by Allison Houghton
Fruit has traditionally been in gardens or orchards separate from the yard, but this does not have to be the case. Many perennial fruits do well in the landscape and can fit in as ornamental plants. As you prune, mulch, fertilize, and maintain your landscape, why not use edibles to give you a return on your investment in the form of sweet fruit and a sense of self-reliance?
Imagine full boughs of pink cherry blossoms in the spring, hedgerows of sweet blueberries in mid-August with leaves that turn a brilliant red in autumn or the purple-red vines of the thornless blackberry in winter that add color to your landscape. By determining what you want your edible landscape to look like, taking time to choose varieties that match your goals and site conditions, and deciding on a basic maintenance strategy, you can turn your landscape into something both productive and beautiful.
Decide on a goal for the fruit in your landscape. Do you want to grow fruit in a way that is aesthetically pleasing? If so, consider picking varieties that are compact, have beautiful spring blooms, autumn foliage or produce manageable harvests. On the other hand, if your goal is to grow as much as you can for you and your family, pick productive and high yielding fruits that have good storage capabilities and exceptional flavor. You may decide the goal for your landscape is to support native wildlife. There are many native fruits of New England that you may choose that provide shelter and forage including blueberries, cranberries, beach plums and the Concord grape. Your goal may also be to grow specialty fruit varieties not readily available in a supermarket like heirloom apples pawpaw, Nanking cherries, huckleberries, or juneberries, to name a few. Your primary goal will help you decide what fruit to grow and which varieties are best suited to your preferences.
Evaluate the light, space, and soil conditions available in your yard. Most fruit does best in full sun, though some varieties such as currants, black raspberries, low bush blueberries, or gooseberries will produce tolerably well in low light. Vines such as grapes or hardy kiwis can be trained up trellises or arbors to reach light that may not be available at ground level. Use a mix of fruiting vines, trees, shrubs, or groundcovers to best utilize space in the yard, especially in urban areas with space constraints. Dwarf or compact varieties of fruit are now more available than ever and can easily fit into many small yards and urban gardens. Be mindful of placement to prevent shading or crowding and consider sketching a plan of the space to play around with different types and sizes of plants.
If you do not already know the soil conditions, get a soil test. If you live in an urban area, it is especially important to determine if your soil contains contaminants like high concentrations of lead, which will mean you can’t eat the fruit. A soil test can also help you choose varieties that will do well with your soil conditions including nutrient levels, pH, and organic matter content. Most fruits do well with a pH ranging from 6.0 – 7.0, a good amount of organic matter and good drainage. However, some fruits like blueberries prefer a more acidic soil (pH 4.5-4.8), while raspberries and blackberries can exist and thrive even in poor soils. Knowing the soil conditions will help guide your planting decisions.
Be mindful of fruit and harvest size. It is important to decide up front how large a harvest you want, how much you want at any given point and how to deal with it when it comes. If you are excited about blueberries, for example, try to stagger the harvest by planting varieties that mature at different times in the blueberry season such as “Duke” (early), “Bluecrop” (middle), “Chandler” (late middle), and “Jersey” (late). Try preserving the harvest by canning, freezing, drying, or fermenting. A great way to quickly preserve berries is to spread them in a single layer on a cookie tray to freeze individually before pouring them into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag for long-term storage. The berries are easy to use by the handful in cereals, smoothies, or in baked goods throughout the year.
Another factor that affects fruit harvest is pollination. Be aware that some fruit requires a second variety to be properly pollinated and set fruit. Peaches are self-fertile and will produce fruit when only one tree is present while apples and blueberries require more than one plant (often a different variety) to produce at their full potential. Do the research and make sure the plan in the yard incorporates a second variety for pollination as needed.
Understand basic maintenance practices to keep your landscape healthy and productive. You can help your plants resist pests and diseases by giving them the right spacing, light, and soil fertility. The less stressed a plant is, the more productive and less prone to disease it will be. Prune plants to clear away old or diseased growth, open up space for sunlight and airflow, and encourage fruit production.
Each type of plant will have different fertility requirements depending on what you grow, but it is important to realize that all fruit requires a living, nutrient-rich soil to produce at its full potential. Remember your plants require a huge amount of energy to fruit, ripen, and do it all again the next year. Use organic fertilizers that are geared towards perennial fruiting crops as well as compost tea and microbial inoculants to help increase beneficial microorganisms in the soil. Finally, do not neglect your tree, vine, or shrub after it has finished producing a harvest for the year. Just as a new mother needs care after giving birth, a fruit tree or bush needs nourishment and care after producing a bountiful harvest. In fact, the nutrients the plant receives after a harvest will help determine the next year’s harvest potential.
Practice prevention and observe the fruit in the garden weekly (if possible) for early signs of pests and diseases. Neem oil, foliar sprays and kaolin clay, for example, can be utilized for protecting fruit from a great many potential pests and diseases at different times of the year. Know the basic pests that go after your fruit and briefly check for signs of these pests to help you catch the problem and deal with it early. Remember also that a backyard that is maintained organically will inherently have a large host of predators to prey on pests that may be a nuisance in the garden. Small-flowering plants provide the perfect food for predatory insects while birdfeeders and ponds also help attract predators by providing habitat. A more diverse garden is also a more resilient one.
In conclusion, take time to decide what you want the goal of your edible landscape to be and let that guide you in planting, choosing varieties, and creating a basic maintenance strategy. Fruit in the landscape can be incredibly rewarding, beautiful, and productive if you take the time to provide it with a good home. Happy planting!
About the Author
Allison Houghton is an Assistant Grower and High Tunnel Supervisor for The Food Project in Lincoln, MA, and the former Director of Horticulture at Green City Growers where she installed and maintained fruit and vegetables in urban landscapes around the Greater Boston Area. She is also the author of The Urban Bounty: How to Grow Fresh Food Anywhere recently released June 2013. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.