Features and Occasionals

Time to Start Your Orchard

By Jim French

Dig into glorious fall.

With glorious fall upon us, many get the itch to plant things, like fruit trees. Get them in the ground now and they will be comfortably in their new home before the gales of November come calling.

What to plant? Think about what you like to eat and what stands a good chance of thriving in your climate. Our family adores peaches: frozen for smoothies all winter, in jam, sauce, pie and cobbler, dehydrated, and, of course, for eating fresh. We also like nectarines, Bartlett pears and Pink Lady apples. That’s a lot of trees for our very small front yard.

If you, too, have a small growing space, seek out dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties and learn how to prune for minimal height and maximum fruit production. Learn how to bend branches so that the tree spreads out and is open in the middle. More sun getting to the branches usually equals more fruit. Stefan Sobkowiak demonstrates this and more very well in his video The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic. A small tree is easy to pick and prune, yet still provides plenty of dappled shade. Of course, improving the soil and creating guilds with mulch around trees also helps. In Gaia’s Garden, the late great Toby Hemenway defines a guild as “a group of plants and animals harmoniously interwoven in­to a pattern of mutual support, often centered around one major species, that benefits humans while creating habitat.”

When planting our Red Haven dwarf peach tree, I cleared an eight ft. diameter around the tree where the guild could reside. This space now harbors comfrey, strawberries, oregano, yarrow, swiss chard, lettuce, mallow and dandelion. Tansy, alyssum, sage, basil, orach, plantain and other plants and critters reside nearby. Everyone helps out everyone else in their own way.

The Red Haven peach is now nine years old, its canopy 12 feet in diameter, eight feet high and produced 517 peaches in last year. The whole system, people included, are very happy. There is another peach tree growing nearby just in case the peach bore is successful in its quest to take down the mother tree.

The semi-dwarf Pink Lady apple and dwarf Bartlett pear trees are very cozy with main trunks less than six feet apart. They are quite a sight with the apple towering over the pear. The apple is pruned more like a fat chalice, but still short enough that I can reach the tallest apples without a ladder, but with tippy toes. The six-year-old pear tree is just four feet tall and looks nothing like any pear that I’ve seen, but it fits the space and produces big juicy Bartletts!

Nourishing a fruit or nut tree is a very fulfilling experience. Remember that it’s perfectly okay to start with one tree and build from there. Before you know it, it will be harvest time.

Jim French gardens in the Sugar House area of SLC.

This article was originally published on October 2, 2017.