get enough warmth, the fruit will develop but never ripen.
The espalier method is also great for maximizing space. Epping grows apples and pears in an 18-inch-wide spot between his driveway and house.
Jillian Clemens, an avid gardener who lives on the east side but maintains a large garden at her family home in the village of Dane, northwest of Madison, says that growing fruit trees is a labor of love. Clemens has 14 fruit trees, including apples, peaches, plums, pears and cherries, which she planted six years ago.
She was ready for the next challenge in gardening: “Fruit takes a great amount of care and long-term commitment in comparison to the typical vegetable garden.” Clemens has battled funguses, weather and pests, but “found a happy equilibrium” in her fruit garden in the third year.
One of her favorite things about growing fruit has been the emergence of a diverse ecosystem in her yard. “During the first year the aphids moved in and began damaging my trees,” Clemens says. “Soon ladybird beetles moved in and took over the aphids. Then came the tent worms.”
But, fortunately, birds were the next new neighbors. They took care of the tent worms.
“When the birds treated themselves to some of the fruit,” Clemens says, “I considered it a thank-you to them.”
The hard work has started to pay off. This past year Clemens reaped baskets full of plums, apples and juicy peaches.
If you are ready to invest in fruit trees, Don Dettor, store manager at Jung Garden Center on Northport Drive, advises people to buy bare root stock as opposed to trees. Jung carries a larger selection of root stock, and these are easier to handle than trees. (There’s no large bucket of soil, so it weighs a lot less.)
Dettor says that spring is a great time to plant fruit trees, but remember that it will be three to four years before they will bear fruit.
But biting into a crisp apple or juicy pear that you grew yourself should be worth waiting for.