Designing and planting your home orchard
Scott Hitchens July 2022
Growing fruit in your home garden is not just about saving money. It also means that you know what has been sprayed on the fruit and what has been applied to the soil. You can select fruit varieties that have a fantastic flavour but can’t be found in supermarkets because they don’t travel or store well, unless they have been picked while still unripe: Home grown stonefruit and figs, for example, have incredible depth of flavour that you may never otherwise get to try. Even the common Granny Smith apple has a vastly superior flavour when allowed to ripen on the tree until autumn, when its characteristic green skin develops a golden tinge.
Getting started can seem difficult but, if you break it down into a series of steps and then list your wants and needs for each factor, it will all come together:
- Which fruit do you (and your family) like to eat?
- What is your soil like?
- How much space do you have for your orchard?
- How much time can you spend on your Orchard?
- Watering, weeding, feeding, picking, pruning
- How much sun do different parts of your garden get at different times of the year
- What other things have to fit into your garden?
This part is probably the most fun! Sit down and write a list. don’t get hung up on practicalities yet, so include bananas, mangoes, or whichever exotic fruit you like. –Some of these may have to be crossed off later, but not as many as you would think. Don’t forget to include existing fruit trees which you intend to keep. Then, it’s time to research the varieties which suit your situation.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Citrus: Lemon, Lime, Orange, Mandarin, Tangelo, and less common types like Yuzu, Cumquat, Pomelo, Citron, and many others.
- Pomes: Apples, Pears, Quince, Nashi, Crab apples, Loquats.
- Stone fruit: Cherries, plums, Peaches &Nectarines, Apricots
- Nuts: Almonds, Hazelnuts, Walnuts, Pistachios, Chestnuts, Macadamias
- Berries: Strawberries, Currants, Mulberries, Raspberries & brambles, Blueberries,
- Mediterranean: Figs, Olives, Pomegranates, Prickly Pear, Carob
- Vine fruits: Grapes, Passionfruit, Kiwifruit
- Sub-tropical, exotics and random: Persimmon, Guava family (inc. Feijoa), Pepino, Bananas, Avocado, Papaya family, Tamarillo,
Don’t forget, these are just general types, not varieties; there are thousands of varieties of apples for example, each with a unique taste, different ripening time and other characteristics. Many of the trees and some of the other fruits require a pollinator variety to be nearby, otherwise they won’t set fruit. –do a little research and planning as trees are there for a long time. Don’t get too hung-up about sizes on labels: trees can be pruned, twisted, trellised and otherwise tortured into more convenient sizes and shapes.
Sun and shade:
Sunshine is the key to edible gardening: You can change the soil, provide water as extra ‘rainfall’ and protect the site from frosts and drying winds, but you must get at last 4 hours of sunlight a day to compensate for all the bits which you keep picking off your edible plants. Shade-loving plants such as the mints will produce with a bit less, but anything which you pick fruiting parts from will need the energy to renew itself. North-ish facing gardens will get sun for the longest (8-10 hours in summer), but all directions will get some sun. Given a choice, aim your orchard to the North and then plant in layers to grab every last bit of sun and make it work hard for you.
Reflective surfaces, such as white-painted fences and walls are a good way to get some extra sunlight into those marginal spots.
Walls and other microclimates
Lack of gardening space driving you up the wall? –then drive your garden up the wall! -Espaliered fruit trees, vines on trellises, wall mounted pots and hanging baskets will all give you heaps of extra growing space within the same surface area. Not only that, but a sunny brick wall as the backdrop for your garden will soak up the heat during the day, enabling you to grow semi-tropical fruits and other frost sensitive perennials (Have you seen the bananas growing and fruiting at Maidstone Community Centre?). Of course, if we can get warm microclimates, we can get cooler, shadier or frostier ones: These are the spots to plant semi-shade loving herbs and fruits such as Cape gooseberries, strawberries, blueberries and elderberries.
Soil is something that you can change: mounding to improve drainage and adding composted organic material will go a long way to fixing any problems with the clay soil that is predominant around Melbourne. Organic matter will also improve sandy soil. In fact, when in doubt, add organic material: Compost, mulches, manures, worm castings etc, are all good, just be careful with the richer manures, such as chicken poo which should be aged first, or it will burn delicate roots. Chickens and bunnies are far more useful pets than cats & dogs as they will help turn many garden & kitchen wastes into manures that are useful rather than a disposal problem like cat & dog droppings.
Making the most of the space you’ve got
Most gardening books and plant labels give advice on spacing, and pruning based on what commercial orchards do, but commercial orchards have to leave space to drive a tractor between trees and to ensure that the whole crop is ripe for picking on the same day. In a home garden, it’s actually better if the fruit at the top of the tree ripens first, so your harvest is spread over a longer period. –and so-what if the trees grow together into one big tangle? It just makes it harder for the birds to find the fruit. Plant trees closer together; at about 2-3m between trunks for larger trees, and then use all the space in between and underneath for many other smaller fruiting plants. Many gardening books will give you some idea about pruning but we require some new rules for this type of garden: as well pruning to allow light access and air movement, there are new rules such as : Prune off that twig that might take someone’s eye out, cut off the branches that get in the way of the trampoline and definitely tie back that lemon tree that keeps poking you in the bum when you are trying to pick some parsley! Cover walls, fences and established trees with grapes, kiwi vines, passionfruit, and espaliered trees. Squeeze in a tamarillo here and a feijoa there. Cover the ground with strawberry plants and shove a cape gooseberry where the sun don’t shine (as much). Use the ‘food forest’ method to fill every possible niche with edibles; fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
The Seven Layers
To really pack it all into a small space, the Permaculture concept of there being seven layers in a forest can be used to make your little patch of ground into a real Food Forest. The diagram below is a useful tool to remind you of where you can squeeze in just one more plant (or ten more):
A year of organic pest and disease control for Fruit trees:
Pear & Cherry Slug (also on plums): Dust the tree liberally with sifted wood ash or brickies lime. If you can’t get these, flour is fairly effective if the problem is urgent.
Codling moth (apples, quince and sometimes pears): Wrap a piece if corrugated cardboard around the tree trunk and dispose of it weekly over spring and summer.
Curly leaf (peaches and nectarines) Spray after leaf-fall and again just before budburst. Spray with a copper-based spray if curly leaf has been a problem or with 1Tbl sodium bicarbonate per litre of water if there has been little or no curly leaf.
Winter: Mix brickies lime (not garden lime) and water to the consistency of paint. Paint all trunks to about 500mm high. This will prevent fungal diseases form being splashed on the trees when rain hits the soil. Spray the rest of each tree (except peaches and nectarines) with white oil to kill any over-wintering bugs and their larvae. Wear rubber gloves and eye protection while mixing and applying.
White Oil:Kills most sucking insects such as aphids,scaleand harlequin beetles.
Combine 1 cup any vegetable oil with ~ 3Tablespoons of liquid soap. Store in a jar until needed. To use: Add about 2 Tablespoons of the mixture to a litre of water in a spray bottle. Shake well and spray on any bugs sucking the goodness out of your plants. Shake occasionally while using.
Netting: When netting the whole tree:
- Pull netting tightly over the tree. Don’t throw netting loosely over trees or allow netting to lie across the ground, where it can entangle reptiles and other animals
- Fix netting tightly to the tree trunk – this will stop rats and birds from reaching fruit.
- From 1 September 2021, a person must only use netting with a mesh size no greater than 5mm x 5mm at full stretch to protect household fruiting plants.
Established fruit trees should be fed each season with good quality compost, aged manures such as sheep, horse & cow poo, and bird manure in moderation. Feed at the drip line, where the feeder roots are active and keep organic matter clear of the trunk. Skip feed in winter as deciduous trees will be dormant and evergreens, such as citrus will tend to sprout new lush growth prone to frost damage.
Pruning is traditionally done in winter, but here in Australia, our main pruning should be done in late summer to reduce rampant warm season growth and redirect the trees energy into next year’s fruit instead of lots of inedible leafy growth. Cut back anything above reach-height to an outward facing bud, thin out any growth towards the centre and then prune according to tree type: Apples & pears are pruned to maintain fruiting spurs; Peaches to encourage one year old wood for next year’s fruit and Plums are pruned to maintain cluster buds and one year old fruit. Winter pruning involves the ‘Three D’s’: Removing, Dead, Diseased and Damaged wood and any major shaping, especially of younger trees.